NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist party has been turning up the heat on some controversial and potentially highly divisive religious issues in recent days, with crucial state elections only weeks away and a general election due by next May.
Top officials from his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have sided with some Hindus defying a court order that scrapped a ban on women of menstruating age from visiting a famous temple in southern India.
At the same time, they and leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu-first group from which the BJP was born, are for the first time demanding an urgent executive order that would bypass the Supreme Court, to build a Hindu temple at the site of a mosque in the north of the country.
The destruction of the mosque by a frenzied Hindu mob in 1992 sparked deadly riots across the country.
“There should not even be any debate over it. There’s not even any need to involve the courts here,” BJP’s Giriraj Singh, a federal minister, said on Monday after the top court delayed a hearing on whether the disputed site should be handed to Hindus or Muslims until at least January.
“If Hindus lose patience, I am afraid no one can say what will happen.”
Officially, the BJP says it represents all Indians, irrespective of religion. But while Modi has adopted economic development as his driving philosophy since being elected prime minister in 2014, the BJP has not shied away from openly endorsing causes of its mainly Hindu support base.
BJP spokesman Gopal Krishna Agarwal said a decree on building the temple was indeed one of the options before the government as “justice delayed is justice denied” and “emotions are running high”. A government spokesman did not immediately reply to an email seeking comment.
A BJP minister in one state that goes to the polls soon, Rajasthan, called on Friday on all Hindus to vote along religious lines, for the BJP, in what may be a breach of election rules.
Religion is a deeply political issue in the world’s biggest democracy, which has seen a number of deadly communal riots between the majority Hindu and minority Muslim communities, including days of violence when Modi was chief minister of the western state of Gujarat.
The BJP denies it has a bias against Muslims, but says it is opposed to giving unfair advantage to any community, a practice it describes as “appeasement” and alleges the opposition Congress party of long following to win votes.
Five states elect their assemblies this year, starting next month, ahead of the general election in which the BJP is projected to lose seats in parliament but still emerge as the single biggest party.
Hitting out at the government of the state of Kerala, which has arrested more than 3,000 people who demonstrated against the Supreme Court’s lifting of a centuries-old bar on women or girls aged 10 to 50 from entering the hill temple of Sabarimala, BJP President Amit Shah said on Saturday that the party would stand with the protesters “like a rock”.
“I can cite many court judgements that were never implemented,” Shah said at a rally in Kerala on Saturday. “Why are you hell bent on implementing this particular court order? I am here to warn the Kerala government, don’t suppress the devotees in the name of the court verdict.”
The comments drew criticism from political analysts and opposition parties including Kerala’s ruling Communist party, which accused Shah of attacking the top court and constitution for political gains.
“He will divide, polarise, and fan anger, hatred, violence —anything to win elections,” Ramachandra Guha, a historian, said in a tweet. “He is the most dangerous and divisive politician in the history of independent India.”
Many BJP leaders, including the BJP chief minister of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous with 220 million people, are urging the top court to allow the construction of a temple for Hindu God Ram in the state where the Babri Mosque was demolished by a mob.
Hindus believe that the town of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh was the birthplace of Lord Ram, a physical incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Many Hindus believe that the exact spot of his birth was where the Babri Mosque had stood and that there should be a temple there.
The BJP’s manifesto for the 2014 election said it was committed to “explore all possibilities within the framework of the constitution” to make that happen.
“I will appeal to the Supreme Court, if they can give a verdict on Sabarimala, they should also decide on the issue of Lord Ram’s birthplace,” Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a saffron robe-wearing Hindu priest, said in New Delhi on Saturday to cheers from the audience.
There are fears that communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims, the biggest minority group in India with more than 170 million people, could flare again if the status quo is disturbed. At the moment the site is under court control.
“We want a decision soon. We want a law to build the temple,” said Mohan Bhagwat, the powerful chief of the RSS in a speech this month.
Dhan Singh Rawat, a BJP minister in Rajasthan, on Friday appealed to all Hindus to vote for the party like all “Muslims unitedly vote for the Congress”, the main opposition party.
Election Commission guidelines here say seeking votes in the name of religion, caste, race, community or language is "corrupt practice".
“Many people are trying to pollute the minds of the voters by talking about polarising issues,” said Abdul Faheem Qureshi, a Muslim lawyer and community leader in the southern city of Hyderabad. “We’re advising our people to ignore these political stunts. We’re religious but we have friends from all religions.”
Reporting by Krishna N. Das; Edited by Martin Howell and Raju Gopalakrishnan