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The BBC's Mike Wooldridge in Delhi
"The opposition and... his allies in the coalition are saying that he should have been aware of the effect of his remarks"
 real 28k

MJ Akbar, Editor-in-chief of the Asian Age
"This is the kind of fire that has singed India in the past"
 real 28k

Monday, 11 December, 2000, 00:39 GMT
India moves to calm Ayodhya row
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee
Mr Vajpayee said he was misunderstood
Leaders of India's ruling coalition, the National Democratic Alliance, have moved to quell a deepening row over the Ayodhya mosque affair.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee sparked controversy earlier this week by apparently backing plans to build a Hindu temple on the site of the mosque destroyed by Hindu militants.

After a coalition meeting on Sunday, a government minister said Mr Vajpayee's remarks were taken out of context. The government has promised to heed the Supreme Court on what to do with the Ayodhya site.

The 1992 destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya sparked riots which left more than 3,000 people dead.

Police on the streets of Delhi
Police stepped up security for the Ayodhya anniversary
Mr Vajpayee's controversial comments came at a Muslim dinner on Thursday, when he called the plan to build a Hindu temple at Ayodhya an "unfinished task".

After both the opposition and some of his coalition partners reacted angrily, he said the "unfinished task" he had referred to was solving the Hindu-Muslim dispute over the site.

On Wednesday - the anniversary of the mosque's destruction - Mr Vajpayee refused demands in parliament for the resignation of three ministers charged in the affair.

Antagonised

He also described the building of a temple on the site as "an expression of national feeling" - but later insisted that he did not condone the demolition of the mosque.

The remarks have provoked strong criticism and antagonised more secular members of the ruling coalition, which is led by Mr Vajpayee's party, the Hindu nationalist BJP.

The BJP's coalition partners demanded that Mr Vajpayee should stick to a government agenda which avoids such contentious issues.

A government statement after the meeting said Mr Vajpayee and the government considered the destruction of the Muslim shrine "unfortunate".

Unrepentant

The sidelining of the Ayodhya question was one of the reasons the liberal Mr Vajpayee was able to bring the coalition together.

Riot
Riots followed the mosque's demolition
But BJP spokesman J P Mathur told the BBC there was "no question of an apology".

"Just because it is not part of the NDA [coalition] agenda does not bar us as a party from expressing our views," he said.

"Everyone considers the sentiments of the Muslims, but what about the sentiments of the Hindu majority community?" he said.

Hindus believe that Ayodhya is the birthplace of the god-king Rama. The Babri mosque had stood there for 465 years.

Election fatigue

The opposition is using the controversy to attack Mr Vajpayee, but the BBC's Satish Jacob in Delhi says a new election is unlikely.

Numerous elections in recent years have left Indian voters with election fatigue.

Mr Vajpayee's comments have also drawn criticism from the press.

Observers say Mr Vajpayee is aggravating religious tensions in a country which has historically been a secular democracy.

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See also:

05 Dec 00 | South Asia
Uproar in Indian parliament
16 Nov 00 | South Asia
India's Ayodhya cauldron bubbles
22 Dec 99 | South Asia
Court delays Ayodhya hearing
14 Dec 99 | South Asia
Vajpayee's Ayodhya assurance
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