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Friday, 22 March, 2002, 18:11 GMT
Secularism vital, Indian coalition says
VHP activists demonstrate outside the Indian parliament
Hindu hardliners are determined to pursue their plans
India's governing coalition has promised to keep to a secular agenda as it struggles to contain tensions between Hindus and Muslims.

The pledge came at a meeting called by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee after members of the coalition had threatened to resign.

They were angered by reports that the hardline Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) intended to travel across India with urns containing the ashes of Hindu activists killed in a mob attack on a train last month.

Their deaths led to widespread rioting in the western state of Gujarat.

The governing coalition is led by Mr Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Many in the government are uneasy about the BJP's ideological links to the VHP.

Leadership vigour

Friday's crisis meeting restated that the government's shared agenda is "the bulwark of democracy, secularism and political stability in the country", Defence Minister George Fernandes told journalists.

Soldier in Ahmedabad
A curfew was in force in Ahmedabad again on Friday

The agenda will be implemented "with greater vigour under the leadership" of the prime minister, Mr Fernandes said, according to Reuters news agency.

In recent weeks more than 700 people, most Muslims, have been killed in communal violence in the state of Gujarat.

There have been accusations that the BJP government in Gujarat has used a controversial anti-terror ordinance to unfairly detain Muslims.

Home Minister LK Advani on Friday denied this.

Change of course

The VHP now appears to have backtracked on its plans to take the urns of ashes around India.

After a three day meeting in Ayodhya, VHP leaders denied they were going ahead with the plan.

Instead they said they would launch a mobilisation programme to gain support for their demands to build a temple at the site in Ayodhya where Hindu hardliners demolished a mosque in 1992.

Muslims in Delhi
Muslims in Delhi protest against the Gujarat violence

That triggered nationwide communal violence that left more than 2,000 people dead.

The temple plan has been one of the most divisive issues in Indian politics ever since.

The VHP leaders also said on Friday the central government should hand over to them the 67 acres of land at the site comprising the disputed area.

Analysts say the VHP's demand for legislation shows they will not accept any compromise over the issue, or any court ruling against them.

The VHP resents the government's decision to enforce a court order against holding religious rites at the disputed site in Ayodhya.

More violence

A curfew has again been introduced in parts of Gujarat's biggest city, Ahmedabad.

Police there shot dead five people and another person died of stab wounds on Thursday.

In one incident, a mob set fire to 50 shops in a busy business area.

There were more reports of killings on Friday.

Man in the middle

The dilemma of maintaining national calm and respecting long-cherished beliefs of ideological allies is straining the BJP-led coalition.

And the man most affected is Prime Minister Vajpayee, widely seen as the moderate face of India's Hindu nationalism.

Mr Vajpayee has announced his determination to implement court orders regarding Ayodhya and this has cost him political support among hardline Hindus.

Analysts say the political situation is extremely fluid.

"The government is after all a loose federation of many groups, each of which wants to assert their role," said political analyst SR Maheswari.

Ayodhya special report

Ayodhya eyewitness

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Should plans to build the Ayodhya temple be called off?



19422 Votes Cast

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See also:

15 Mar 02 | South Asia
India's secularism under threat?
15 Mar 02 | South Asia
Hardline Hindus hold temple march
07 Mar 02 | South Asia
Thousands homeless in Gujarat
06 Mar 02 | South Asia
Traumatised victims wait for help
07 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: India
14 Mar 02 | South Asia
Ayodhya Muslims live in dread
07 Mar 02 | South Asia
Profile: The Vishwa Hindu Parishad
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