INDIA'S government scrambled to forestall violence between Hindus and Muslims yesterday after Hindu militants destroyed a long-disputed 16th-century mosque in the north Indian city of Ayodhya.
Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao addressed the country by television, calling the destruction a "betrayal of the nation" and saying he would protect secularism in India. Mr. Rao imposed curfews on several cities and took control of the state of Uttar Pradesh, where Ayodhya is located.
Muslim political leaders also reacted harshly to the attack, saying they were afraid civil strife would ensue.
The mosque, which Hindu militants claim was built on the spot where their mythological god Ram was born, has been a politically and religiously sensitive issue here since 1949, when some Hindus surreptitiously installed idols inside the small, three-domed structure.
A drive to build a Hindu temple in lieu of the mosque has been spearheaded by the Hindu-revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has gained enormous political advantage from the issue. The BJP is now the leading opposition party in India's parliament and controls several state governments, including that of Uttar Pradesh.
The Ayodhya dispute led to the fall of former Prime Minister V. P. Singh's government in 1990, which blocked an earlier attempt to destroy the mosque and build a temple in its place.
Shortly after noon yesterday, some 200,000 Hindus favoring the construction of a temple to Ram on the site were scheduled to perform a ceremony on a plot next to the mosque. By an order of the Indian Supreme Court, the event was to be curtailed to the singing of hymns. But minutes before the ceremony, militant Hindus fought their way past police onto the disputed site and destroyed the mosque.
Deploring the incident, F. Azam, a Muslim parliamentarian asked, "If any Indian says he will not obey the verdict of law, can he remain a citizen of the country?" Mr. Azam was referring to recent statements made by BJP leaders asserting that "the judiciary cannot decide on a matter of faith."
Many aspects of the dispute are under consideration in various Indian courts, and judges have repeatedly ordered that the tense status quo at the site be maintained.
"The government of India should have acted much earlier," Azam said. "I hope the BJP will now get isolated, because people will have to decide whether they want this country to survive or die."
An almost identical reaction came from P. Upendra, a member of India's upper house and a supporter of Prime Minister Rao. "Mr. Rao has been tricked," Mr. Upendra asserted. "The BJP leadership had given false promises to the government when they said nothing untoward would happen."
"One week back," he added, "there was intense pressure on the prime minister to dismiss the Uttar Pradesh government and take control, so that central [government] forces could be deployed well in advance. But Mr. Rao took the BJP at their word."
UPENDRA also predicted that the BJP would lose support in the wake of the mosque's destruction.
"This Ayodhya affair is going to boomerang on the BJP politically," he said, "because no reasonable Hindu will appreciate what has happened in Ayodhya today. Even if Hindus support the idea of constructing a temple at the site where Lord Ram was born, no one wants mobs taking over and the rule of law violated flagrantly."
Saifuddin Choudhury, a Communist Party member of parliament, said, "At this juncture, coolness of mind is very important. There is anger, and there will be protest against what has happened. But the crisis at Ayodhya should not be allowed to break out into the streets all over."