NEW DELHI (AP) — Authorities on Sunday detained hundreds of Hindu nationalists in northern India for defying a ban on pilgrimages to a disputed holy site that has been the cause of deadly clashes between Hindus and Muslims.
The city of Ayodhya, 550 kilometers (350 miles) east of New Delhi, has been under heavy security since last week, when the Uttar Pradesh state government announced a ban on the pilgrimages for fear of communal violence. Most shops are closed and people are staying indoors.
Members of the nationalist organization Vishva Hindu Parishad insisted they would go ahead with the 19-day pilgrimage, saying it was justified as a religious event, not a political one.
One of the group’s leaders, Ashok Singhal, who was arrested as he arrived at the airport in Lucknow from New Delhi, said the pilgrimage could not be stopped and urged the state government to lift the ban, according to Press Trust of India.
Police said more than 500 people, including the organization’s leaders, were detained either in Ayodhya or on their way to the disputed 25-hectare (64-acre) religious site on the event’s first day Sunday.
Muslims revere the site as the former location of the 16th century Babri Mosque, while Hindus say it is the birthplace of their god Rama and that a temple to him stood on the site before the mosque was built.
Today a small tented shrine to Rama stands on the site, after tens of thousands of Hindu extremists in 1992 ripped apart the mosque with spades, crowbars and their bare hands as security forces watched. The demolition sparked nationwide riots that killed 2,000 people.
In 2011, India’s Supreme Court suspended a lower court’s ruling to divide the site between Hindus and Muslims, with the Muslim community getting control of one-third and two Hindu groups splitting the remainder.