'Anyone but Modi': many Indian Muslims fear the worst

'Anyone but Modi': many Indian Muslims fear the worst

Ayodhya, India - Some recoil at his name, while others still refuse to acknowledge his popularity. India's Muslims have watched the rise of election frontrunner Narendra Modi anxiously and are now united in their wariness.

Many of the worshippers at the Jama Masjid Terhi Bazaar mosque in Ayodhya, a kilometre from India's most notorious religious flashpoint, were too young to remember the 1992 riots which left more than 2,000 people dead.

Not Mohammad Sageer, a teenager at the time of India's worst post-independence violence.

"What could be worse than seeing Muslims being beaten up, cut up and burned to death?" he told AFP in front of the small blue-coloured mosque bathed in harsh midday sunshine.

The dispute in Ayodhya, which boiled over when zealots tore down a mosque believed to have been built over the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram, left deep scars but vaulted Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to national prominence.

The enduring sensitivity can be judged by the police presence today. Each visitor negotiates five layers of security as they proceed under caged walkways topped by razor wire to the shrine at the centre.

From watchtowers and gathered in groups, paramilitary police keep guard, automatic weapons at the ready.

It is a potent reminder of the consequences when religious tensions in one of the world's most diverse countries, bound together by a secular and liberal constitution, are given vent.

Now wrapped up in India's famously inert legal system, the once-explosive dispute over ownership of the site has cooled in litigation.

"But if the BJP comes to power with a full fledged majority, then the atmosphere will become a bit tense here," warned Sageer, now aged 36.

Manifesto pledge

For long a central plank of its agenda, the BJP manifesto still contains a pledge to construct a Ram temple on the site of the old Babri Masjid mosque.

Although largely overlooked due to his association with a more recent religious conflagration - riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002 - Modi has links to this struggle too.

The 63-year-old, tipped to become prime minister after elections starting April 7, was an organiser in Gujarat for BJP leader L.K. Advani who began a nationwide march to demand a temple for Ram in 1990.

Biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay said it was a role which enabled Modi "to burst onto the national political stage" as the huge agitation galvanised public support for the temple.

"The Muslim community is anxious about Modi," said Mujibur Rehman of the Centre for Minority Studies at Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia university.

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