Modi enjoys twin triumphs for India's Hindu nationalists
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will on Wednesday lay the foundation for a temple at a flashpoint holy site exactly a year after imposing direct rule on Muslim-majority Kashmir – twin triumphs for his Hindu nationalist government.
The site at Ayodhya and divided Kashmir have been two of the most divisive communal issues of the past 30 years in India, and Modi has attempted to draw a line under both.
For his fans, both steps confirm Modi – elected to a second straight term in a landslide last year – as a decisive, visionary and heroic leader, and India's most important in decades. His critics see him as remoulding the officially secular country of 1.3 billion as a Hindu nation, at the expense of India's 200 million Muslims, and taking it an authoritarian direction.
"Modi has certainly been India's most transformative leader in recent memory," Michael Kugelman from the Wilson Center told journalists. "This has made him wildly popular, but also highly controversial and quite divisive."
The holy city of Ayodhya in northern India has long been a religious fault line, and the spark for some of its worst sectarian violence. In 1992, a Hindu mob destroyed a centuries-old mosque there that they believed had been built on the birthplace of Ram, an important deity. This triggered religious riots that killed 2,000 people, most of them Muslims.
A lengthy legal battle ensued but in November, in a major victory for Modi's BJP party, India's top court awarded the site to Hindus, allowing a temple "touching the sky" to be built.
Discrimination against Muslims in India: mass protests against new citizenship law
Dozens of people have been killed as a result of protests against India's controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. Critics say the law is aimed at marginalising Muslims and goes against India's secular constitution. By Rodion Ebbighausen
Muslims as second-class citizens? At the beginning of December, the Indian Upper House of Parliament passed a law that allows hundreds of thousands of immigrants to become citizens – only Muslims are excluded. Critics accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party BJP of discriminating against the 200 million Muslims in the country
Shutdown in parts of India: the Indian government suspended Internet services and tightened security in several parts of the country, including the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The government is expecting another wave of violent protests against the controversial new Citizenship Amendment Act, which was enacted on December 11
Defending India's secular constitution: the new law gives Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Christian and Parsi immigrants from Muslim-majority Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan a path toward fast-track citizenship. Critics say the law discriminates against Muslims and that the award of citizenship based on religion violates India's secular constitution
Fears of citizenship registration: the Indian government is also preparing plans for a National Register of Citizens (NRC), in what it says is an attempt to identify and expel undocumented illegal immigrants. If a nationwide NRC is implemented, critics fear that residents unable to prove citizenship would be turned stateless. A similar exercise in Assam state has already excluded nearly 2 million residents from the list
Outcry of intellectuals: several liberal-minded intellectuals such as the well-known writer Arundhati Roy have sharply criticised the new law and the government's plan to create a nationwide citizenship registration. Conservative politicians such as Subramanian Swamy, a former minister of commerce, have called for Roy to be arrested and charged with sedition
Students against the new law: students from several universities across the country have taken to the streets to protest against the new measures. Several student organisations are at the forefront of the protests. They are making use of social media to wage a parallel battle online and teach people how to organise demonstrations
Police cracking down on protesters: Indian authorities have deployed thousands of riot police to control the protests. At least 25 people have so far died in two weeks of at times violent demonstrations. India's army chief has also criticised the role of students in the protests
Hindu nationalists adamant: Prime minister Narendra Modi's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has remained adamant throughout the protests. They say that people are misguided and don't understand the real meaning of the law. The BJP blames the opposition Congress Party for creating confusion and igniting fear
Supporters of new citizenship act: the Rashitrya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is a right-wing, Hindu-nationalist paramilitary volunteer organisation. Members of the group, which is the parent organisation of the BJP, were seen parading on the outskirts of Hyderabad in support of the new law
Wednesday's lavish religious ceremony will be shown live on television and reportedly beamed onto the screens of Times Square in New York. Small celebrations are expected across the country. Modi, 69, will share the stage with the head of the RSS, the militaristic hardline Hindu group that is parent to the BJP and which Modi joined as a young man.
"(It's) a huge achievement for (Modi). He is going to make his position permanently in history purely on the strength of this temple," his biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay told journalists.
Further cementing Modi's place in his country's annals is Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan since 1947, the spark for two wars and the source of much bloodshed. The BJP had long seen the special status enjoyed by the part of Kashmir controlled by India as a historical wrong, and on 5 August last year, Modi abolished it.
An accompanying security operation turned the region into a fortress for weeks with all telecommunications cut and thousands taken into custody. Even now, India has "maintained stifling restraints on Kashmiris in violation of their basic rights", according to Human Rights Watch.
People from outside Kashmir are now being granted the right to buy land for the first time. This has ignited fears that Modi wants to change Kashmir's demographic makeup with an Israel-style "settler" project.
Fearing protests ahead of the anniversary, on Tuesday thousands of Indian troops imposed a tight curfew in Kashmir that was later eased slightly. The streets were all but deserted the following morning.
In Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Prime Minister Imran Khan – who on Tuesday released a new map showing all of Kashmir as part of Pakistan – was due to lead a protest march.
"We will never accept, and neither will the Kashmiris, the illegal Indian actions and oppression of the Kashmiri people," said Khan in a statement released on Wednesday.
Other actions have also alarmed Modi's critics and delighted his fans. Last year, a new law made it easier for millions of illegal immigrants from three neighbouring countries to get citizenship, but not if they are Muslims.
More may be in the pipeline, including a mooted nationwide register obliging people to prove they are Indian, and a uniform civil code doing away with Islamic rules in areas such as marriage.
"Clearly, it's full speed ahead with the Hindu nationalist agenda," Kugelman said. "The government knows it has some major challenges with the economy and the pandemic. By focusing on the social agenda... it can distract its rank and file and shore up political support." (AFP)