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Images of the Hindu god Lord Ram were splashed across digital billboards in New York's Times Square today. The display was organized by the Hindu nationalist supporters of India's prime minister. He made a rare trip out of the Indian capital today during the pandemic to dedicate a new Hindu temple. But there is a bloody history of violence there, as NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in non-English language).
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hindu priests chanted mantras in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya as Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the cornerstones for a temple where faithful believe one of their gods, Lord Ram, was born.
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PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: Centuries of waiting are finally over, Modi said. This was one of his campaign promises. Members of Modi's political party were among those who, in 1992, took pickaxes to a 16th century mosque, whose three domes dominated Ayodhya for more than 400 years.
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FRAYER: Mobs set fire to Muslim homes. Riots erupted across the country. Thousands, mostly Muslims, were killed. The vast majority of Hindus did not condone that violence. Many believe an earlier Hindu temple once stood there, says Suhag Shukla, head of the Hindu American Foundation.
SUHAG SHUKLA: It's important for people to understand that this was a place that was deeply sacred to Hindus for thousands of years.
FRAYER: So when Modi dedicated the new temple today after a decades-long legal battle, millions of Hindus watched on TV and online. Renu Gupta, an Indian immigrant in Cincinnati, threw a Lord Ram-themed party.
RENU GUPTA: This is a very proud moment for us.
FRAYER: But it's a dark moment for India's Muslims and secularists like writer Pragya Tiwari. She grew up partly in Ayodhya and is troubled watching the prime minister preside over a religious ceremony.
PRAGYA TIWARI: It is deeply symbolic. What is being founded in Ayodhya is not merely a Ram temple but a new republic, which is going to stand on the remnants of constitutional democracy in India.
FRAYER: India's constitution defines it as a secular republic, but Tiwari says Modi has refashioned the country into an unabashedly Hindu state. One year ago today, Modi amended the constitution, stripping the autonomy from India's only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, where there's been a decades-long insurgency. He sent additional troops, put Kashmiri politicians under house arrest and cut off the Internet. Meenakshi Ganguly with Human Rights Watch says that's especially unjust now in the pandemic.
MEENAKSHI GANGULY: Because everybody needs the Internet right now to work from home. But Kashmiris - this has really impacted their access to livelihood, running their businesses and even education.
FRAYER: Both Kashmir and Ayodhya have become rallying cries for Hindu nationalists. Rana Ayyub is an author and activist and one of India's 200 million Muslims. She says today's temple dedication held on the anniversary of the change in Kashmir's status...
RANA AYYUB: It is a stab in the stomach. It's not a stab in the back. It's a stab in the front. The prime minister has sent a message to Muslims in the country that they are not equals.
FRAYER: Tonight, a curfew remains in Kashmir. And in New York's Times Square, alongside those images of Lord Ram, activists put up another sign - Kashmiri lives matter.
Lauren Frayer, NPR News.
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