Reuters PhotoBy Sanjeev Miglani
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A powerful Hindu body called Friday to Muslims to reciprocate after saying it had made enough concessions on a disputed place of worship in northern India that is at heart of communal tensions.
The hard-line Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) said it would honor a court verdict over whether the site in the northern town of Ayodhya belonged to Hindus or Muslims, backing off from its stand that courts could not decide such matters of faith.
"By toning down our stand we are showing we are all for a negotiated peaceful settlement of the issue. Now we hope we will get a positive response from the other side," VHP President Vishnu Hari Dalmiya told a news conference.
He said Hindu activists should now be allowed to hold a ritual ceremony planned for March 15 outside the disputed area where a Hindu mob tore down a 16th century mosque a decade ago.
It was an attack on a train packed with Hindu activists returning from Ayodhya last week in the western state of Gujarat which set off massive reprisals against the minority Muslim community by Hindu crowds.
Officials in Gujarat's main city Ahmedabad, which bore the brunt of the violence, said Friday that the death toll had risen to 676 as more charred bodies were pulled out from homes and fields across the countryside.
The toll included 58 people who were burned to death when their train was set on fire in Godhra on February 27.
A police official said there had been stray incidents of stabbing, looting and arson.
The sectarian violence in Gujarat, the country's worst in a decade, has prompted the Hindu nationalist-led federal coalition to speed up efforts to resolve the Ayodhya dispute.
Hindus believe the site is the birthplace of the god king Rama and want to build a temple there. Muslims, who make up about 15 percent of the population, want the Babri mosque rebuilt.
The Muslim Personal Law Board, a representative body of the community, was to meet Sunday to spell out its stand after the VHP said it would accept a court verdict on Ayodhya.
"We have a positive attitude," Kamal Farooqi, one of the members of the board told Reuters.
FEAR OVER AYODHYA
The VHP wants to hold a special prayer on March 15 and begin temple construction from June on what it says is an undisputed stretch of land next to the site of the razed mosque. "We will not do anything in the area under dispute until the court verdict, " said Dalmiya, adding that he hoped the verdict would come within the year.
The government has urged the court in the northern town of Allahabad, which has been looking into the row for over five decades, to hold daily hearings to speed up the case.
But there still some fears the VHP may not be able to control its workers, leading to a repeat of 1992 when the mosque's destruction triggered nationwide riots in which 3,000 died.
"The VHP cannot be taken at its word, not after what it has done in Gujarat," said Congress MP Kapil Sibal. "They have done harm to everyone, they have harmed Hindus also."
A government minister told reporters the VHP could be allowed to hold a symbolic prayer or puja next week. "Handing over of any land to VHP is ruled out but symbolic puja may be allowed," said I.D. Swami, junior minister of state.
The federal government has been attacked by opposition parties for failing to protect Muslims in last week's riots.
For the second day, there was uproar in parliament over the riots and over plans to impose federal rule on Uttar Pradesh state after inconclusive elections there.
"This is a government of murderers. They have murdered people in Gujarat, they have murdered Democracy
in Uttar Pradesh," said Akhilesh Singh from the opposition Samajwadi Party.
The opposition has demanded the resignation of Home (interior) Minister Lal Krishna Advani and the dismissal of the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi.