AYODHYA, India, (Reuters) – Indian police fired tear gas on Wednesday to disperse Hindu activists who blocked roads and closed shops in dozens of cities to protest an attack on a holy site that has been a tinderbox for Hindu-Muslim violence.
Police nationwide went on alert to prevent violence and rioting a day after unidentified gunmen stormed the site, which is claimed both by India”s majority Hindus and its minority Muslims, in the northern town of Ayodhya.
Hindu activists smashed windshields of cars trying to evade a blockade in the eastern city of Ranchi. Another crowd shattered potted plants at the airport in the central town of Indore, delaying a departing flight.
The protests followed Tuesday”s attack by five gunmen and a suicide bomber on a complex that houses a makeshift temple of the Hindu God-king Ram that was built over a 16th-century mosque torn down by a Hindu mob in 1992.
Police killed the men in a two-hour gunfight.
One of the bigger protests against the attack was in New Delhi, where police fired tear gas and used water canon to disperse about one thousand Hindu activists.
Some activists were armed with tridents, which have religious symbolism in India, and wore bandannas in the Hindu holy colour of saffron. Some held placards reading: "India won”t tolerate an attack on the birthplace of Ram" or "Attack on Ram is attack on country".
"Lord Ram we will come to you. We will build a Ram temple at the same site", they shouted.
Although no group claimed responsibility for Tuesday”s attack, Hindu groups blamed Islamic militants they said were supported by neighbouring Pakistan, an old enemy and nuclear rival which is now engaged in peace talks with India.
"Down, down Pakistan", the crowd in New Delhi chanted.
The attack in Ayodhya has raised fears of sectarian strife. Hindu groups demanded the centrist coalition of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh call off the peace talks with Islamabad, which on Tuesday condemned the attack.
Hindus claim the site in Ayodhya is the birthplace of Lord Ram and a temple existed there before Islamic invaders demolished it and built a mosque in its place in the 16th century.
The levelling of the mosque in 1992 triggered violent nationwide riots in which 3,000 people were killed — the worst religious clashes since the bloodletting that followed the partition of the subcontinent and the creation of Islamic Pakistan in 1947.
While the identity of the attackers is yet to be established, officials in Uttar Pradesh state, where Ayodhya is located — about 600 km (375 miles) southeast of New Delhi — privately said five of the six men were apparently Muslims.
On Wednesday, Ayodhya was peaceful as it has largely been since the 1992 turmoil. Security forces barred Hindu leaders from the town while nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party activists drove the streets on motorbikes and cycles ordering shops to close.
The attack rattled financial markets and contributed to a 0.78 percent fall in the main Bombay stock index on Tuesday. But investors shrugged off political risks on Wednesday, pushing up shares in line with higher global markets.
Analysts said the attack was aimed at igniting sectarian violence and damaging the India-Pakistan peace process launched in 2003. "Those dark ambitions cannot be allowed to succeed," the Indian Express said in an editorial.
"The day after, it is important to remind ourselves of the tragedy averted. And to find the poise that is most needed for the nation to confront a critical moment like this," it said.