Source AP ©

Religious furor created by shipping chanel in India

In India, where religion is all-pervasive, it was a comment destined to misfire.

At issue was a US$577 million (EUR416 million) project to dredge a shipping channel in between India and Sri Lanka - right through a chain of limestone shoals and sand that Hindus believe was built by the God King Rama.

The plan had already angered Hindu leaders, but things grew far hotter after government archeologists spoke up earlier this week. A report to the Supreme Court by the Archaeological Survey of India said the shoals were the result of "several millennia of wave action and sedimentation" and "the issue cannot be viewed solely relying on the contents of mythological text."

Those were fighting words.

To right-wing Hindu groups, the government was dismissing Hinduism's most sacred texts.

L.K. Advani, a senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the most powerful Hindu political party, called the government's position "an insult to millions of Hindus all over the world."

Hindu activists marched across the country. They blocked traffic and stopped trains.

On Friday, grappling with the potential political backlash of offending millions of Hindus, the government sheepishly agreed to withdraw the statement by the Archaeological Survey of India.

"Rama is an integral part of the life of the Hindu," Law Minister H.R. Bharadwaj told reporters.

The government has bought time by asking the Supreme Court for three months to reframe its legal position on the channel, and the next hearing on the matter is scheduled for January.

But the decision was a major political blow for the Congress party-led government, and is sure to slow the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project - perhaps for years. It has also given enormous political ammunition to the opposition, which is led by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The issue highlights what most political observers have long known about Indian politics - that the secular political system doesn't mean the state steers clear of religion. Instead, it most often means the government has to walk a fine line: using religion to gain votes, when possible, while studiously avoiding offending any particular faith.

In India, which is 81 percent Hindu, that mostly means making sure Hindu political parties don't get upset.

"It is pure politics," political scientist Mushirul Hasan said of the uproar. "The BJP is a political party that has blatantly exploited religious issues since its inception."

The Sethusamudram project has been discussed for decades as a way to speed the time it takes ships to travel between India's coasts. Because the shoal-filled waterway is too shallow, ships currently have to sail around Sri Lanka. The channel is expected to reduce the sailing time by more than 30 hours.

The present government finally sanctioned the project in 2005, proposing deepening the 165-kilometer (100-mile) -long, 300-meter (1,000-foot) -wide waterway, and opening it to ships in 2008. But last month, amid criticism from Hindu leaders, the Supreme Court stepped in and barred all work until it had heard from both sides.

There has been criticism from other groups, too. Conservationists say the project will destroy marine life and take jobs from Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen. Some scientists worry the dredging could affect the flow of currents and water temperatures.

But it took the Hindu protests to turn the issue into page-one news.

According to Hindu mythology, Rama built the chain of shoals and reefs - known to most Hindus as Rama Setu, or Rama's Bridge - with the help of the monkey god Hanuman and his army of helpers. They used it to travel to Sri Lanka to battle the demon king Ravana, who had abducted Rama's wife, Sita.

Turning it into a construction site was nothing short of a slap at the Ramayana and Ramcharitamanas - sacred, ancient epics about the life of Rama.

"It is a crude attempt at insulting our culture, civilizational heritage and Hindu sentiments," said a Bharatiya Janata Party leader, Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Hindustan Times reported.

The government, for its part, couldn't apologize enough.

"The central government is alive and conscious of religious sensibilities," the government said as it withdrew its statement, according to the Press Trust of India news agency. "The central government has total respect for all religions, and Hinduism in particular, in the context of the present case."