September 20, 2007

Shipping channel between India and Sri Lanka dredges up controversy


For the new India and its booming economy, the idea seemed eminently sensible: dredge a shipping channel between India and the nearby island of Sri Lanka, cutting voyages between the subcontinent’s coasts by up to 30 hours. What could religion possibly have to do with it?

Everything, it turns out. The project has set off a blistering debate about who created the shoals and sand to be dredged: Mother Nature or the Hindu god Rama.

The channel project has been discussed for decades. The present government finally approved it in 2005, proposing to deepen the 160 km long, 300 metre wide waterway and open it to ships in 2008.

But last month, criticism from Hindu leaders led the Supreme Court to halt all work until it had heard from both sides.

Conservationists also criticize the project, saying it 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.

The plan had angered Hindu leaders from the outset, but things grew far hotter after government archaeologists spoke up last 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.”

To right-wing Hindu groups, those were fighting words — a dismissal of Hinduism’s holiest texts.

L.K. Advani, a 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 protesters marched. They blocked traffic and stopped trains.

On Friday, the government was forced to disavow the archaeologists’ words and asked the Supreme Court to give it three months to reframe its legal position on the channel.

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

For the government, led by the secular Congress party, it’s a big setback which could slow the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project for years.

It has also given powerful political ammunition to the opposition, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

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 “a crude attempt at insulting our culture, civilization heritage and Hindu sentiments,” said a Bharatiya Janata Party leader, Ravi Shankar Prasad, according to the Hindustan Times.

The issue highlights the fine line Indian governments walk in a country that is 81 per cent Hindu and 13 per cent Muslim with many smaller religions.

Governments are apt to use religion to gain votes, while studiously avoiding offending any particular faith, especially Hinduism.

“The central government has total respect for all religions, and Hinduism in particular, in the context of the present case,” the government said in a statement reported by the Press Trust of India news agency.

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

“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.”

Associated Press

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