Sethu project hits political rock bottom
Govt. suspends ‘blasphemous’ sea venture;
Culture minister offers to resign
NEW DELHI, Saturday (AFP) - A campaign by Hindus against the creation of a sea lane they say would destroy a sacred site rocked the Indian cabinet today as ministers clashed over the now-suspended project.
Premier Manmohan Singh on Friday put on hold the half-billion-dollar plan to dredge sandy shoals in a strip of sea between India and Sri Lanka after Hindus objected, saying the formation was created by the god Ram.
|An activist, dressed as Hindu God Hanuman, poses along with other activists of Indias main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party during a protest in New Delhi, India, Friday, Sept. 14, 2007. against the construction of a US$577 million project to dredge a channel between India and Sri Lanka, that observant Hindus believe was built by the God King Rama.
According to the Hindu epic Ramayana, the islands were built by an army of monkeys to allow Ram to cross the Palk Strait that separates India and Sri Lanka and rescue his kidnapped wife.
Junior commerce minister Jairam Ramesh said cabinet colleague and culture minister Ambika Soni had been wrong to allow her ministry to deny Ram's existence to justify the sea lane project.
In a report submitted to the Supreme Court, which is examining the project, the culture ministry said there was no proof the events described in the Ramayana ever took place or that the characters in the epic existed."I would resign if I were the culture minister," Ramesh told reporters.
Meanwhile, Hindu nationalists in the northern state of Punjab burnt effigies of Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born leader of the ruling Congress party."How would a Christian know about the Hindu religion?" cried protesters led by former Test player Navjyot Singh Siddhu, a Hindu nationalist MP.
"Does (god) Ram need a court affidavit to be recognised?"
The planned lane would allow ships to navigate the southern tip of India instead of skirting around Sri Lanka, cutting the sea journey between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal by more than 30 hours.
In a damage-control exercise, government lawyers have gone to the Supreme Court to ask for a three-month delay in legal proceedings to consider its next step in the case.
"The central government has total respect for all religions, and Hinduism in particular, in the context of the present case," Additional Solicitor General Gopal Subramanium told the court in a hearing on Friday.
Soni said she took full responsibility for the report, which right-wing Hindu groups labelled blasphemous.
"I am the minister and I take all responsibility and I will not take even a minute to relinquish my post if my leaders ask me to do so," Soni told reporters. "A departmental inquiry is on and we will find out who is responsible."A senior Congress party source said Soni's political future could be in jeopardy.
"The government desperately needs a scapegoat to tide it over this storm and Soni could be living on borrowed time," a senior party official said, asking not be named. Analysts say the controversy has surfaced at a particularly tricky moment for the Congress party, which has been trying to pacify its communist allies angered by a civilian nuclear pact with Washington.
The leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, Lal Krishna Advani, said the government was "blasphemous and arrogant."Environmentalists too are up in arms against the project, arguing the dredging will destroy an area rich in marine life.