India's ruling Congress party on Monday ordered cabinet ministers not to target each other over a plan to build a sea lane through sandy shoals that millions of Hindus worship as a sacred site.
The infighting erupted last week after the culture ministry questioned the existence of the Hindu god Ram in a court submission supporting a plan to dredge the shoals to create a sea lane between India and Sri Lanka.
"We strongly feel that no minister should make public statements against any other minister," said R.K. Dhawan, a top leader of a policy-making national panel of the Congress party.
The statement came after junior commerce minister Jairam Ramesh said cabinet colleague and culture minister Ambika Soni was wrong to allow her ministry to doubt Ram's existence to justify the project, which has since been put on hold.
"I would resign if I were the culture minister," Jairam Ramesh told reporters at the weekend.
Soni has since offered to resign over the row, which has broken out at a tricky moment for the Congress party. It has been trying to pacify its communist allies angered by a nuclear pact with Washington.
According to the Hindu epic Ramayana, the shoals were built by an army of monkeys to allow Ram to cross the strait and rescue his kidnapped wife.
But in the report submitted to the Supreme Court, 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.
The government later withdrew the statements but not before stirring howls of protest from the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which called the claims "blasphemy."
In an attempt at damage control, Premier Manmohan Singh last week put on hold the half-billion-dollar plan to dredge the sandy shoals in the Palk Strait after Hindus objected, saying the formation was created by the "god" Ram.
The BJP, meanwhile, mounted pressure on the government on Monday to scuttle the project, which would allow ships to navigate the southern tip of India instead of skirting around Sri Lanka.
The route would cut the sea journey between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal by more than 30 hours.
Analysts say the political sniping threatened the demise of the project.
"Since 1952 at least 19 committees have offered their reports on the Ram Setu but the government has bungled the project by what many see as its blasphemous attitude," said Delhi University political scientist Anand Ojha.
"The government will now touch it only if it has a death wish," Ojha warned.
Overwhelming-Hindu India is officially secular but the reverence for Ram is deeply entrenched in the South Asian nation of 1.1 billion people.
Last Mod: 18 Eylül 2007, 10:52