NEW YORK (AP) — A large digital billboard in Times Square is displaying images of a Hindu deity and a temple being built on disputed ground in India, despite calls from a coalition of advocacy organizations — including Muslim, human rights, anti-fascist and secular groups — asking advertisers not to show the images.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in the groundbreaking for the Hindu temple Wednesday in the Indian city of Ayodhya. Modi supporters said they planned to gather in New York City’s Times Square throughout the day to mark the occasion.
Around a dozen people stood in front of the billboard on Wednesday morning, snapping selfies when the bright yellow image of the multi-level, arched temple along with an image of the Hindu deity Ram and the Indian flag came across the screen.
The billboard wraps around the corner of 47th Street and 7th Avenue and the website of the Times Square Alliance says it is owned by Clear Channel, which did not immediately return a request for comment.
Modi laid the first silver bricks at the temple site, which will be built were the Babri Masjid mosque stood. The mosque was destroyed by Hindu hard-liners in 1992, sparking communal violence that left some 2,000 people dead.
Hindus believe Ram was born at the site and claim that the Mughal Emperor Babur built a mosque on top of a temple there.
The organizers of the celebration in Times Square bought the prime billboard space, Jagdish Sewhani told the Press Trust of India, which described him as the president of the American India Public Affairs Committee.
“We are just doing a celebration and it is not against anyone. This is a once in a mankind event and we thought what better place for it than Times Square,” Sewhani told The Associated Press on Tuesday, reached at the phone number listed on the website for the New York gathering.
The American India Public Affairs Committee itself does not have a website, nor is a 1099 tax form available on ProPublica’s nonprofit database. There is no corporation registered under that name in New York State.
When asked specifically for details about his organization, Sewhani described it as a “group of people” concerned with U.S.-India relations and then said, “Let us focus on our Lord Ram.”
In an interview with the South Asian Insider Show, Sewhani described himself as one of the founders of a U.S. wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Hindu nationalist ruling party of India — a secular nation since independence from Britain in 1947.
“Today, the Indian-American community is very happy that our Lord Ram along with our temple, the Ayodhya temple, is displayed” so prominently, along with the tricolor flag, Sewhani said Wednesday.
Wednesday’s groundbreaking ceremony followed a ruling by India’s Supreme Court last November favoring the building of a Hindu temple on the site in Uttar Pradesh state. The court also ordered that Muslims be given 5 acres (2 hectares) of land to build a new mosque at a nearby site. But the ruling disappointed Muslims, who comprise around 14% of Hindu-majority India’s 1.3 billion people.