WITH the destruction last week of a protest camp occupied by the Highway Re-Route Movement of Debe, religion has taken the starring role in the State's battle against those against its plan to build a section of the highway into Point Fortin.
What began as a protest over the displacement of about 200 families with the present highway blueprint, has evolved into what at least two parties see as gross disrespect to Hinduism—but in two very different ways.
Embattled activist, Dr Wayne Kublalsingh, said yesterday a prayer site erected at the camp had been blessed by "a powerful female devotee" and was a valid Hindu shrine when the camp was demolished.
Kublalsingh was responding to accusations by Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha Head, Satnarayan Maharaj, that he had desecrated Hinduism with the arbitrary placement of images of Hindu gods and the carrying out of rituals at what was not a proper altar.
The environmental activist was arrested and the movement's camp site destroyed on Wednesday, on the orders of National Security Minister, Jack Warner. Kublalsingh was accused of slapping a soldier during the fracas but he was not charged.
Cries of disrespect to Hinduism followed, as a shrine erected by Hindus, many of them older women, was bulldozed.
At the site was a makeshift Hindu altar, where some residents of that faith carried out and attended daily and nightly prayers aimed at helping their cause.
Maharaj up to yesterday dismissed their claims of sacrilege and instead turned the accusation around, saying the protesters were claiming sanctity where there was none.
"The people committing the sacrilege are Kublalsingh and his followers," Maharaj said.
"They were the ones desecrating Hinduism."
Maharaj said the images used to conduct Hindu prayers at the former protest camp were not proper "murtis", the term for representations of Hindu deities.
Images and carved representations must be blessed by a pundit "pran pratishta" a ritual, which is seen as infusing life into the murtis in order to be considered sacred, Maharaj said.
"That is the only time that the image is regarded as spiritual," Maharaj said.
"So how can they use these pictures that have not been made sacred by a pundit and call it a shrine? Which pundit performed that ritual? They were desecrating Hinduism."
Maharaj said the group also disrespected Hindus and Hinduism when they camped out at the entrance of the Parvati Girls' High School in Debe on Indian Arrival Day this year, during a visit by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
"They were wrong to have blocked the entrance. If there had been an emergency, a fire or something, people would not have been able to exit the building," Maharaj said.
"It was then that we distanced ourselves from them."
Kublalsingh has countered that the altar was perfectly religious.
"The shrine was blessed by a very powerful female devotee from Debe, Tara Sharma," Kublalsingh said in a telephone interview yesterday, hours after a second camp was set up obliquely opposite the destroyed Debe camp.
"She is a very pious woman. She is so devoted, that during her youth she often snuck away from school to attend prayers. She had blessed the altar and the peepal (tree) on the site. So the altar was valid."
The peepal tree is regarded as holy by Hindus.
Kublalsingh said he also felt he was being attacked at a personal level by Maharaj because his wife (Kublalsingh's) was of African descent.
Maharaj had asked why Kublalsingh's wife and family were not also camped out at the site but were allowed to remain at home.
"He is saying that I am leaving the African woman at home and allowing East Indian women to be exposed to the elements," Kublalsingh said.
"I believe that the fact that my wife is of African heritage is the reason for that comment."
The movement had also been accused by Warner of fire-bombing the homes of people in the district who were pro-highway.
Kublalsingh denied the accusation:
"We are also not being trained in combat at any Muslim place in Fyzabad, nor are we looking to overthrow the government, as I have heard said.
"We are also not paid protesters and I did not slap a soldier on the day that I was arrested. I also did not try to ram my car into a backhoe."
Kublalsingh also said by her silence, Persad-Bissessar was being "complicit" to the "atrocity" committed by Warner.
Kublalsingh said the State has lied about the real cost of the highway, which he claimed was not just over $2 billion but would tally between $5 and $7 billion.