With the steady thwack, thwack, thwack resounding from open-air workshops, Hindu nationalists conjure up visions of a magnificent temple rising on the reputed birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. But in the same hot flashes of sound from chisels striking hard stone, critics hear something not grand at all -- the potential discord of communal conflict.
Six years ago, 200,000 Hindu activists who descended on this north Indian town to clear Ram's legendary birthplace for a temple demolished a 16th-century mosque and sparked the deadliest Hindu-Muslim riots in decades. About 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, died during several weeks of disturbances.
The demolition turned out to be the seminal event in India's transition from virtual single-party rule to a competitive democracy. Minority Muslims who faulted the long-ruling Congress Party for not protecting the mosque deserted the secular party of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, speeding its decline. At the same time, the political fortunes of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party soared, largely on the strength of intensified support from Hindus in northern cities.
Now, the BJP controls the government in New Delhi and Uttar Pradesh state, where Ayodhya is situated. The same chief minister whose state government made no serious attempt to control the Hindu mob in 1992 has returned to power. In the current political situation, prefabrication of the sandstone temple in waiting -- work that began two years before the demolition of the mosque -- has taken on ominous undertones despite tight security at the site and a slow-motion case before the nation's Supreme Court.
"We will have our temple there," Onkar Bhave, a leader of the World Hindu Council, declared recently.
No matter how or when the Supreme Court rules, some Hindu holy men have set 2001 as a deadline for erection of the Ram temple. Their determination to reclaim fully the birthplace of Ram has been underscored by plans to spend more than $17 million, according to Bhave, to fashion the first floor, pillars and roof of the elaborate, rose-colored temple. About 70 percent of the work on this "basic structure," he said, has been completed.
"It will be sad if the temple is not built because so much money that has been spent will go down the drain," said Chandrakant Bishompura, who has recruited workers to do the carving.
Hindu nationalists have been motivated by righteous anger over a communal wrong that predates modern India: the razing of the original Hindu temple in Ayodhya by a Muslim ruler, Babar. "Ram's temple was destroyed by Babar, and over that a structure was erected by Babar," Bhave said. "It was like a victory monument; it was not actually a mosque."
Like the BJP, the World Hindu Council is affiliated with a national network of 100 Hindu nationalist groups that is coordinated by a secretive brotherhood called the National Volunteer Corps. It was the council that initiated the crusade to tear down the mosque, a campaign the BJP took up later. Members of the council and its militant youth group dominated the 1992 mob. Three BJP members in the cabinet of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, including Home Minister L.K. Advani, who is in charge of domestic security, were present during the destruction of the mosque and have been charged with helping incite it.
This summer, Sonia Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress Party, warned Vajpayee's government against trying to erect the temple without Supreme Court approval. In his reply, Vajpayee vowed the government would prevent any organization from defying the court on the issue. Anyway, the prime minister added, his coalition government's agenda does not incorporate the BJP's campaign promise to build the temple.
The uneasiness about the prefabrication work, underway at workshops in the BJP-ruled states of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, has persisted because of the tendency of affiliated Hindu nationalist groups to act in a way that allows the political party to evade responsibility.
On Dec. 6, the sixth anniversary of the demolition, Hindu nationalist groups plan to gather in Ayodhya to agitate for the removal of security barricades and tall fences that funnel pilgrims and other visitors past a makeshift temple of lashed wood and white tarpaulin cobbled together after the mosque was destroyed.
Protest leaders have maintained that the security barricades have hindered prayer at the makeshift temple. The leader of the council's youth group, who faces criminal charges in the mosque's demolition, condemned spending on security in Ayodhya as a wasteful diversion from welfare programs.
But the underlying purpose of the upcoming protest seems much more obvious to a young Hindu nationalist who operates the public phone booth at the Hindu council's training camp in Ayodhya. "They want these barricades removed," Shiv Shankar said. "Only then can we take the temple there."
It would not have to carried far. The finished stonework has been stored about a mile away. Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi contributed to this report. CAPTION: A craftswoman in Rajasthan applies finishing touches to stonework that could become part of Hindu temple at Ayodhya. ec