Twenty-five years ago, Hindus tore down the Babri mosque in this northern Indian town believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Lord Ram, shaking secular India to its foundations. In the years since, Ayodhya — its name now synonymous with strife — has become a magnet for fundamentalist Hindu leaders who want a soaring sandstone temple dedicated to Ram to be built where the mosque once stood.
They are finding new energy as India’s Supreme Court prepares to begin hearing arguments this week in a decades-old title dispute over the holy site, with Hindu leaders planning a high-profile whistle-stop campaign and religious events across India. And they feel they have strong support with the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, in office at the state and national level.
Modi’s brand of assertive, religion-based patriotism has widespread appeal — especially among India’s youths — but his tenure has also coincided with a rise in tensions between majority Hindus on one side and Muslims and other minorities on the other. Instances of religious violence, including lynchings, rose 16 percent last year, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs.
“Modiji is a superman,” said one bearded holy man, Sreesakthi Saanthananda. “They know it’s our birthright to make a temple in the soil of the birthplace of Lord Ram.”
Muslims say that the Hindu leaders are inflaming old tensions for political gain. The global guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who is trying to mediate, has called on Muslims to withdraw their claim to the contested site, warning of “contention and conflict for years to come.”
Haji Mehboob, a local resident, is one of the litigants in the court case and says the site should be a mosque: “They’re trying to create an environment of polarization and communal disharmony. There will be some trouble.”
A protracted dispute
In a large field not far from the site of the destroyed mosque, supporters of the proposed Ram Temple gathered around a flatbed truck adorned with elaborate gold pillars, a temple on wheels that would carry supporters through several states in India to rally the faithful. At the same time, the World Hindu Council, or Vishwa Hindu Parishad, will hold special religious ceremonies in villages and towns across the country this month, also designed to give fresh momentum to their movement.
Smrita Tiwari, a district leader for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, said she and other devout Hindus feel a greater sense of freedom with a conservative government in office — in a country that is about 80 percent Hindu and 14 percent Muslim. Previous governments dominated by the progressive Congress Party cosseted Muslims with special privileges, she said.
“We used to feel that we had come from the outside and Muslims completely controlled the country,” she said. “Now, with Modi in power, things are different. We can unfurl the saffron flag for the first time.”
“Muslims are very fanatical,” she said. “They only think about their religion. They are not good to us. We don’t go to Mecca and claim a place there. Why should they be given the land where Lord Ram was born?”
For more than a century, Hindus and Muslims have argued over the Babri Masjid, built to honor the Mughal emperor Babur in 1528. The complicated case before the Supreme Court dates to shortly after a December night in 1949 when Hindu priests sneaked into the mosque and placed idols there, prompting officials to lock down the complex.
On Dec. 6, 1992, hundreds of religious volunteers — their heads wrapped in saffron-colored bandannas — climbed the dome and demolished the structure in a matter of hours, sparking days of rioting throughout South Asia.
In 2010, the high court in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where Ayodhya is located, ruled that the mosque had been built on the ruins of a Hindu temple and ordered that the site be divided into three parcels — two for Hindu groups and the third for Muslims. Hindu and Muslim litigants have since said that such a division is unacceptable.
Modi has been largely circumspect about the temple issue as the court case goes on. But the firebrand monk from Modi’s party who is now leader of Uttar Pradesh state has been more forceful, saying that authorities could “explore other options” outside the courts to build the temple “in deference to widespread feelings on the issue.”
The leader, Yogi Adityanath, who is known for making divisive statements, has vowed to make Ayodhya a major tourist destination, and during India’s festival of lights in October, he threw a grand party on its riverbank, with thousands of twinkling earthenware lamps and an actor dressed as Lord Ram — in an enormous gold crown — descending from the skies in a helicopter.
The politics of religion
Despite the political attention, the town of Ayodhya remains a shabby place with bumpy roads leading to countless shrines, mosques and temples. As in the rest of the state, unemployment among youths is high, and many have migrated elsewhere to look for jobs.
Much of the town’s economy is driven by Hindu pilgrims coming from elsewhere in India to worship at the makeshift shrine that remains at the disputed site, an eerie place accessed by a winding, caged walkway lined with soldiers armed with machine guns.
Opposition leaders from the Congress Party have accused Modi and Adityanath’s followers of trying to revive communal discord as a tactic to energize the party’s political base in coming national elections. But, they argue, that may not work this time, because India has moved on, its youths born after 1992 anxious for the government to address a growing jobs crisis and provide other opportunities.
“They are only showing us dreams,” said Sandip Sharma, 25, a resident of Ayodhya. “This can be the only way to get votes in the next election. They don’t have any other issue to talk about — they haven’t given jobs or development projects.”
Sharma dreams of a government job, but he has struggled to find work despite a college degree and scrapes by giving tours and tutoring students. Why not build a hospital or some other public facility that would bring employment, he wonders, rather than a temple?