AYODHYA, INDIA — As Hindu religious leaders and saints moved toward compromise this week, the tink, tink, tink of stonemasons in the Indian town of Ayodhya show that a long dispute between Hindus and Muslims is far from over.
It is here, in the workshop run by Anubhai Sampura, a proud Hindu nationalist, that stonemasons are chipping away at sandstone blocks to create the massive temple for the Hindu god Ram.
Mr. Sampura says his workers are ready to meet their self-appointed March 15 deadline for moving the elaborately carved stones into place on a disputed tract of land that both Hindus and Muslims claim. The 528-year-old Babri Mosque once occupied this disputed land, but it was torn down on Dec. 6, 1992 by Hindu fanatics who claim the site as the birthplace of Ram. The demolition led to riots that claimed more than 2,000 lives over the following six months.
As a native of Gujarat, Sampura knows well that this temple project has caused riots that have already killed from 600 to 1,000 Hindus in his home state alone. But he and his crew say they have the god on their side.
"It will go ahead on March 15, whether the government allows it or not," says Sampura, as gathered Hindu pilgrims nod their agreement. "If violence comes, even then it will go ahead. This is not a question of what Muslims will want. It is a question of what Lord Ram wants. This is a question of faith."
In the past week, this clash of faiths has sorely tested India's proud identity as a secular state. A gruesome Muslim-led attack on a train in the town of Godhra, which burnt to death some 58 Hindu activists last Wednesday, has set off a revenge spree that has killed hundreds, most of them Muslim.
Members of the minority community charge that the state government, ruled by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, failed to stop the carnage and, in some cases, encouraged it. And while more prominent Hindu leaders are now talking of delaying the temple project, perhaps until early June, activists in Ayodhya itself show no sign of backing off from their original plan, no matter what.
"The government itself is creating the problem," says Sharad Sharma, regional spokesman of the World Hindu Congress, or Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which is organizing the temple project. "By the March 15 deadline, we will carry stones from the workshop to the undisputed part of the land."
While most parties in India, including the avowedly secular Congress Party, have dabbled in religious favoritism, the current temple dispute was largely set in motion by Hindu-right parties that now control India's national government.
In 1990, the now Home Minister L.K. Advani, along with other supporters of Hindu identity called Hindutva, organized marches to the Babri Mosque. Two years later, Hindu fanatics with picks and hammers reduced the three-domed mosque to rubble.
Mr. Advani and other leaders have argued in a subsequent investigation that the demolition of the mosque was spontaneous, part of a "national frustration" for which India's sluggish court system had failed to produce any solution.
Critics counter that the mosque demolition was planned as a fait accompli, leaving the courts and the government no other choice but to award the mosque land to the Ramsevaks, or worshippers of Ram.
But now, Advani's own BJP party has found it difficult to stop a movement it created. Police deployed in Ayodhya have ordered an estimated 14,000 Ramsevaks to return home, but nearly 5,000 have refused to comply.
Railway authorities have been ordered to stop all group bookings to Lucknow and Ayodhya, and also to halt any Ramsevaks who don't buy tickets, but villagers say the Ramsevaks are simply trickling into Ayodhya on foot.
In Gujarat especially, the evidence of favoritism has been striking. Originally, state chief minister Narendra Modi, a BJP member, said that police would only investigate the Feb. 27 Muslim train attack in Godhra, and not Hindu revenge attacks in Ahmadabad and other Gujarati cities and villages.
Mr. Modi later changed this decision under heavy criticism. But his decision to compensate the families of each Hindu victim with 2 million rupees, compared with only 1 million rupees for Muslim victims, still stands.
While few of the Ramsevaks in Ayodhya are the violent type - most are middle class shopkeepers and some are teachers and professors - there is a core of activists who are prepared for violence, if necessary.
Among them is Anil Tawar, a fierce-eyed member of Bajrang Dal from Chattisgarh, in Maharashtra state. Bajrang Dal is a pro-Hindu revivalist party best known for violent demonstrations and, in some cases, attacks on Christian missionaries. At his hip, Mr. Tawar wears a sharp, three-pointed knife called a trishul.
"I will use it, if it's required," says Tawar, who wears a saffron scarf around his neck with the name of Lord Ram written in Hindi. "On March 15, at 2 p.m., the temple construction will start. We will kill the police if they try to stop us.
More typical - but no less committed - is Deepakbhai Naik, an affable shopkeeper from Vishnagar, in Gujarat state, who says the government can't stop the Ram temple from being built.
"This temple is my money, my life, my culture," says Mr. Naik. "I will stay until the decision comes to build the temple. We are bound to do it."
"We do not want violence," echoes Indraraj Sharan, a lecturer in Hindi from Ganganagar in the western state of Rajasthan. "Peacefully, we will build this temple, but if the Muslims oppose it, we will die for it."
Far from the bull-horn bravado of Hindu activists, Mohammad Hashim Ansari keeps his own plans for resisting the temple construction. Mr. Ansari is the original plaintiff in a suit filed in 1961, when the then-Congress-ruled government first acquired the land surrounding the Babri Mosque and allowed Hindus to place a small shrine to Lord Ram against the back wall.
His legal argument is deceptively simple: "It is our mosque, so return it to us," he says. "There is no compromise. Either it will be negotiated in court, or it will be resolved through power. I am ready for both."