India's religious dispute threatens secular state

March to temple site planned for today would defy high-court ruling.

– Although it may not be obvious at first, Muhammad Hashim Ansari and the Hindu leader Ramchandra Paramhans have a lot in common.

Each has dedicated his life to serving his god – Allah and Ram, respectively. Each also claims the same piece of land, a weedy hilltop here where a 500-year-old Muslim mosque once stood and where Hindus believe their god Ram was born.

Activists threatened to carry pre-carved stones to the site today to start construction – an act that ignores Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling, which said that neither side would have access to the disputed land until a resolution was decided in court.

In reaction to the ruling, Mr. Paramhans threatened to commit suicide if he was not allowed to go to the site and perform a Hindu ceremony today and began construction of a new Ram temple. Mr. Ansari, however, merely grinned.

"I will do what I promised, and let the government come and stop me," says Paramhans, president of the Ram Janmabhoomi Trust, which is fighting for Hindu control of the site. "I have many options; it is possible that I will commit suicide also. I have committed my whole life to Ram, and I will end my life in service to Ram," he says.

In a country that is avowedly secular but where religion permeates every activity of daily life, the temple-mosque dispute has sent tremors through villages and towns. It is the raw divisive power of this dispute that has caused deadly riots over the past decade, including 700 deaths in the past two weeks in the western state of Gujarat. It is the same emotive power that has helped the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) climb to its current leadership position in the government.

But while this week's court decision does not solve the temple- mosque dispute, it could serve as a turning point for the Hindu-right political movement and determine the role that religion plays in Indian politics.

"There is a growing conservatism in Hindu society, and the Hindu right are here to stay for the next 10 years," says Kanti Vajpai, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Even so, he says, "they have shown their limits. And they are deeply divided."

On one side of this divide are Hindu moderates such as BJP- leader and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who wants to stay in power and improve Indian society through institutions such as schools and social agencies.

The other side urges more-radical action to mobilize Hindus, including the movement to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

Building the temple would presumably pull in hard-core Hindu idealogues in the next election and allow Hindu-right parties to rule without the need for coalition supporters. It is this hard political calculus that could bring down the current ruling coalition in New Delhi led by Mr. Vajpayee, who is torn between holding together the Hindu hard core and building up his party's reputation as a mature governing force.

Across this town of 11,000 temples, there are some 12,000 members of police and security forces walking the beat. On Thursday, the day after the court decision, police and India's elite Rapid Action Force marched through the city in a British-style "flag march" with column after column of men carrying guns, shields, and bamboo sticks.

DOWN the winding streets of Ayodhya, the mood remains oddly quiet. Thousands of Hindu volunteers and activists promised by Hindu political groups such as the World Hindu Council, are all gone, sent home by police authorities.

Most of the small shops that sell prayer beads and other religious trinkets are closed, mostly because of fear of riots.

R.P. Gupta, who owns a shop selling traditional saris, says he's glad his town has remained peaceful and that "the terrorists are not coming to Ayodhya."

But still he hopes that Hindus will finally be allowed to build their Ram temple soon.

"I am a Hindu, and Ram is my special god," he says. "But even my Muslim friends are hoping for the Ram temple to be built. Hindus and Muslims are trying to sell their goods, but because of these troubles, we shopkeepers are closing our shops. With the temple, we can have peace."

In the Muslim quarter of town, Ansari said he felt the life go out of him when the mosque was destroyed in 1992. But now he's determined to fight for it's reconstruction until his last breath.

"This is not a matter of Babri mosque," says Ansari, who used to lead Muslim worshippers in prayer at that Mosque. "If we give up this thing, the Hindus have a list of 3,000 other [mosques], and they'll just pick up the next one on their list.

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