In India, dueling houses of god

The rhetoric - and the handiwork - grow in a Hindu-Muslim dispute over a religious site.

The holy city of Ayodhya contains plenty of Hindu temples, but only one has the potential to destabilize the current government. It is guarded by 360 state policemen and 120 members of the fierce paramilitary group, the Central Reserve Police Force. The faithful come by the hundreds each day to pass through three metal detectors, three frisks, and a caged walkway lined by 14 guard towers, under the gaze of nearly 50 machine-gun- toting guards.

Hindus call this place Ram Janmabhoomi, birthplace of their god Rama. Muslims say the site belongs to them, since Mughal conqueror Babur built a mosque here some 400 years ago. In December 1992, Hindu fanatics stormed the site and tore down the mosque, setting off riots around the nation that killed 2,000.

Decades of legal battles and court cases disputing the site's ownership are still pending, but some Hindu activists aren't waiting for the courts to make a decision. Stonemasons soon will have completed carving all the pillars and statues that are expected to make up a massive new Ram temple. Meanwhile, last week the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee, one of several groups formed to protect Muslim interests on the temple-mosque issue, announced its own plans to rebuild the demolished mosque. Stone-carving will begin Aug. 15 this year, the group said in a statement, but construction would begin only after the high court in Allahabad reaches a decision on ownership.

Beyond its disruptive nature, the dispute challenges the very notion on which India itself was founded: a society where all religions are equal, and no religion dominates.

"I think this hits at the very idea of India, the idea of a pluralist state that celebrates diversity," says Amitabh Mattoo, political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "This nation was founded on the belief that you could resolve disputes through dialogue, through the rule of law. It was not a zero-sum game."

In addition to potentially sparking new riots, a rebuilding of the temple could destabilize the current coalition government led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party. One BJP leader, Home Minister L.K. Advani, is currently facing charges of inciting the 1992 riots. If convicted, he could discredit his party. In addition, some parties within the ruling coalition have vowed to withdraw their support of the government if the temple is built.

In some ways, momentum is already building for the temple. In January, at the Kumbh Mela religious festival on the banks of the Ganges River, the hard-line Hindu group Vishwa Hindu Parishad also raised the heat, giving the central government a year to remove legal barriers to building a full-scale temple at the site. The VHP vowed construction would begin in March 2002, no matter what the courts say.

The VHP's resolution drew predictable howls of protest from Muslims and secular-minded Indians alike, but also from other Hindu sects who prefer resolving the issue through the Indian court system.

Shree Mahant Govindanandji, spokesman for the All India Akhara Parishad, which represents the largest group of Hindu schools, said most Hindus support a Hindu temple at the disputed site, but he blasted the VHP for politicizing it.

"VHP has no right to talk about the Ram Temple issue, since it is not a party in this case," Mr. Govindanandji told reporters at the Kumbh Mela, referring to a 1949 lawsuit that Hindus filed to challenge Muslim ownership. "If the government hands over the disputed land to us, we would construct the Ram Temple after reaching an amiable settlement with the Muslims."

Any settlement at all has thus far proven elusive. While Hindu stalwarts point to Muslim historical works to prove that Babur had torn down a Ram temple in order to build his self-named Babri Mosque, few scholars give this evidence much weight. What is not disputed is that the land that the mosque was built on belonged to the Muslim community, even if the mosque itself was not used.

Ironically, the riots that jolted the nation from Delhi to Calcutta to Bombay eight years ago didn't touch towns around Ayodhya. Some locals say this is because the troublemakers who tore down the mosque were outsiders, and that Muslim and Hindu communities had learned to live together for centuries under the leadership of a Muslim hereditary ruler called the Nawab of Awadh.

At a mosque in Faizabad, a mainly Muslim city next to Ayodhya, S.M. Abbas, a lawyer, says this peaceful coexistence was based on rule of law. "If the court only says that according to Indian law a temple should be built, I don't mind, and if it says a mosque, I don't mind," says Mr. Abbas, as fellow Muslims nod their assent. "But if people are going against the Constitution, anything can happen. It will start a civil war."

Mohammed Naseer, owner of a bicycle shop, agrees. "Whatever the Supreme Court decides, we will accept. But if they are going to build it by force, we will stop it by force."

Back in Ayodhya, Hindu stonemason Dilip Kumar Sompura says he traveled from the town of Udaipur in Rajasthan seven years ago to work on the temple project because he believed in the cause. "I didn't know a temple was here before," he admits, "but when I heard about it, I thought this was a very sacred place. Let's go there and work."

Not all Hindus in the area share such pro-temple views. Rajesh Kapoor, a hotel owner in Faizabad, says the VHP and its political allies in government are whipping up the Ayodhya issue to gain votes in state elections this year. "It is only a political game," he says, noting that the local Hindu-nationalist government has actually lost votes because of the temple-mosque riots.

ButMr. Kapoor's worries go beyond business and politics to the larger issue of his community. He picks up a glass as a metaphor for Indian society. "If you destroy this glass, it will take a long time to rebuild it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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