A historic (and political) Hindu pilgrimage

Swords raised, faces painted, a small mob of Hindu foot soldiers bus into the muddy river town of Ayodhya - arch-symbol of a Hindu movement that altered India in the 1990s.

Shouting the name of "Lord Ram," they start a "chataveni rathyatra," or warning journey, which ended in Delhi on Sunday. They want to warn India: The Hindu forces will finish what they started. They want to finally erect a Hindu temple on the site of a mosque they tore down 10 years ago, a demolition that caused riots and bloodshed in 300 Indian cities.

Now they don't want to wait any longer. Backed by other radical Hindu groups, they even have a date to start work, March 12 - a date they say Indian President Atal Behari Vajpayee publicly promised them last year.

Next month, just as elections begin in Uttar Pradesh, the activists will recovene here, and 20,000 sadhus, or saints, will burn fires and repeat certain chants several hundred thousand times.

"No one can stop us from building now," says Harsh Vardharan, a young radical organizer from a small town in UP. "We will build the temple whether or not the government approves."

Maybe; maybe not.

"Babri Masjid" is etched in every Indian mind. Here in Ayodhya in 1992, Hindu radicals destroyed a 500-year old mosque reputedly built over a temple marking the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram.

That destruction, led by current Indian Home Minister L.K. Advani, unleashed Hindu-Muslim rancor - but set the moorings for a Hindu "awakening" that later brought the ruling BJP party to power.

Critics called it the end of a secular and plural era in India. Salman Rushdie wrote about the trashing of the mosque, "The police ... stood by and watched the forces of history do their history-obliterating work."

Yet the "temple issue," as it is known, is now vexing BJP leaders in Delhi. They worry that if the party does badly in next month's elections, the unbuilt temple could create internal divisions in the party between political moderates and hard-line Hindus.

For hard-liners, many of whom are part of a galaxy of Hindu radical groups of which the BJP party is only one face, the lagging spirits of voters and anomie in the Hindi countryside is due to an unfinished Hindu agenda. The chief symbol is the unbuilt temple. Even now, less than a trident toss away from the heavily guarded, flattened Babri site, stonecutters work 24 hours a day shaping a prefab temple.

Yet for the BJP elite - busy trying to govern India and develop its image abroad as a stable and trustworthy anchor for investment in Asia - the Babri Masjid issue has lost much of its luster. Terrorism has more voter appeal. And the party does not want to create instability in parts of the country where it is in power.

"We do better if the temple is always about to be built, not built," says a highly placed BJP insider.

This week, Mr. Vajpayee dampened the ardor of the radicals, saying that the Indian Supreme Court must decide if the contested land can be handed over to the temple builders. Muslims privately feel the court will take decades to make the decision.

Yet Muslims also fear that the Babri Masjid is a "card" the hardliners can easily play, and often do. For example, as the "warning journey" convoy passed a mosque in the neighboring village of Faizabad, the buses stopped, and the small mob alighted, shouting: "Sons of Babar, go home. Go back to Pakistan."

Later, the buses reconvened next to a BJP election rally.

"I don't worry about the local Hindus," says Mohammad Shahazad, who was at the Faizabad mosque when the Hindus started shouting. "It is the groups they bring from outside, the radicals, that we worry about. But I'm an Indian. I'm not leaving."

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