AYODHYA, India – Small groups of visitors walk about between piles of stone columns and slabs spread across an open-air workshop in the Indian city of Ayodhya, where Hindu fundamentalists have been preparing the exteriors of a temple that they hope to build at a sacred site at the center of a long-standing dispute with the local Muslim community.
The country is tensely awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court, which has to decide, once and for all, the thorny issue of who has rights to the land: Muslims, who prayed for centuries in a 16th century mosque that once stood there? or to Hindus, who believe that Lord Ram, one of the most revered deities in the religion, was born in that exact place?
The verdict is expected to be delivered within two weeks and could jeopardize the delicate religious harmony in the country: the Babri mosque was demolished in 1992 by a Hindu right-wing mob and clashes had broken out between followers of the two religions, killing around 2,000 people.
A TEMPLE WITHOUT LAND
However, in this city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the Hindu fundamentalists have not stood idly waiting for the court verdict – carved stone slabs are ready for building a temple in the honor of the God-King, who ruled the city in ancient times, according to legend.
“Their (Hindus’) faith is attached to Lord Ram. They surely believe that Ram was born here. They come to Ayodhya with those sentiments, with that belief,” Sharad Sharma, spokesperson of the conservative Hindu body Vishwa Hindu Parishad – which manages the workshop –, told EFE.
The VHP is one of the Hindu litigants in the ongoing case before the Supreme Court along with a group of Hindu ascetics and Lord Ram himself, as the Indian judicial system treats deities as legal entities.
Their opponents mainly include Muslim organizations which managed the Babri mosque until it was razed.
“We have been waiting for the last 70 years for the judicial decision,” Sharma says, standing in front of a 3-4-meter (9-12-foot) high pile of carved pink sandstone.
The city has been taken over by a large deployment of security forces since the top court finished hearing arguments in the case in mid-October, although peace reigns in the workshop, with just a couple of police officers on duty.
Sharma said that the workshop began functioning in the 1990s – around the same time when the mosque was demolished – and although at one point it had 80 artisans working, only three or four have remain nowadays.
“Actually we don’t know when they will build this place (temple). But we are in its favor,” said Chetan Shamsunder Pal, a tourist who had traveled more than 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) from the western city of Mumbai along with his wife and two children for a pilgrimage to some of the holiest sites in Hinduism.
The itinerary includes the holy cities of Varanasi and Mathura along with Ayodhya, where the time-worn buildings provide glimpses of a glorious past.
“Ayodhya is our main god’s temple. Who lived here and was born here, that is why we came here,” Pal told EFE.
THE FRIGHTENED MUSLUM MINORITY
However, the Hindu hardliners are just one side to a legal dispute, which first entered the courts in the 1950s, after a group of Hindus placed idols of Ram inside the mosque and the authorities closed it to the public.
Representatives of the Muslim community, who account for around 14.2 percent of the Indian population compared to 79.8 percent Hindus, have been fighting a decades-long legal battle to recover the ownership on the land.
“What would have happened had Muslim parties started gathering materials for building a mosque?” asked Dhirendra K Jha, an author and journalist who has written several books about conservative Hindu organizations.
The highest court of the country could decide the case in favor of any of the parties in the end, although the Muslim litigants in the case contacted by EFE chose to keep a low profile and just said they would accept any verdict by the court.
“It’s fear. Especially now because they see the way government is functioning. (...) They fear the worst kind of scenario: even if they get justice, they would be at the receiving end. If they don’t get justice, then it is all over,” Jha said, referring to growing violence and perceived discrimination towards the minority under a Hindu right-wing government.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of inaction amid growing cases of lynchings of Muslims – accused of transporting and possessing cow meat by Hindu extremist mobs – in recent years.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party) and the VHP were born out of the same umbrella organization – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – known for espousing radical Hinduism. The party was implicated in the incidents which led to the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992.
LK Advani, the BJP president at the time, and other leaders are being tried in another case in the Supreme Court on charges of giving incendiary speeches from a platform near the disputed mosque, just before it was destroyed by a mob.
Even today, the Ayodhya workshop keeps relics of the turbulent past: dozens of bricks engraved with the name of Ram, which VHP had received from all over the country and even abroad during its campaign to build the temple in the early 1990s.
As night falls over the workshop, dozens of people watch in rapture as one of the giant screens installed across the city display a flesh-and-blood Ram along with his wife Sita in a scene from the widely successful 1980s TV series “Ramayana,” based on an epic about the deity’s life.
“The entire Ayodhya is celebrating your return,” Sita whispers, as Ram returns to his kingdom after killing the demon-king Ravana, who had kidnapped his wife. Enthralled spectators watch this scene in silence.