Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh – Bookseller Kailash Chandra Das says he cannot wait any longer for a Ram temple to be built in Ayodhya, a temple town considered by India’s Hindus as the birthplace of their most prominent deity.
“How long will we continue to be assured that it will be built,” the 65-year-old asks, his voice betraying a hint of disdain, as he squats between piles of Hindu scriptures and books in his cramped shop.
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“How long should Hindus wait?” he says, echoing what millions of Hindus have been asking since 1992, when Babri Masjid, a 16th-century Mughal-era mosque, was demolished by a Hindu nationalist mob.
The event made the north Indian town with roughly 50,000 people the epicentre of Hindutva (the Hindu supremacist ideology) politics professed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The BJP came to national prominence in the 1990s after it led a nationwide movement to build a temple in place of the mosque.
Located on the banks of river Saryu, nearly 150km east of Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh state, Ayodhya is a dense maze of hundreds of temples attracting hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year.
December 6, 1992
Many Hindus believe the Babri mosque was originally constructed by the Muslim Mughal rulers after they had destroyed a temple.
On December 6, 1992, it was demolished in a day Hindu far-right leaders celebrate as “Shaurya Diwas” (day of bravery). A makeshift shrine was built on the debris of the mosque a day later.
The incident triggered countrywide religious riots that killed around 2,000 people, mostly Muslims.
India’s Supreme Court is currently hearing claims from both Hindus and Muslims on the plot of land – the country’s most disputed real estate – guarded by armed soldiers, while a metal wall painted in blue surrounds the site.
Celebrating Ram’s birth
On a warm April day, tens of thousands of pilgrims streamed into Ayodhya for the Ram Navami celebrations, a Hindu festival that marks Ram’s birth, throwing the town’s traffic in chaos.
Police were busy regulating the entry of devotees making their way on foot into the holy town with numerous temples, small and big, new and historical, decorated with blue and white balloons.
A line of thousands of men, women and children, predominantly poor, stretched along a dusty road partitioned by bamboo poles, as they carried their offerings for the gods in small bags.
For 50-year-old farmer Daya Ram, however, the Ayodhya issue is far more complicated. “Has the Ram temple been made despite so many promises? Leaders are only concerned about money and power.”
Daya Ram says he is “unhappy” with his town being politicised and known globally for the controversy. “Will a Ram temple give me food? Or education for my children?” he asks.
As he talks, a group of devotees shouts “Jai Shri Ram” (Hail Lord Ram). Daya Ram smiles but does not join the chorus.
How BJP gained from Ayodhya
The Hindu nationalist BJP was founded in 1980, but it actually emerged from the Bharatiya Jan Sangh party formed in 1951.
I consider the entire Ayodhya as Ram's birthplace. Why fight over one spot?
For nearly three decades, the BJP has campaigned for a “bhavya” (grand) Ram temple in Ayodhya, a populist platform that catapulted the right-wing party from two parliamentary seats in the 1980s to political dominance.
“They carefully chose Ram as their deity, because he appeals to a large section of Hindu society. Ram is venerated by every sect of Hinduism. So the movement for the liberation of Ram’s birthplace became both a political and a religious movement,” journalist Dhirendra K Jha, who co-authored the book, Ayodhya: The Long Night, told Al Jazeera.
Not far from the disputed site is a large compound, Karsevak Puram, where thousands of bricks with “Ram” emblazoned on them and hundreds of sandstone pillars have been lying scattered for years, their red edges now blackened, while artisans continue to create more for the proposed temple.
For Jha, the 1990 Ram Rath Yatra (chariot procession) – originally scheduled from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya after crisscrossing India’s ‘Hindi belt’ (Hindi-speaking north Indian states) – “crystallised the Hindu majoritarian politics in India”.
Aimed at mobilising the Hindus for a Ram temple in Ayodhya, the Rath Yatra rally was led by LK Advani, now a 91-year-old BJP veteran, who counted the incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi as one of his closest lieutenants during the controversial journey.
The Hindu nationalist party denies it has used the Ayodhya dispute to gain political power.
“It is not a question of any issue helping the BJP. Ayodhya is a matter concerning the faith of millions of Hindus of this country. And it is not an electoral issue for the BJP,” the party’s spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao told Al Jazeera.
“How many times have you heard the prime minister or Amit Shah [BJP president] talk about Ram temple?”
But analysts such as Jha say the party engages in “doublespeak” when it comes to communally-sensitive issues.
“The BJP works on two plains. One that comes out in speeches, statements, in which they are not saying much about what is called their core issues. On another plain, they are actually using [the] Ayodhya issue in a pretty intense manner,” said Jha.
“So, whether they speak or not, communalism continues to remain a part of the total discourse that BJP uses for an election, sometimes brazenly, often subtly.”
‘Can’t ever forget the day’
Muslims in Ayodhya say while everything changed on December 6, 1992, tensions had simmered for decades.
How long should Hindus wait?
Iqbal Ansari lives right behind the blue barricades that surround the disputed Babri mosque compound. His father Hashim Ansari, one of the chief litigants in the Ayodhya dispute, died in 2016.
“My father had been a petitioner since an idol of Ram was placed in the mosque in 1949,” he told Al Jazeera as he sat in his modest drawing room, flanked by a security guard provided by the government.
“It would not have turned into such a huge dispute if only the idol was removed, nor it would have been politicised like this.”
Iqbal says there was no religious dispute in Ayodhya before 1949. “Why would there be a dispute? I consider the entire Ayodhya as Ram’s birthplace. Why fight over one spot?”
Mohammad Afzal Khan, activist and resident of Faizabad, said: “We cannot ever forget the day” the mosque was destroyed.
“The Uttar Pradesh government had assured the Supreme Court that no damage would be done to the mosque. So in the heart of our hearts, we were sure that it will not be harmed,” Khan told Al Jazeera.
“The Ram idol that was placed in 1949 was also destroyed,” he said, adding that the mob then turned towards the Muslim areas, killing over a dozen people and burning houses and mosques along the way.
The Ayodhya dispute has created a deep fissure in Hindu-Muslim relations, with India’s politics increasingly polarised on religious issues.
But for millions of BJP supporters, such as bookseller Das, there is nothing wrong with mixing religion with politics. “Can there be any politics without religion,” he said.