Kai Schultz and
AYODHYA, India — The barefooted pilgrims passed by watchtowers, checkpoints and walls topped with barbed wire. They emptied their pockets, stepped through four metal detectors and lined up, single file, to enter a path enclosed by a narrow cage.
At the end of the walkway was a tent with a golden idol at its entrance. Inside is the spot Hindus consider the birthplace of the god Ram.
Visitors bottlenecked to catch a glimpse. Women placed soggy bills into a donations box. And the pilgrims chanted, “Hail Lord Ram!”
For decades, Hindus and Muslims have sparred over this speck of land in Ayodhya, India’s most disputed religious site, a few barren acres near the country’s northern farmlands.
Now, many Hindus are confident the land will remain in their hands.
A 16th-century mosque, the Babri Masjid, once stood here, a reminder of India’s history under Mughal rule. In 1992, Hindu activists demolished the stone structure, spurred by the belief that Ram, a widely revered deity, was born thousands of years ago on the same spot.
Monthslong religious riots followed, killing around 2,000 people. The question of what to do dragged in India’s courts. Hindu litigants pushed to erect a temple. Muslims vowed to rebuild the mosque. India’s identity as an inclusive and secular nation hung in the balance.
Judges feared more bloodshed if they hinted at partiality, though a de facto solution has persisted: Men who destroyed the mosque erected a makeshift tent that approximated a Hindu temple. It still stands, drawing thousands of visitors every day.
Ashok Baba Saheb Bhosle, 55, a sweat-slicked farmer plopped near the site’s exit, said a ruling from India’s Supreme Court, which could come this year, seemed a mere formality.
“It is 100 percent going to be a temple,” Mr. Bhosle said as a cheer went up among his friends, who had traveled hundreds of miles from central India to pray in Ayodhya. “Modi is in the temple!” he cried out. “It’s Modi’s house!”
He may be right.
Mr. Modi’s party, with its ties to far-right groups that believe in Hindu supremacy, has doggedly supported building the temple. During a recent speech, Amit Shah, India’s new home minister and a close adviser to Mr. Modi, promised pilgrims that his party would not budge “even by an inch” from its position. Some of the men who destroyed the mosque were members of the party.
Preparations to build the temple have already started. At a yard run by the Ram Birthplace Trust, an organization overseeing construction, men pounded chisels into slabs of stone, carving swirls of flowers.
For years, the trust has readied pillars for the temple. Tour guides speaking half a dozen languages lead pilgrims with shaved heads, a mark of piety, around finished pillars inscribed with “Hail Lord Ram.” They claim that the pieces can be assembled in just 24 hours if the court gives permission.
Swami Ram Vilas Vedanti, a white-bearded leader of the trust and a former B.J.P. parliamentarian, said erecting the temple was about correcting a historical injustice. His group believes Mughal rulers tried to humiliate Hindus by taking over such a sacred spot.
In 2010, a lower court divided the disputed land between Hindu and Muslim groups. Mr. Vedanti said a ruling like this one — which the Supreme Court stayed — was not acceptable to either side.
“Eighty percent of Muslims believe we should construct a temple,” he said. “Only a few are resisting.”
Some Muslims in Ayodhya seemed fatalistic.
Since Mr. Modi rose to power in 2014, the far right has never been more enfranchised to spread an us-versus-them mentality. Such thinking has tried to make villains of India’s roughly 200 million Muslims and shrunk space for dissent.
In the last few years, governmental bodies have started rewriting textbooks, cutting sections on Muslim rulers and changing Muslim place names to Hindu ones.
Vigilante mobs have killed dozens of Muslims and lower-caste Indians suspected of slaughtering cows, a sacred animal in Hinduism. Activists found that most of the time the attackers got away with their crimes.
Increasingly, hate crimes have also involved yelling Hindu slogans. In June, a Muslim man was tied to a poll in eastern India, beaten by a mob for hours and forced to shout “Hail Lord Ram.” He later died of his injuries.
In his tiny living room, Iqbal Ansari, a Muslim litigant whose family has publicly supported the mosque for decades, offered none of the cheery enthusiasm or grand predictions expressed by the temple’s supporters. He spoke numbly about the dispute, playing down reports of persecution and saying that whatever the court decides, “we will have to accept it.”
Zafaryab Jilani, a lawyer advising Mr. Ansari and other Muslim litigants, tried to stay upbeat.
For now, he said, the court has kept a healthy and impartial distance from the political theater. Judges recently appointed mediators to meet with lawyers, who have completed several rounds of talks.
Mr. Jilani said that Muslims he met with privately were more incensed than they let on, and that the fight for a mosque was not one they could give up in good faith.
“A mosque does not belong to Muslims or any other human being,” he said. “It belongs to God almighty. No Muslim has the right to surrender it.”
But among the temple’s most vehement defenders, it was hard to find anybody willing to concede that a mosque had even existed.
At a storeroom managed by the Ram Birthplace Trust, where a replica of the planned temple sits on a stage, Hazari Lal, a squat, jovial caretaker, said activists had simply torn down a “disputed structure.”
“It was not a mosque,” he said. “Politicians gave it that name.”
He brightened at this line of thought, and recounted his own role in the demolition.
In December 1992, Mr. Lal and other men wearing saffron headbands broke through a security cordon, screaming, “Atom bomb! Atom bomb!” and then climbing the building’s domed top. They slammed shovels, hammers and spears into the stone facade and toppled walls using ropes.
Rubble crushed Mr. Lal’s arm. Thousands more gathered, setting Muslim shops ablaze. Foreign journalists were beaten. Terrified families fled Ayodhya, where blood seeped into the city’s main river. Violence spread from India into neighboring countries.
For his involvement, Mr. Lal spent several weeks in prison. Looking back, he said he had no regrets: A “long unfinished job” was finally coming to an end.
“We people had no fear then, and no fear now,” he said, smiling and holding up his mangled arm. “Very soon you will see a temple here. Everything is ready.”
This story was first appeared on nytimes.com