AYODHYA, India (Reuters) - When a Hindu mob tore down a centuries-old mosque in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya 26 years ago, Haji Mahboob Ahmad says he and his family had to flee to a Muslim religious school miles away to escape deadly rioting.
In days of communal clashes that followed more than a dozen people were killed in Ayodhya and about 2,000 people across the country. Ahmad said when he returned to his house, about a mile south of the disputed site, it had been gutted by fire.
Now leaders of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its affiliates are stepping up efforts to build a massive Hindu temple where the mosque once stood, and Ahmad and many of the other 5,000 Muslims still living in the town say they once again feel under siege.
“They’re playing a dangerous game in the name of Ayodhya,” Ahmad, a 65-year-old Muslim community leader, said as he sat beside his rifle-toting police guard. Ahmad has been getting round-the-clock police security since months after the riots.
Muslim leaders are considering temporarily moving members of the community out of Ayodhya on Sunday, when tens of thousands of Hindu seers and monks are expected to gather demanding a new temple on the site, fearing religious tensions.
Many Hindus believe the mosque destroyed in 1992 was built in the same place where Lord Ram, a physical incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, was born. They also point to evidence there was a temple there before the mosque was built in 1528.
Facing a general election by next May, and concerns about the impact on voters of low farm prices, weak jobs growth and the difficulty small businesses face in borrowing, BJP leaders are seeking to shore up support among the most devoted in India’s Hindu majority.
Ayodhya is in politically important Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with more than 220 million people and the most lawmakers in parliament’s lower house. The state’s BJP chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, is a hardline Hindu priest.
The party made a near-clean sweep there in 2014, helping Modi win the country’s biggest parliamentary mandate in three decades, but pollsters predict a tighter contest next year.
Modi himself has been largely silent on the issue, and his government did not respond to a request seeking comment. But top BJP lieutenants, such as its President Amit Shah, have been increasingly vocal in pressing for a new temple on the site.
Earlier this month, Adityanath held a big celebration in Ayodhya to mark the Diwali festival of lights, a major Hindu event. He also got the name of the district where the town is located changed from Faizabad, a Muslim name, to Ayodhya. His government has promised to build a 201 meter-tall statue of Ram to tower over the disputed site from a couple of miles away.
Around 100,000 Hindu religious leaders - more than the population of the core area of Ayodhya - are expected to assemble just a couple of miles away on Nov. 25 to press their demand that the government introduce legislation that would allow a new temple on the site. An even bigger protest of 500,000 is planned for New Delhi next month.
Zafaryab Jilani, a secretary of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, said many Muslims in Ayodhya were worried about their security during the religious gathering in the town.
The Uttar Pradesh government is also considering expanding a ban on meat in the town to a much bigger area on the demands of Hindu religious leaders. Muslim butchers dominate the meat business.
Aarif Mohammed, a Muslim who sells mutton and chicken at a shop about 7 km (4 miles) from the controversial site, said he would accept any government or court decision in favour of a Ram temple, but a meat ban would be financially damaging.
“We won’t be able to switch to something else easily,” said the 35-year-old. “We want an end to the dispute soon, we want peace. Tensions only weaken us, drag us back.”
Some Muslims in Ayodhya are less accepting of temple plans. Every year on Dec. 6, dozens gather at the porch of community leader Ahmad’s house to “mourn” the anniversary of the mosque’s demolition, he said.
Ahmad, who wants a mosque rebuilt on the site, says the BJP is stirring up trouble as part of its election campaigning. “They want the votes of those who get swayed easily by matters of belief,” he said.
It is not the only case in which the ruling party has been accused of exploiting religious divisions. The government has begun deporting Rohingya Muslim refugees, but wants to make it easier for Hindu asylum seekers to gain citizenship. Many BJP-ruled states have expanded bans on the trading of cows revered in Hinduism, and increased funding for cow shelters that take cattle seized from Muslim traders.
The BJP denies it has a bias against Muslims, but says it is opposed to giving unfair advantage to any community, a practice it describes as “appeasement” and accuses the opposition Congress party of long following to win votes.
In September 2010, Uttar Pradesh’s Allahabad High Court ruled that the main site where the mosque once stood be split into three parts, one for Muslims and two for Hindus. Both Muslim and Hindu groups challenged that judgment in the Supreme Court where it remains unresolved, with the top court’s chief justice delaying a further hearing on the matter at least until January.
Many leaders of the BJP, hardline group Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), and their parent movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), are demanding the government issue an executive order to bypass the Supreme Court so they can build the temple on the site, now under court control.
Many Hindus do support the construction of a temple at the site, a place they say is equivalent to Saudi Arabia’s Kaaba, a building in Mecca that is the most sacred site in Islam.
On a recent visit to Ayodhya, dozens of Hindu pilgrims told Reuters that only Modi’s party was willing to construct the temple. The BJP said in its 2014 election manifesto it would “explore all possibilities within the framework of the constitution” to help build a temple.
“This is a country of us Hindus, Ayodhya is the heartland of us Hindus, can’t we get it back?,” said Mumbai-resident Vinod Trewaria, 49. He was visiting an Ayodhya workshop where a sculptor worked on ornate carvings to be used in a future temple and two priests chanted: “Ram, Ram - Sita, Ram”. According to Hindu epic Ramayana, Sita was the wife of Ram.
“The secular lobby, the communist lobby, all these people are standing in the way,” said Trewaria. “Courts are also mocking our sentiments. Only Yogi and Modi are working towards it.”
The place where the Babri Mosque once stood is now guarded by armed state and federal police and surrounded by walls and watchtowers. Visitors can only view small idols of Ram and his brother Laxman from behind iron bars beneath a tent.
Visitors were frisked three times when Reuters visited last week. Bags, mobile phones, watches, pens and cameras were not allowed.
As the Ram idol came into sight, one visitor called out: “Jai Shri Ram,” - hail Lord Ram. An elderly man dressed in red and yellow cloth shouted back: “Jai Shri Ram”.
Later, at a nearby temple complex, Bablu Khan, an elected BJP council member in Ayodhya, said it was time to settle the dispute for good.
“This time we will give it our all - tann, mann and gun,” he said - rhyming the English word gun with the Hindi for body and mind - “to get a temple built.”
Reporting by Krishna N. Das; Edited by Martin Howell and Alex Richardson