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India Redefines Itself Through Its Majority Hindu Faith

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Voting is underway in India's national elections, and this week we're bringing you a series of stories about how India is redefining itself through its majority Hindu faith. Today we take you to a holy place in northern india; it's where, nearly 30 years ago, Hindu activists tore down a historic mosque. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Ayodhya.

SYED IKHLAQ LATIFI: (Foreign language spoken).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Syed Ikhlaq Latifi (ph) is 80 years old, with a bushy white beard, but he's still able to scramble upstairs to his roof to describe what he watched from here in horror back in 1992.

LATIFI: (Through interpreter) A mob broke through barricades around the 16th-century Babri mosque, just over there. They climbed on top of the domes and tombs. They were carrying hammers and these three-pronged spears from Hindu scripture. They started hacking at the building; by night, it was destroyed, and then they set fire to nearby Muslim homes.

FRAYER: Latifi watched as flames lit up the night sky, and then he fled for his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: Footage from that day shows the mob rampaging through Muslim homes and businesses. Riots spread across India and neighboring countries. Thousands were killed, including Tayab-un-Nisa's (ph) husband. Now in her 70s, she sits with her granddaughters...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Hello.

FRAYER: ...Paging through photo albums.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: That's a picture of her husband.

Her father-in-law had been the imam of the famous Babri Masjid - Babri mosque. It was built nearly 500 years ago, under India's then-Muslim rulers, the Mughals. Her husband was from a prominent Ayodhya family. But the mosque is now gone, and her husband was bludgeoned to death right next to her front gate.

TAYAB-UN-NISA: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: "I've wept a lifetime of tears," she says.

TAYAB-UN-NISA: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: Hindu activists from all over India came to Ayodhya that day to correct what they perceived as a historical injustice - the building of a mosque more than four centuries earlier and the cropping up of a Muslim community around it in a spot sacred to Hindus, the place where they believe one of their gods, Lord Ram, was born. It would be the equivalent, faithful say, of a mosque on the exact spot in Bethlehem where Jesus is said to have been born or a church on top of the Prophet Muhammad's birthplace in Mecca.

SHRIRAJ NAIR: Even bigger than that; even more significant than that, we believe, yeah. I felt very proud when the mosque was demolished.

FRAYER: Shriraj Nair (ph) is a suburban dad in Mumbai. Back then, he was 19 years old and passionate about his Hindu faith. He was and still is active in the RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh - it's one of the Hindu volunteer groups whose members wielded hammers at the Babri mosque that day. Nair couldn't go - he had a family commitment - but he watched on TV as his comrades travelled to Ayodhya from all over India.

NAIR: People travelled. It was a huge, huge mob. The Hindus came on their own, and they fought for demolishing the mosque. And from that time onward, the word Hindutva, or the feeling of being Hindu, came in everybody's mind. It was a big success.

FRAYER: It was a milestone for that word he just used - Hindutva; it means Hindu pride. Some call it Hindu nationalism. It was then that India began to shed the secularism that had defined it since independence from Britain. It's when Hindu priorities gained prominence in Indian politics. For Hindu voters who cared deeply about Lord Ram's legendary birthplace, step one was destroying the Babri mosque. Step two is building a Hindu temple in its place, and that's what Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party has promised to do if reelected. Party chief Amit Shah at a rally in January.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMIT SHAH: (Through interpreter) Our party wants a temple to Lord Ram built on that same spot, as soon as possible; no doubt about it.

FRAYER: The 1992 killings in Ayodhya were a horrible bout of sectarian violence. But to many of India's majority Hindus, they were also a new beginning - of removing remnants of a Muslim civilisation and restoring a Hindu one. Now nearly 30 years later, Modi's party is making those sentiments a priority, in a way that no other government has ever done before.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: Demonstrations have erupted across India, calling for the immediate construction of a temple in Ayodhya. But this is sensitive; it could spark more clashes. Modi initially promised construction would begin in his first term - it hasn't happened. India's Supreme Court now controls the property and is hearing petitions on what can be built. Some on the far right accuse Modi of dragging his feet. The temple, which doesn't yet exist, nevertheless already has a chief priest in waiting.

SATENDRA DAS: (Singing in a foreign language).

FRAYER: Satendra Das (ph) is also 80 years old, with a long white beard. He wears a bright saffron orange Hindu robe, and unlike Syed Ikhlaq Latifi, who watched the destruction of the Babri mosque from his roof, Das charged into the melee that day.

DAS: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: He explains how, decades earlier, Hindus had managed to place a small Lord Ram statue inside the Babri mosque. Das was its caretaker, so he was allowed to enter the building. And when the mob attacked in 1992, Das ran in to grab that idol and, afterward, placed it atop the mosque's ruins, where it still sits today.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: Hundreds of police now patrol the heart of Ayodhya. I had to pass through a maze of wire cages and metal detectors, surrender my passport, get patted down by female guards, just to get within view of the Babri mosque's ruins - and there's nothing left. This is probably India's most incendiary spot. In the old city of Ayodhya, where three Islamic domes once towered for more than 450 years, there's a small blue tarp draped over stilts, and under it, that idol of the Hindu god Lord Ram. With me in line are thousands of Hindus, pilgrims from all over India. Many of them are barefoot. One woman is weeping.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in a foreign language).

FRAYER: "Long live Lord Ram," they chant and shuffle past. There are so many of them, and they are determined to be heard, both here and at the polls in this Indian election. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Ayodhya, India. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.