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Hindu temple will be consecrated on the grounds of destroyed historic mosque

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

More than 30 years ago, rioters destroyed a historic mosque in the holy Hindu city of Ayodhya. This month, a new Hindu temple will be consecrated on its grounds with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in attendance. It'll be an event of enormous political and religious significance for India, and it comes just weeks before a crucial election. NPR's Diaa Hadid went to see the temple and talk to people about what it means to them.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: I'm walking into one of the most controversial places in India.

So we're entering through the first checkpoint. There's multiple metal detectors, facial recognition technology.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Jai Shri Ram.

HADID: We're on a rare tour of the Ram Temple. It's a sprawling structure, columns and arches approached by stone stairs. Dozens of workers file past and shout...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Jai Shri Ram.

HADID: Jai Shri Ram.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Jai Shri Ram.

HADID: Victory to Lord Ram. Ram is one of the most beloved Hindu deities. And that chant has become a rallying cry for Hindu nationalists, people who believe India should serve its Hindu majority and not be a secular country.

(SHOUTING)

HADID: Thousands of rioters chanted this more than three decades ago as they tore down a 500-year-old mosque that once stood here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Jai Shri Ram.

HADID: The mosque's destruction triggered deadly violence. In India, more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, mobs turned on Hindus. The rioters believed the mosque was built on the birthplace of Lord Ram. That claim is about a century old, but it picked up steam as a Hindu nationalist party known as the BJP rallied around the issue. That party has ruled India for nearly a decade now, led by the popular Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking a third term in power. He's long vowed to build a temple for Lord Ram where the mosque once stood. He even laid the foundation stone himself in 2020 after the Supreme Court handed over the site to Hindu litigants. Now, just four years later, it's going to be consecrated on January 22, even though it's not ready.

One, two, three, four - four large cranes, just heavy building machinery everywhere.

Monkeys swing off the scaffolding. Critics say the rush is so Modi can be seen doing this ahead of elections in spring.

VALAY SINGH: Opening this in January is critical for them to go to elections with this feather in their cap. So it's a very big, actually, launch pad for the elections.

HADID: Valay Singh is the author of a book on Ayodhya.

SINGH: It is going to mobilize the support that the BJP party has, so that's one simple reason why it seems to be a rush to inaugurate the temple even though it's not fully complete.

HADID: Already, many residents praise Modi for transforming this town.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

HADID: There's a new mall, a new bridge linking to the new airport, a refurbished railway station, all to serve an expected influx of pilgrims. Nearby, Usha Pandi (ph) and her family take selfies near a wall of marigold flowers that conceals a slum. She tells us Modi has done a lot of good, Ayodhya isn't a dump anymore.

USHA PANDI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: She says, finally, the Lord Ram has a home, the temple that's being built in his honor. Now she hopes Modi will create jobs for women like her.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIKE BELL RINGING)

HADID: Down the road, Mohammad Azem Qadri (ph) sits with friends outside a crumbling mosque. He says all this new development isn't for them, Muslims. One-in-6 Indians are Muslims, some 200 million people.

MOHAMMAD AZEM QADRI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He believes the government wants Muslims to leave Ayodhya. He refers to the land that the court ordered the government give to the Muslim community to build another mosque after rioters destroyed their historic house of worship. It's 13 miles from here. Muslims pray five times a day. If they wanted to worship there, he says, they'd have to leave town.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.