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Hindus ready for temple battle

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As Hindu religious leaders and saints moved toward compromise this week, the tink, tink, tink of stonemasons in the Indian town of Ayodhya show that a long dispute between Hindus and Muslims is far from over.

It is here, in the workshop run by Anubhai Sampura, a proud Hindu nationalist, that stonemasons are chipping away at sandstone blocks to create the massive temple for the Hindu god Ram.

Mr. Sampura says his workers are ready to meet their self-appointed March 15 deadline for moving the elaborately carved stones into place on a disputed tract of land that both Hindus and Muslims claim. The 528-year-old Babri Mosque once occupied this disputed land, but it was torn down on Dec. 6, 1992 by Hindu fanatics who claim the site as the birthplace of Ram. The demolition led to riots that claimed more than 2,000 lives over the following six months.

As a native of Gujarat, Sampura knows well that this temple project has caused riots that have already killed from 600 to 1,000 Hindus in his home state alone. But he and his crew say they have the god on their side.

"It will go ahead on March 15, whether the government allows it or not," says Sampura, as gathered Hindu pilgrims nod their agreement. "If violence comes, even then it will go ahead. This is not a question of what Muslims will want. It is a question of what Lord Ram wants. This is a question of faith."

In the past week, this clash of faiths has sorely tested India's proud identity as a secular state. A gruesome Muslim-led attack on a train in the town of Godhra, which burnt to death some 58 Hindu activists last Wednesday, has set off a revenge spree that has killed hundreds, most of them Muslim.

Members of the minority community charge that the state government, ruled by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, failed to stop the carnage and, in some cases, encouraged it. And while more prominent Hindu leaders are now talking of delaying the temple project, perhaps until early June, activists in Ayodhya itself show no sign of backing off from their original plan, no matter what.

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