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Hindu monks, activists rally in New Delhi demanding Ayodhya temple

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By Mayank Bhardwaj

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Thousands of Hindu monks and activists linked to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party gathered in the Indian capital New Delhi on Sunday to urge the government to build a temple at the ruins of a 16th century mosque.

The calls for a new temple in the northern town of Ayodhya come ahead of an election that must be held by May 2019, when Modi will seek a second term.

Most analysts expect his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to fare far less well than it did in 2014, and critics often accuse the party of using communal issues to whip up support.

For the past three decades, the BJP and Hindu outfits associated with it have resurrected the Ayodhya controversy before elections, stoking tensions between Hindus and a Muslim minority who make up 14 percent of India's 1.3 billion people.

In 1992 a militant Hindu mob tore down the centuries-old mosque in Ayodhya, triggering riots that killed about 2,000 people across India in one of the worst outbreaks of communal violence since Partition in 1947.

Most Hindus believe the warrior-god Ram was born in Ayodhya, and Hindu groups insist that there was a temple there before a mosque was built by a Muslim ruler in 1528.

Hindu monks want the government to introduce a legislation to pave the way for a temple, said Sharad Sharma, spokesman for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), or the World Hindu Council, a group that has close ties with the BJP.

"It's an issue of faith for millions of Hindus who cannot endlessly wait for a temple at the birthplace of Lord Ram," he said.

Both Hindu and Muslim groups have petitioned the Supreme Court to help resolve the issue. The top court has sought more time to give its verdict.

The BJP and VHP and their parent movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have asked the government to issue an executive order to build a temple, bypassing the Supreme Court.

Late last month, tens of thousands of Hindu seers, their followers and political activists had gathered in Ayodhya to press for their demand for a temple.

Ahead of Sunday's rally, police stepped up security, with organisers expecting hundreds of thousands to participate.

Uttar Pradesh, the state where Ayodha is located, has suffered repeated outbreaks of communal violence since Yogi Adityanath, a BJP hardliner seen as a potential successor to Modi, became chief minister last year.

Earlier this month, a senior police officer and another man were killed in violent protests in the state over reports that a cow, an animal sacred in Hindu culture, had been slaughtered.

(Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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