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A riot strikes close to home.

I was at work on February 27 when an e-mail arrived with the news that Muslim extremists in the Indian state of Gujarat had immolated fifty-eight Hindus, most of them women and children, who were returning by train from the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, which is just fifty miles from my parents' home. I was deeply distressed. I'd visited the site several times, and I knew it was a loaded symbol. As horrified as I was by the deaths that had just occurred, I feared that many more lives would be lost in Hindu revenge attacks on Muslims in the days to come.

Sadly, my fears were proven correct. Hindu mobs descended on Muslim neighborhoods in cities across Gujarat, sometimes burning alive entire families. The worst-hit city was Ahmedabad, one of India's most prominent commercial centers. Dozens of Muslims were burned together in residential areas. Muslim shops and restaurants were razed. Hundreds of Muslims were killed in the next few days, while thousands have been made refugees.

The mobs were often led by members of Hindu extremist organizations such as the World Hindu Council (the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or the VHP by its Hindi acronym) and the Bajrang Dal. But in some instances, the people leading the vigilantes belonged to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) itself, which runs not only the federal government but also the Gujarat state government.

The head of the Gujarat state administration, Narendra Modi, passed off the Hindu retaliation as evidence of Newton's Third Law of Motion, which says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The BJP's state party leader called the rioting "a natural statement of Hindu anger." A BJP member of parliament from Gujarat was brazen enough to make openly bigoted statements to a New York Times reporter about Muslims from his area being pro-Pakistani spies who make a living primarily by stealing.

Given such attitudes among ruling party officials, it is no surprise that instead of protecting the Muslims, the police and the administration, by and large, looked the other way. Several reports in the media said that the police often connived with the Hindu mobs, a fact confirmed by Gautam Gouthi, a friend of mine who lives in Ahmedabad. A restaurant owned by a Muslim was burned not too far from his home, he says, just hundreds of yards from a police station. Even Ahmedabad's police commissioner, P. C. Pande, admitted his subordinates were "influenced by the overall general sentiment." The federal government sent in the troops only after Hindu posses had ample time, in some ghoulish way, to even the score, and then some.

Gautam pointed out that, unlike in past riots, the better-off neighborhoods in the city were also touched, with the brunt still being borne by poorer localities.

And the cycle of violence may not be finished. Gautam tells me there's enormous fear in Ahmedabad that Muslims may retaliate in a few weeks or months, since the disproportionate killing of Muslims has nourished feelings of vengeance.

The first time I visited the controversial temple-mosque site in the pilgrimage town of Ayodhya was in 1987, during my freshman year in college. I wasn't yet aware of the severity of the dispute surrounding the mosque. A couple of relatives who were visiting us wanted to pay their respects at the place; and I tagged along. The thing that struck me the most about the spot, apart from the security, was the spectacle of a Hindu priest performing rituals before a set of idols of Lord Ram and his consort, the goddess Sita (both among the most revered of Hindu gods), under what was clearly a mosque-type structure. In this paradox lies the core of the conflict that has claimed thousands of lives in the last decade.

India has approximately 800 million Hindus and 140 million Muslims living together in mostly peaceful, if sometimes uneasy, coexistence. But the Babri Mosque has been a flashpoint.

The edifice of the structure represented a mosque built under the reign of Mughal emperor Babur (hence its name, Babri Masjid, or Babri Mosque) in the sixteenth century. Hindu activists claim that the mosque was erected only after the demolition of a temple commemorating the birth of Lord Ram on that exact site. Never mind that this claim is historically dubious. This hasn't put a crimp in the plans of Hindu fanatics to demolish the mosque and build a lavish temple at the spot to honor Lord Ram's birth. In 1949, someone managed to smuggle Hindu idols into the mosque, rendering it unusable as a Muslim place of worship. The structure was locked until 1986, when the ruling Congress Party, in an attempt to appease Hindu sentiment, ordered the gates opened for Hindu worshippers.

The Congress Party may have been trying to win Hindu votes, but the chief beneficiary was the BJP, which helped make a national dispute out of a matter that was so insignificant that even someone like me living so nearby was quite unaware of it till the late 1980s. The issue played a big part in helping the BJP come to power in subsequent years.

Ayodhya is the quintessential Indian religious town, dotted with numerous temples, the overwhelming majority dedicated to Lord Ram. The city, although rundown, has a certain authentic quality about it, perhaps explained by the fact that it is not on the Western tourist circuit. But it is on the tourism circuit of Indian Hindus. And even those Hindus and Muslims who are not particularly religious see the dispute as a test of strength for their own community. Hindus perceive the issue as a test of whether they can assert their rights before a secular state many see as biased in favor of religious minorities; Muslims view it as a test of whether the secular state can guarantee them protection. The prevalence of such divergent perceptions, combined with religious bigotry, can perhaps help us understand the recent riots that have hit India.

My second visit to the site was in 1994, more than a year after Hindu extremists tore down the edifice, setting off riots in a number of cities across India that cost more than 1,000 lives, notably in Bombay. On this occasion, security was even tighter. I was showing the place to a German friend. We were searched a number of times and had to walk through a maze-like barricade to get to the idols. You could pay respect to the idols, which were sheltered under a canopy, only from a distance.

The next time I visited the place was in December of 2000. While I was exiting the premises, I was accosted by people wanting to sell postcards filled with gruesome photos of the bodies of Hindu militants killed in police firing when activists unsuccessfully tried to storm the site in 1990.

So how can India escape from these bouts of madness? Part of the answer may be found in Kerala, a southern Indian state often touted by development experts such as Nobel Prize-winner Amartya Sen.

Even though it has one of the highest concentrations of Muslims in the country and although it is among the most densely populated states, Kerala has been almost totally riot-free since India's independence. With a highly educated citizenry and a government devoted to social welfare, some of the well-springs of hatred have dried up. In addition, a series of progressive governments has ensured that the administrations have not been partisan toward any single religious community. In contrast to the state government in Gujarat, administrators in Kerala have ensured that potentially explosive situations do not spiral out of control. Much more competent and accountable than in the rest of India, they go out of their way to make alliances across religious groups, and they do not wink at or incite religious animosities, as the BJP does.

The result: An almost complete absence of large-scale religious disturbances. Maybe the rest of India should take lessons from Kerala.

Amitabh Pal is Editor of the Progressive Media Project. He wrote "Terror Comes to India" in the March issue.
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Title Annotation:violence between India's Hindus and Muslims
Author:Pal, Amitabh
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Apr 1, 2002
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