The recent history of the sub- continent provides ample evidence of the manipulation of powerful religious sentiment for irreligious political ends. Before partition, millions of Hindus and Muslims lived peacefully side by side in Punjab and Bengal. Then, as the common dream of independence from foreign rule became more and more likely, Congress politicians began cultivating the Hindu majority for mass support, causing alarm among Muslims.
Minority support for a Muslim homeland rapidly became an unstoppable demand. Alarm grew to suspicion, hatred and the mass murder of neighbours whose lives and destiny had been entwined for years. The irony of partition was underlined in the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971. When captors and prisoners in Punjab met face to face as ordinary human beings, they tearfully embraced each other and reminisced about the good old days when they had lived together as honest and trusting neighbours.
While it was caricatures based on religious sentiment that provided the tinder for mass murder, it was unscrupulous politicians in both communities who provided the spark and stoked the fires of hatred between Hindus and Muslims. Today, 50 years after independence, it is still easy to stir those embers of hatred into open and blazing conflict.
More than a million men, women and children died in the aftermath of partition in 1947, and it would have been far worse but for the courage of a few like Mahatma Gandhi who worked ceaselessly for communal harmony. It is helpful in understanding the India of today, that Gandhi was murdered by the RSS, a fascist grouping that idolises Hitler and is widely recognised as the ideological wing of today's ruling BJP.
The RSS and the BJP both derive their strength from a latent Hindu nationalism that has little to do with Hindu religious teachings and everything to do with a fascist view of other religions and other ways of life. As one BJP supporter commented on Radio 4's Sunday Programme last weekend, "we will tolerate minorities, providing they toe the line". Half a century earlier, Pandit Nehru, India's first prime minister, had declared that "the protection of minorities is more than a responsibility; it is a sacred trust".
The irony is that it was Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, who first betrayed that sacred trust. In early 1984, Congress were trailing badly in the opinion polls with an election less than a year away. There had been rioting in Bombay in which many Muslims had lost their lives and their homes. Visiting the area as prime minister, it was expected that Mrs Gandhi would give words of comfort to the Muslims. Instead, election in mind, she declared, "majorities too have their rights". She continued with this policy of pandering to majority prejudice by starting a vicious campaign of hate against India's tiny Sikh minority.
It worked in the short term, with Congress achieving a landslide victory in the 1984 election, but it's all been downhill since, both for Congress and India. The then tiny BJP quickly cashed in on growing majority communalism with the wanton destruction of the historic mosque at Ayodhya and the chilling promise of further destruction of minority places of worship.
Since its victory in the general election earlier this year the public image of the BJP has taken a battering in its attempts to balance the conflicting demands of fractious coalition partners. Hence the desire to impress on others that India with the BJP in charge is a mighty power, ready to use scarce resources in a destructive show of military might.
Writing in the Times this week, the former Director of the Lahore Atomic Energy Centre, Saeed A. Durrani, predicts that Pakistan will respond in kind. He cites Newton's Third Law, "to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction". He is probably right in his prediction. But the logical extension of this law means that a conciliatory gesture should also elicit a similar response. The challenge is for leaders on the sub- continent to look beyond power for power's sake to the real needs of the people so arrogantly ignored in the squandering of desperately needed resources in shallow displays of strength.