Moderation dies as temples burn

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PRAFUL AMIN has been a moderate and accommodating leader of Birmingham Hindus who has always worked conscientiously to get on with people around him. His business partner is a Muslim, and he encourages people to call him Peter rather than Praful because 'the English find Peter easier'.

A week of unprecedented communal conflict between British Muslims and Hindus has destroyed his former calm. He wonders now whether racial harmony can be restored; his supporters question whether he is the the right man to lead them in the new, violent times in Britain's second city.

The firebombing of Hindu temples and attacks on Hindu shops, homes and children by Muslims, enraged at the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque by Hindus in India, have made his conciliatory style seem old-fashioned.

Mr Amin remained true to his principles as he responded to the crisis. All last week he endorsed calls from the police and Birmingham City Council for Hindus to stay calm. His reward was a humiliating defeat.

The anger broke at the Shree Hindu Community Centre on Friday night. His arguments against a Hindu demonstration were met with cries of 'We should burn mosques' and 'It's time to stop writing letters'. Even his name became an issue. An elderly woman bellowed at him: 'What kind of example is calling yourself Peter giving our children?' Another shouted: 'Call yourself Praful - be proud.'

Outside the meeting, Rajphut, aged 20, was keen to show that young Hindus would not tolerate the attacks indefinitely. 'The parents keep going on at us all the time about how we came here to work and shouldn't start fighting,' he said. 'The youth think this is wrong. If the police don't take control, things will start to happen. Mosques won't be burnt. But other Muslim buildings will.'

Plans were made for a demonstration this week, and Mr Amin offered to resign as president of the centre. 'I'm a democrat and you must decide whether you still want me,' he told the 100-strong audience. 'I know this is not personal . . . I will keep smiling whatever.'

His powerlessness in the face of new passions was typical. No one else in authority appeared to have any idea of how the tensions created by the assault on a mosque on the other side of the world could be forgotten.

In the West Midlands alone, petrol bombs and vandalism caused about pounds 1m of damage to Hindu temples in West Bromwich, Coventry and Sparkbrook. Nearly all temples in the region now have shifts of worshippers standing guard day and night.

A Hindu grocer's shop was set alight, cars were burnt outside two mosques, there was a fire in a Sparkbrook Hindu household when petrol was poured through its letter box, and two Hindu children were allegedly attacked by Muslim classmates at school.

The fear of the Hindus was palpable. Rahit, a middle-aged shop assistant from Sparkbrook, said he was now checking the locks on his house and always walking on the well-lit side of the street.

Although white vandals may be behind some of the attacks - two white youths were seen running away from the Coventry temple before it caught fire - Hindus and Muslims agreed that the majority of fires were started by Muslims furious at events in India. At the Sparkbrook temple, slogans in Urdu were left on the walls reading 'Tear their temples apart'.

Khurshid Ahmed, head of Birmingham's race relations unit, said the region had never seen anything like it. 'There was some tension between Hindus and Muslims during the India-Pakistan war in 1965 and again during the Bangladesh crisis in 1971,' he said. 'But there were no attacks, nothing physical. The communities generally get on.'

Birmingham's Muslims have shown no sign that their anger against India is subsiding. At a peaceful rally in the city centre on Friday, speakers denounced the 'planned genocide of Indian Muslims'.

Saleem Akhtar, chairman of the Midlands Confederation of Sunni Mosques, repeatedly called for protests within the law, but responded to the local violence by saying that 'it was natural that some people should lose control'.

The 50,000 or so Hindus in the West Midlands, by contrast, are not used to protesting. They are outnumbered three to one by Muslim Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Nearly all are Ugandan Indians, who were forced out by Idi Amin between 1968 and 1971 and have kept themselves to themselves ever since.

It is impossible to say whether the threats from the young Hindus to become active and instigate retaliatory violence will materialise, but it is already likely that Birmingham's ruling Labour Party will pay a political price for the violence.

The Labour councillors in Sparkbrook, Sparkhill and Small Heath - the inner-city Asian areas of south Birmingham - are either white or Muslim. None accepted Mr Amin's invitations to attend meetings in Hindu temples to discuss the crisis and calm fears last week.

When Mr Amin suggested that he should try to arrange a visit from Sir Richard Knowles, Birmingham's Labour leader, he was shouted down.

'It's a Pakistani Labour Party,' said one man. 'The best thing we can do is not vote Labour again.' 'They don't want to listen to us . . . we're invisible. What we need is a Hindu defence council,' said another.

'I hope that relations improve between Hindus and Muslims,' sighed Mr Amin after days of watching the anger grow. 'But I'm very afraid these troubles will leave a scar.'

An arson attack caused smoke damage to a kitchen at the Radha Khrishna Hindu temple in Balham High Road, south London, last night. The living quarters, where four people were staying - and the temple itself - were unaffected, said a Scotland Yard spokeswoman.

Roots of conflict, page 13

Lord Rama profile, page 25