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Hindus exact revenge for crimes of history

IT DOES not take much to set off a riot between Hindus and Muslims in India. A Muslim's dog bites a cow and the affair can end with a dozen stabbings and a row of village shops burnt down. Faith is a potent force in India's life and its politics. And when the politicians of one community use religion as a weapon - as the Hindu revivalists have tried to do in demolishing a mosque in Ayodhya, northern India - it sets loose furies that can sweep away governments and devastate the country.

Like a thousand fires, rioting has flared in cities which have not seen religious strife since the grim days of Partition in 1947, when Britain split its empire into Islamic Pakistan and secular India. That secularist dream of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru is under siege after the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque. More than 200 people have died so far in Jaipur, Bhopal, Calcutta and Bombay, and in scores of other cities and villages across the land. And the fury is far from over.

Why do Indian Hindus and Muslims kill each other? There are quarrels older than centuries that have the pain and immediacy of a new wound. More than 500 years ago, Muslim invaders destroyed Hindu temples; Ayodhya is a late revenge for that, since Hindus claim that the Babri Masjid mosque was built on the spot where their Lord Ram was born several thousand years ago. Abdul Mannan, a Muslim lawyer in Lucknow who was trying to defend the Babri mosque against a Hindu takeover, asked: 'Is this generation to be paralysed by the crimes of their forefathers?' It seems so, in India today.

Nor have the horrors of Partition been forgotten. Muslims slaughtered trainloads of Hindu and Sikh refugees fleeing what is now Pakistan, and they retaliated with equal barbarity. Everyone was to blame, even - especially, some would say - the British.

Today, with a wave of Hindu revivalism surging across the country, many of India's 120 million Muslims feel cornered. Their number is huge, but Muslims are a minority among more than 650 million Hindus. Indian Muslims are not wanted in Pakistan, and Bangladesh is wretchedly overcrowded.

In Faizabad, a predominantly Muslim town near Ayodhya, Muslim shopkeepers were making bombs and buying guns in the event that the state riot police, who are mainly Hindu, failed to protect them from the triumphant Hindu masses streaming back with souvenir chunks of the Babri mosque. 'The police are silent spectators,' said Wasir Khan, a prominent Muslim in Faizabad. 'We're prepared to fight. Muslims in India have nowhere else to go.'

Both the Hindu revivalists and the so-called secular Congress party now ruling India share blame for the latest outbreak of sectarian strife. The right- wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has risen out of nowhere during the past two years to become the leading opposition party by whipping up the Ayodhya dispute. Having led 200,000 Hindu devotees up to the barbed-wire encircling the mosque, the BJP leaders were wrong to think they had power to stop the mob from going further.

The devotees had come to pay homage to Lord Ram by placing a few symbolic bricks outside the mosque. But their actions were those of Kali, the blood-smeared goddess of destruction. The BJP chief, Lal Krishna Advani, yesterday resigned as leader of the opposition, after accepting 'moral responsibility' for the mosque's destruction. The BJP also lost its stronghold of Uttar Pradesh, when the Chief Minister, Kalyan Singh, stepped down after his state police failed to protect the Ayodhya mosque. Direct rule from New Delhi has now been imposed on Uttar Pradesh. But these setbacks may be temporary. When presidential rule in Uttar Pradesh ends in a few months as expected, the BJP will probably be voted back to the state government with an even greater majority. Many Hindus, even those who abhor the BJP's sectarian tactics, rejoiced that Ram's birthplace in Ayodhya had been liberated. They lit candles outside their homes in celebration.

Narasimha Rao, the Prime Minister and a Congress party member, is also being blamed for the turmoil in India. The Ayodhya conflict helped to topple the Delhi government two years ago, and Mr Rao, too, may suffer the same fate. Even inside the Congress party, momentum is building for Mr Rao's resignation. Several high-ranking party officials joined left-wing opposition politicians in criticising Mr Rao for failing to defuse the Ayodhya crisis earlier.

With Congress weak and divided, the Hindu revivalists might be the next rulers of India. This possibility frightens many Muslim leaders. Zafyair Jilani, a Muslim activist in Lucknow, said: 'If the Muslims aren't safe in India, the other minorities aren't, either. We're not the only ones. What about the Christians, the Sikhs, the Buddhists and the Jains? They could be next.'

(Photograph and map omitted)

Leading article, page 18