India feeds the roots of conflict: Michael Fathers finds the Muslims of Bombay under siege as the tide of Hindu nationalism rises

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'TO BE honest,' the woman said, 'Muslims who stayed behind in India at the time of partition were riff-raff. There are exceptions, of course, but in general Indian Muslims are not very intelligent. The elite went to Pakistan. And in Bombay, Muslims are the underworld, the mafia, if you like. They are the gold smugglers, the drug dealers, the illegal currency, that sort of criminal thing. And they think of themselves as Muslims first and Indians second - never the other way round.'

This was not the language of the slums of overcrowded Bombay, where nearly 200 people, all but five of them Muslims, died from police bullets last week, and where hundreds of Muslim and Hindu shanties were razed in petrol-bomb attacks, in the worst communal carnage in Bombay's modern history. This was the voice of sophisticated Bombay.

The speaker, a widow, was hostess to a small party on Wednesday night in south Bombay, an area that the elite and old moneyed families of Bombay call their neighbourhood. And everyone there, except a retired newspaper editor, agreed with her. On the contrary, the editor argued, if Muslims had become criminals in Bombay it was because, as a minority, they had been denied access to education and jobs, and had suffered persecution by Hindus who ran the municipality. He was shouted down.

There were many ironies in the setting. There was peace in south Bombay, but large areas of the city were under curfew or cut off by Hindu militants, who stoned or set fire to any vehicle that moved. They were protesting against the arrest of Hindu political leaders in New Delhi, accused of inciting the mob that pulled apart a small 16th-century mosque built by the Emperor Babar, the first Mogul ruler, in Ayodhya, north India, last Sunday. Hindu fundamentalists say it was built on the site of a Hindu temple, which Babar destroyed, on top of the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama.

The hostess's family had made its fortune from sisal in East Africa before the Second World War. They had returned to India in the Fifties, so you could call them immigrants if you wanted to stretch a point, as you could call settlers the Indians who went to Pakistan. The house, a large, beautiful and chaotic sea-front mansion, had been home to a rich Muslim family that fled to Pakistan in 1947.

Most of the guests were Sikhs, that other religious minority which has suffered the lethal rage of the mob in post-independence India. One was an airline pilot, another had changed his name, cut his hair and put away his turban and iron bangle, to help him with his fledgling career in the movies. Many of the women were Hindus. One was the wife of a prominent civil servant in New Delhi. The others were 'career women', young professionals with managerial posts in banks. One said she had recently returned from an American university with a degree in business administration.

She was the first to show me the talisman she wore around her neck. It was the Sanskrit symbol for Omh - 'the sound of a thousand meanings' for the peace and inner consciousness each Hindu seeks. She said she started wearing it when she returned from the US and began to 'discover my roots'. Immediately, another woman removed a gold ring to show me an Omh symbol highlighted in diamonds on the inside. She, too, had only recently begun to wear it. Hindus, this woman said, had appeased India's minority communities for too long, especially the 'Mozzies'. She could have been swatting an insect, but she was talking about India's nearly 120 million Muslims. 'You know,' they told me, 'that there has been a Hindu renewal among the middle and upper classes.'

DOWN among the lower classes at Kerwadi, a Maharashtra state government housing estate on marshes beside a stinking canal, 12 miles away in the suburbs of north Bombay, 40,000 people live in 4,500 rooms. At the entrance to one tenement, a concrete plinth is painted with the words: 'Say it with pride - we are Hindu.' This is the headquarters of the local branch of Shiv Sena, a militant Hindu organisation that began life 30 or so years ago as a ruthless Maharashtra nationalist 'army' opposed to immigrants from other Indian states. Founded by a newspaper cartoonist called Bal Thackeray, Shiv Sena controls most of Bombay, and especially its workforce. Its sympathisers spread deep into the police force, who are held responsible for the shoot-to-kill policy that caused the death of so many Muslim protesters. Fewer than half a dozen of the dead were victims of stab wounds, the usual cause of death in communal conflicts in India.

Ashok Shinde, 35, is the Shiv Sena boss of Kerwadi. In his room, beneath a photograph of the Shiv Sena founder, Mr Shinde said the organisation was not against Muslims, only those who supported Pakistan and foreign ideologies.

Muslims who had stayed at partition, he went on, repeating the party line, were never able to accept that they were Indian. For example, they always cheered Pakistan when its cricket teams toured India.

He could not help it, he said, if Muslims had a mind-set that made them anti-Indian. They just did not behave as Indians. Were they foreign then? 'Well, er, um . . . perhaps.'

A short walk across the bridge over the canal and you enter Bharatnagar, an area officials call a 'slum pocket', or a 'hutment locality'. It is a small town of closely packed tin, cardboard, cloth and wooden dwellings that is home to 50,000 Muslims. They have to pass through Mr Shinde's tenements to the outside world.

When news reached them of the destruction at Ayodhya, they started throwing stones at a police post by the canal and set fire to a bus. They did not attack the Hindus on the other side; their anger was against the authorities, who had failed to stop the temple being destroyed. Police said they shot dead three in self-defence.

On Tuesday, the second day of trouble, the Muslims attacked the police again and built barricades to keep police reinforcements out of their slums. Ten Muslims were shot dead that day. On Wednesday an uneasy calm settled on Bharatnagar.

It was a scene repeated in other Bombay slums. Where the two communities live cheek by jowl, firebombs were thrown by both sides. This was blamed on 'anti- social elements', young unemployed Muslim and Hindu extremists. But mainly the conflict was between Muslims and the police: the latter said they had to kill to save themselves; the Muslims were stunned that they were fired on, when police merely looked on as frenzied Hindu zealots tore apart the mosque at Ayodhya.

OLD-STYLE Muslim politicians who hitched their future at independence to the secular nation of Jawaharlal Nehru are shocked by the latest developments. Rafiq Zakaria, lawyer, journalist, former Maharashtra state politician, former MP and deputy leader of the Congress Party under Indira Gandhi, sees a very gloomy future indeed.

Secularism, for one thing, was dead, he said. Congress (I) had forsaken its principles and could no longer be trusted. It had taken no action to stop the assault on the mosque, and had pandered to Hindu sentiment for its political survival. No political party, he declared, was prepared to defend the Muslims.

Mr Zakaria said that since the mid-Eighties there had been a change of attitude towards Muslims, which he blamed on the rise of the Hindu communal parties and the hugely popular television serialisations of the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Muslims in India today, he said, were not just blamed for splitting the sub-continent, but were also held responsible for 500 years of Hindu subjugation under Islamic rulers - even though their rule effectively ended in the 18th century. 'There is a deep-seated antipathy against the Muslims and we are seeing a new spirit of revenge. The divide between the two communities is sharper. It used to touch only the lower classes, but it now includes the educated classes,' he said.

The intolerance towards Muslims you find in some drawing- rooms of south Bombay is dismissed by Murli Deora, the Congress MP who represents that part of the city. Mr Deora, a Hindu, treads a careful path between the two communities. You cannot pin him down on anything. True, the police had opened fire, but there were communal riots. The past week had been the saddest in the city's history, he said, but the government was doing a splendid job getting Bombay back to normal and helping people to manage their lives.

It is this political fence-sitting and the central government's failure to stop the destruction of the mosque after weeks of advance warning, that make the average Indian Muslim in Bombay feel aggrieved and abandoned. That incident and last week's reaction were a turning-point in the way Muslims see their position in India. Their questions are: where will the takeover of Muslim holy places end; can we ever feel secure now; if we protest, will the police simply shoot us?

They do not like the Congress Party, which had promised to protect them, but where should they turn? Some community leaders will say privately that they fear the young may find the answer in terrorism, which could make the whole community a hostage to violence. But they rule out the formation of a Muslim political party to counter the Hindus' Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose chauvinism was behind the sacking of the mosque, on grounds that India's Muslims are not a homogenous community.

Akram Takamlay, a trustee of Bombay's Jamma Mosque, the city's biggest, said that despite rallying to protest against the latest outrage to their faith, Muslims were too divided to form a political party, nor did they have a leader of stature. Like it or not, they would probably stay with Congress. The alternatives were worse.

There were more than 30,000 men at midday prayers on Friday at Jamma Mosque. It is near Mohammed Ali Road, where the first protests and shooting happened late last Sunday. The Imam, Maulana Shaukat Ali Nazir, the religious leader of Bombay's 1.5 million Muslims, appealed for peace in his sermons. He said Indians were from every community: Muslims, Parsees, Christians, Sikhs and Hindus. Indians, he went on, must never forget that. But many of them, of all social classes, already have.

Lord Rama profile, page 25

(Photograph omitted)

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