Indian Muslims braced for more confrontations

THE GANGES, the sacred river of Hindus, has lately gained a reputation as a swallower of kites. Up on the ramparts of an ancient palace in Benares at dusk a gang of boys duelled with kites, high above the river. With movements like semaphore, one boy manoeuvred his kite so that its string, coated with glass powder, knifed through his foe's line. The turquoise kite flopped in slow, dying circles towards the river.

In ordinary times, other boys would be waiting on the riverbank with boats. They would row madly into the Ganges and catch the downed kite before its paper wings, thin as a butterfly's, melted into the grey-green currents. But these are not ordinary times in Benares. This holy city was under curfew for more than 15 days last month because authorities fear that Benares could become the next flashpoint in India's communal fighting between Hindus and Muslims. Flying kites was one of the few freedoms allowed during curfew. But since the boys were confined to their rooftop, the kite, like hundreds of others lost during the curfew, sank in the river.

Hinduism runs deep in Benares, and it is here that zealots intend to fight their next battle with Indian Muslims. Hindu extremists want to demolish a mosque, Gyan Vyapi, in the heart of Benares, as they have already done to a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya. But the destruction of the Benares mosque, warn Muslims and some secular politicians, could set off a virtual civil war between the country's 600 million Hindus and its 120 million Muslims, who feel increasingly persecuted.

Hinduism has a deserved reputation for tolerance. It does not seek converts. It has no founder, and it does not rely on a single holy book such as the Bible or Koran. Like the Ganges, Hinduism is wide enough to contain many streams of thought and practice. And in 2,500-year-old Benares, you see the entire panorama of Hindu philosophy laid out in the temples and shrines lining the rivers. There are abstracted ascetics in white robes who chant Vedic texts ceaselessly. Downriver, you encounter the tantric sorcerers known as the Aghora - the fearless ones. At midnight, these sorcerers shoulder their way through the knot of men warming themselves beside the blazing funeral pyres to collect drippings of human fat for occult ceremonies. Hinduism encompasses it all.

But that tolerance is being discarded by many Indians who are using Hinduism as a force for reactionary nationalism. Their main adversaries are the Muslims, who ruled India before the British Raj. Having destroyed the Ayodhya mosque, these Hindu extremists now want to tear down the Gyan Vyapi mosque in Benares and another in Mathura. In both places the Moghuls 200 years ago destroyed temples and built mosques in the ruins. But many Muslims consider this historical revenge to be an excuse for an assault on their faith and their status as equal Indian citizens. The imam of Gyan Vyapi, Mulana Wasit, said: 'If anything happens to the mosque, this country will slide downhill rapidly.'

H N Triparti, a political scientist at Benares Hindu University, said: 'Since independence, Indian governments have lost their ideological sentiment. Political parties have become nothing more than machines for fighting elections. Today, these extremists are succeeding because they have managed to sell themselves as upholders of the true Hindu ethos.' He added glumly: 'Most students are enthusiastic about Ayodhya - they want to see the Hindus establish a psychological superiority over the Muslims.'

After Ayodhya, police put up wooden barricades around the Gyan Vyapi, and 25,000 Muslims showed up for prayer, about 10 times the usual number of faithful. The next day, rallied by right-wing Hindu leaders, more than 200,000 Hindus thronged Benares's narrow lanes, known as 'the gulleys', to visit the Vishwanath temple next to the mosque.

This show of force was not lost on the city's Muslims, who have begun sealing off their neighbourhoods with fencing and digging tunnels, as well as stockpiling arms and food for a lengthy siege. One third of Benares's 3 million inhabitants are Muslims, mainly silk- and carpet-weavers. Although many Hindu priests have publicly opposed wrecking Gyan Vyapi, the authorities claim that the mosque is vulnerable to a mob attack similar to what happened on 6 December in Ayodhya. The city's Muslims, backed against the wall, feel they have little choice but to fight. 'The time of your death is written,' said Mulana Wasit. 'You can't change when it comes.'

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