Indian police beat leader of Hindu zealots

INDIAN POLICE fired water cannons and tear-gas and used clubs to break up an anti-government rally in Delhi yesterday by throngs of Hindu militants. Government officials had banned the rally, claiming that it might inflame discontent between Hindus and Muslims around the country, and thousands of arrests were made yesterday to avert any religious unrest.

More than 500 supporters of the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were injured in skirmishes yesterday with the 70,000 security forces who had sealed off the centre of Delhi.

Among the injured was Murli Manohar Joshi, 63, the party's president. Just as Mr Joshi finished declaring that the state's repression was far worse than the British Raj's he was sprayed at close range by a water-cannon. Then he was tear-gassed. Choking, he fell under a stampede of police who charged MPs in his contingent with bamboo staves. Hospital sources said his condition was 'serious but stable'.

Lal Krishna Advani, the BJP's parliamentary leader, accused the police of using 'unprecedented atrocities' to disperse the Hindu militants. But despite Mr Advani's criticism, Delhi police reacted with untypical restraint: they did not shoot anyone. Mr Advani, along with Atal Behari Vajpayee and other senior BJP politicians, was among the 4,000 arrested in Delhi. Police are expected to release them today.

The rally was a bare-knuckle test of strength between the Congress government of the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, and Hindu revivalists who staged the rally in an attempt to topple him. In that attempt the BJP failed. The Prime Minister is sitting more comfortably than he was 24 hours ago, when it seemed that even after arresting more than 100,000 zealots around the country the Hindu saffron brigade were still pouring into Delhi.

It is the 'marriage season', and many Hindu militants argued their way past police checks on roads and in trains by showing bogus wedding invitations. Out of all the hordes of Hindu zealots who set out for Delhi only one un- named youth managed to hurdle the barbed-wire barricades and sprint to the rally site before he was grabbed by police.

Although a police spokesman said that by nightfall control was restored in Delhi with 'minimal use of force', it was the BJP that enforced order and discipline among the protesters. The BJP cadres, backed by members of the RSS, a neo-fascist Hindu cultural organisation, kept the protesters from attacking the city's Muslim neighbourhoods.

Even when police hit demonstrators with bamboo staves and fired tear-gas into the narrow lanes where knots of Hindu militants shouted 'Lord Ram] Lord Ram]' the protesters refrained from attacking the police. One retired bureaucrat and BJP supporter, S K Bagga, said: 'I told the police to arrest me. They said we can't, all the jails - even the football stadiums - are full. There's no room.'

The bureaucrat was lucky. Bored by the Gandhi-like tactics of the demonstrators, the police near the New Delhi Railway Station obliged by hauling them away in city buses, but only for 200 yards. Then the Hindu militants were let out of the bus, one by one, and made to run a gauntlet of riot police swinging clubs. Yet there were odd moments of civility. A police officer beat an old man so hard he staggered and collapsed, shattering a pile of clay jugs. Then the policeman apologised and retrieved the old man's spectacles, lying among the clay shards.

Before his arrest, Mr Advani said: 'The rally was a success even before it started, and we can thank the government's over-reaction for that.' Once Mr Advani and 17 other arrested BJP MPs are released they will renew their attacks on Mr Rao's beleaguered government with an 'anti-repression day'. Hindu militants are planning a day of strikes and protest meetings, even though this will surely lead to more clashes. The Congress government has temporarily banned all political party rallies, even its own, in an effort to cool political and communal tensions.

The upsurge in Hindu revivalism, led by the BJP, has flummoxed the Congress party, which has traditionally been the most powerful in India. The BJP's brand of religious politics - with its implicit anti-Muslim sentiment - has been denounced by Congress and left-wing parties, since there are more than 120 million Muslims scattered throughout the country. One weapon used by secularists against the BJP may be as dangerous as religion, and that is caste.

The BJP draws its support from the upper-caste Brahmins, the clerks and the small shopkeepers, but it widened its appeal to many other Hindus by tearing down a disputed mosque in Ayodhya in December. Over the next few months, the Congress and left- wing parties may try to cleave the Hindu revivalists' support by shaking up the thousand-year-old caste hierarchy.

(Photograph omitted)