Police arrest right-wing Hindu leaders

INDIA'S crisis, after two days of frenzied riots by Hindus and Muslims, deepened yesterday as police arrested the former opposition leader, Lal Krishna Advani, and other Hindu politicians for instigating the destruction of a disputed mosque by a mob of Hindu zealots.

In Ayodhya before dawn yesterday, 600 police commandos, armed with clubs and tear-gas, slipped through the lanes of this northern town of temples and Hindu shrines and recaptured the razed mosque. After using a barrage of tear-gas to dislodge more than 2,000 Hindu zealots guarding the ruins, the police, who are mainly Hindus, removed their shoes and offered a quick prayer in front of two idols to Lord Ram that had been placed inside the mosque. Many Hindus believe Ram was born at this spot thousands of years ago. After the police's prayer, 34,000 paramilitary reinforcements arrived and chased out more than 100,000 Hindu militants and holy men who had taken possession of Ayodhya four days ago.

Mr Advani was arrested along with a co-leader of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Murli Manohar Joshi, on charges of spreading sectarian unrest and disturbing the peace. Later police arrested three Hindu extremist politicians, Ashok Singhal and Vishnu Hari Dalmia of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and Vinay Katiyar, chief of the Balrang Dal.

Mr Advani described his arrest as a 'suicidal step' by the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, and warned it could provoke more trouble. He said the government's decision to rebuild the controversial mosque - originally erected by the first Moghul invader, Babar, in the 16th century - was 'a most provocative, myopic and repressive step'. More than 40 Muslim leaders were arrested in Delhi after trying to march from the city's largest mosque, the Jama Masjid, to the Prime Minister's residence and released several hours later.

Curfews enforced by the army and paramilitary forces in 10 states failed to halt religious strife, as the death toll rose to more than 460 after two days of rioting. Worst hit were the states of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Bombay was wracked by violence in which 102 people died. Most Bombay deaths occurred when police fired wildly into Muslim crowds enraged by the mosque's destruction.

Thousands of British tourists were caught in Indian cities hit by riots, but the British High Commission in New Delhi said there were no injuries. The Foreign Office has issued travel warnings for most of northern India. In the neighbouring Islamic countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh, general strikes were called and mobs destroyed several Hindu temples in retaliation for the events in India. Several homes of Indian diplomats in Karachi were attacked.

In India, a nationwide strike by the left-wing opposition parties in protest against the Hindu fundamentalists' actions in Ayodhya disrupted government services, public transport and businesses throughout the country. The ruling Congress party also backed the strike. Today BJP supporters are staging a national counter-strike to demand the release of Hindu political leaders. The Prime Minister was supposed to explain to the Indian parliament yesterday why government security forces failed to prevent the Hindu assault on the Ayodhya mosque. But, for the second day running, parliament broke up after angry MPs from all parties stormed on to the floor. The Hindu politicians chanted 'Long Live Ram' while the others howled insults. Several left-wing parties, with tacit support from dissidents within the ruling Congress party, are expected to move a motion of censure against Mr Rao for bungling the Ayodhya crisis. If the motion passes, Mr Rao, 72, might be forced to resign.

New elections would jeopardise the sweeping economic reforms undertaken by Mr Rao, ending over 40 years of state-directed socialism. Most Indians accept Mr Rao's changes, but the BJP, with its brand of religious nationalism, appeals to an increasing number of Hindus. Many Hindus perceive a danger in Islamic fundamentalism, and want to stop it from sweeping into India, which has 120 million Muslims. Since independence, the other, 'secular', Indian parties have unashamedly wooed the Muslims since their solid vote block could swing elections. This pandering to the minority Muslims angered many Hindus.

But the rise of Hindu fundamentalism has deeper roots. A freeze-frame of India today would show a nation wracked by the same changes that gave birth to fascism in the Europe of the 1930s. Indians are shifting from an agrarian life to the cities. The complex caste system, which has governed Hindu life for a millennium, is being overturned. As Prem Shankar Jha, an economist and writer, explained: 'Indians are trying to redefine themselves in this new capitalistic milieu, and they are doing so by rediscovering their religion in a reactionary way.' The Ayodhya conflict is a symbol of this: Hindus trying to unearth the grand, and perhaps mythical, kingdom of Lord Ram, buried under the centuries-old strata of Muslim rule in India.

(Photograph omitted)

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