India is a big country, and it is usually big-hearted enough not to betray signs of being bothered by what we Delhi-based foreign correspondents write. So it was a rare event when, nearly a year ago, I was politely summoned to the office of Raminder Singh Jassal, then Chief Secretary for External Publicity in the Ministry of External Affairs, and given a sound ticking off.
The main complaint was that I had written at some length about Hindu-Muslim clashes that had broken out in several towns and cities across India following the Taliban's demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas.
The Indian officials didn't question the veracity of my report, but they made it plain that they regarded it as "unfriendly" of me to have written on the topic of communal disturbances at all. "Relations between majority and minority communities have been far better under this government than they were before," Mr Jassal told me. "So when there is some little incident, why focus on it?"
I expect no such call from the ministry this week. The deaths of at least 450, and probably more than 1,000, Gujaratis, nearly all Muslims, in four days of communal bestiality have exploded for ever the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) claim to have presided over an era of communal peace.
And now, riding the crest of that particular wave, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, or "World Hindu Council"), an extremist group within the same Hindu nationalist family as the BJP, is pressing ahead with its plans to begin construction of the long dreamed-of temple to the god Ram in Ayodhya, on the ruins of the mosque torn down by a mob of the same people in December 1992. These two events, the Gujarat bloodbath and the Ayodhya temple, are intimately connected. Taken together they throw into urgent focus the question: what sort of people are ruling the world's biggest democracy today? Where are they headed?
The first man on earth was an Indian, and a Hindu. Hinduism was the primeval religion, not just of India but of the world. There was no Aryan invasion of India, no enslavement of the southern Dravidians. Hindus were here from day one. Other people arrived on these shores, but eventually they bent the knee to Bharat Mata, Mother India, and were knitted into the Hindu fabric. Only the Muslims (and to a lesser extent the Christians) stood out. They smashed temples and erected mosques on the rubble, with sword and fire they tore millions of Hindus from the breast of Mother India and brought them forcibly over to Islam. It is the duty of patriotic Hindus to reverse that historic wrong.
That, reduced to its crude essentials, is the Hindu nationalist creed, and it helps to explain why the primary goal of the most powerful political party in this vast, impoverished country, with all its desperate problems, should be the construction of a temple in a squalid little town in Uttar Pradesh. Ayodhya, goes the mythology, is "Ramjanambhoomi", the birth place of Ram, an avatar of Vishnu. The Muslim invader Babur (and this, too, is myth) tore down the great temple that stood here and built the Babri Masjid mosque, demolished by the mob in 1992. "Hindu Rashtra", the true Hindu nation, cannot come into being until the temple is rebuilt.
The men who have been ruling India for nearly four years, including the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and his powerful second-in-command Lal Krishna Advani, the Home Minister, are true believers in this, India's exotic variety of neo-fascism. But the world at large has gradually lost sight of that fact. The nuclear tests conducted in May 1998, immediately after they came to power, gave due warning that they meant business. But the need to keep a squabbling and disparate coalition intact forced Ayodhya off the government's agenda. Mr Vajpayee's became the first Indian government to develop cordial relations with the US. Last September, India became a front-line ally in the war against terrorism.
But while India's stature grew abroad, at home Mr Vajpayee was often described by critics on the left as the "mask" of the BJP, the acceptable face of a neo-fascist movement that was only biding its time.
Mr Vajpayee, increasingly doddery at the age of 78, remains in place; but in the past week the party's mask has been ripped away. The war on terrorism and India's long military stand-off with Pakistan, which continues undiminished, have given a new licence to the Hindu nationalists. Muslim equals terrorist, they tell each other: we have it on American authority; we have 140 million terrorists in our midst. At the same time, recent BJP losses in state elections both in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh have given the hardliners a new urgency and and a new determination. Strike, they have been told, while the BJP still holds power. Strike to maintain and increase that power. Now is the moment for dramatic, decisive action.
Mr Vajpayee has fostered the illusion of being a truly national leader, but in Gujarat there is no such pretence: the BJP state government is starkly partisan. After the killing of 58 Hindus in a train last Wednesday, the event that ignited the violence, Gujarat's Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, quickly announced compensation of 200,000 rupees, about £3,000, to the bereaved families. Hundreds of Muslims have died since, but there is no word of compensation for them. Mr Modi endorsed the VHP's call for a strike last Friday, his official nod to the ensuing bloodbath. The police have stood idly by while the mob did its work; sometimes, victims allege, they actively led the violence.
The BJP rose to power, as fascists do, through violence and the threat of more: the Ayodhya demolition signalled its rapid rise from obscurity, the vision of a state where Hindus rule supreme continues to excite its ideologues. In this amazing but horrifyingly immature democracy, muscle power – and that includes the mass burning alive of women and children – can yield political power. The liberal, English-language papers here have tut-tutted in a worried way, but encouraging communal carnage has done Mr Modi's government no harm at all. With the parliamentary opposition still weak and divided, India has set off down a nightmare road.Reuse content