Why can't Hindus and Muslims get along together? It's a long story

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THE FIRST idea was to gather up some grains of the blasted, vitrified, radioactive sand from India's nuclear test site at Pokhran, cocoon them in a suitably pious-looking vessel, then cart them around the country for the faithful to worship and wonder at: radioactive sand, now on tour.

Then they had another think. The next idea they came up with was a Hindu temple to be erected on the same irradiated spot, in the furnace heat of the Rajasthan desert, "to provide an ocular reminder", as one of the boosters of the project put it in yesterday's Sunday Times of India, "of an event which established to the world that India could no longer be taken for granted".

Both of these projects may come to nothing. But they are a useful reminder that, while India's nuclear tests had military, scientific and political dimensions, they were also, in a particular sense, religious. And so were Pakistan's.

India's bomb was a Hindu bomb. Pakistan's bomb was a Muslim bomb. India's indigenous missiles are named Prithvi and Agni after Hindu kings. Pakistan's new long-range missile is named Ghauri, after an Islamic invader, one of many, who was the scourge of Hindus.

Religion, no less than in northern Ireland, is the area of contention in the Indian subcontinent, the mast to which the two sides nail their colours; and the long and frequently desperate history of the encounters of Hinduism and Islam is the inevitable backdrop to the ongoing nuclear hysteria in the region. A frightened and exasperated world is entitled to ask, what exactly is the problem here?

The two religions are, to begin with, about as different as two belief systems could be. Islam is monotheistic, proselytising, anti-idolatrous, fiercely doctrinal, with strong ideas about heresy. Hinduism is pantheistic, uninterested in converting unbelievers, an immense aggregation of different gods, rites, superstitions and beliefs.

There was never going to be a neat fit between the two. But radically different religions do not have to fight. Elsewhere in Asia, Buddhism has coexisted with shamanism and Shintoism. In the subcontinent, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism have rubbed along with indigenous practices for centuries.

But for nearly a millennium, Islam has been the religion and the badge of the subcontinent's invaders. A little more than a thousand years ago, Hinduism was attaining its apogee of artistic development in the wonderful temples of Khajuraho in present-day Madhya Pradesh, with their fabulous efflorescence of erotic sculpture.

A few years later, in 1000, the first wave of Muslim invasions began, when Mahmud of Ghazni swept down from Afghanistan into the Indus plains and plundered the Hindu temples of their vast wealth of jewellery, money and golden images.

It was too easy and too profitable, and he came back year after year for more. In 1024, greedy and emboldened, he marched as far as Somnath, on the west coast in what is now the state of Gujarat.

Somnath, it is said, possessed the richest and most magnificent Hindu temple in India, where every day 1,000 Brahmins worshipped the enormous lingam or phallus, emblem of the god Shiva, 13.5ft high and 4.5ft in circumference, while 300 men and women danced before it.

When they learned that Mahmud was heading their way, the Hindus persuaded themselves that Shiva had lured him to Somnath only to punish him, and they put up only feeble and unorganised resistance.

In the ensuing massacre, according to nationalist historians, 50,000 Hindus were killed and the temple was razed to the ground. The holy lingam was smashed and carried to Ghazni in fragments, which were embedded, with vicious symbolism, in the steps of the chief mosque.

A ritual of invasion, depredation and humiliation was under way. After Mahmud, there was no end to it: Muizzu'd Din in the 12th century, the Turkish "slave" dynasty and the Delhi Sultanate in the 13th, the Tughluqs in the 14th.

In 1398, Timur the Lame, known more familiarly to us as Tamberlaine, a devout Muslim, the "scourge of God", roared in from the north-west and laid north India to waste. In the space of six months he is believed to have been responsible for 5 million deaths.

And so it went on. When the Mughal Empire was founded in Delhi in 1526, Mughals, of course, being Muslims, too, the Mongol descendants of Timur and Ghengis Khan, Islamic looting and plundering had become as much a fact of north-Indian life as the sun going down.

The Emperor Akbar ushered in a long and remarkable Golden Age in the 16th century, marrying a Hindu princess and appointing Hindu ministers; but his successors, notably Aurangzeb (who became emperor 1658-1707), went back to the bad old ways.

By the time India came under the sway of the British, the endless invasions had left the subcontinent with an enormous population of converted Muslims alongside the Hindus.

Ethnically they were identical; their languages, Urdu (written in Arabic script) and Hindi were essentially one and the same. The mass of them were equally poor, and though their religious practices differed violently - Hindus revering the cows, for example, which Muslims liked to eat - they lived cheek by jowl in their congested cities.

"It was a multicultural coexistence rather than any merger into a single, composite culture," writes the Indian psychoanalyst and author Sudhir Kakur. "Hindus and Muslims lived together separately. They were more than strangers, not often enemies, but less than friends."

Since the bloody partition of India that produced the Islamic state of Pakistan, controversy has raged over the nature of this coexistence.

According to the secularists, who, in the name of the Congress Party, have ruled India for most of the past 50 years, centuries of cohabitation have resulted in the weaving together of the Hindu and Islamic strands of India's cultural heritage, to the point where they form a single cloth and cannot be separated without violence.

As the secularists see it, it is the solemn duty of India's rulers not to pander to "communal" sentiment - not to prefer one religion or one group of believers over another - because that is the way to destroy society's fabric.

The Hindu nationalists, in contrast, argue that it is Islam's intolerance and claim to exclusive truth that has led to the destruction, over and over again, of Hinduism's treasures and the defilement of its holy places, and that India's fundamental problem has been the failure of Hindus to stand up and fight.

That is what, through militant organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) they have been trying for the past century to rectify. The demolition of the Babri Masjid Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 was one way of doing that - the nationalists claimed the mosque had been built on the site of an important Hindu temple.

Now, at last, through the Hindu nationalist BJP, they are in control of India's destiny. With hindsight, it should have surprised no-one that almost the first thing they did once in power was to set off an atomic bomb. They have a millennium of Islamic wrongs to right.

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