WORLD

Flames of intolerance

Religious violence ravages a nation

SCOTT STEELE December 21 1992
WORLD

Flames of intolerance

Religious violence ravages a nation

SCOTT STEELE December 21 1992

Flames of intolerance

INDIA

Religious violence ravages a nation

SCOTT STEELE

AJOY BOSE

Hindu astrologers had declared the exact date and time that the work should begin. On Dec. 6, at precisely 12:26 p.m., they divined, devout Hindus could start construction on a temple to their warrior god, Lord Ram, in the Indian city of Ayodhya, 500 km southeast of New Delhi. But the sages did not predict what was to follow. As 200,000 Hindu fundamentalists assembled in the holy city at the appointed hour around the Babri Masjid, a 464-year-old Moslem mosque they believe is built atop the ruins of a temple marking the birthplace of Ram, militants suddenly stormed the structure. Using hammers, pickaxes and their bare hands, they reduced the mosque to rubble within five hours. And as word of the vandalism spread throughout India, the flames of religious hatred swept through the world’s largest democracy, reducing it to near anarchy.

from two to 119 m the 545-seat parliament m the last eight years, becoming the official opposition.

Advani had assured the government that his followers would abide by an Indian Supreme Court injunction that barred militants from harming the mosque. But as the building lay in ruins last week, there were indications that Hindu politicians had actually encouraged the incident. The Independent newspaper of Bombay quoted MP Moreshwar Save of the fundamentalist Hindu Shiv Sena (Shiva’s Army) as saying 500 activists had trained for the attack for two weeks at a secret camp in the Chambal, a rugged region in central India. And photojournalist Praveen Jain said that the day before the destruction of the mosque he saw a group of Hindu militants rehearsing for the operation.

Widely criticized for failing to suppress the violence, Rao accused the Hindu opposition, led by Advani, of “extreme perfidy” in encouraging the attack on the mosque. And he ordered the arrest of six Hindu fundamentalist leaders, including Advani, on charges that they had incited the violence. Rao also pledged to ensure that the Ayodhya mosque is rebuilt. But Hindu leaders remained defiant. “This is a move to silence the voice of dissent,” Advani said of his arrest. “It will be suicidal for India.”

When parliament met to deal with the crisis, opposition MPs shouted down government members. The paralysed chamber finally adjourned, allowing MPs to travel to their home constituencies to try to stop the fighting. But the dramatic events at Ayodhya and its aftermath also raised uncertainty about Rao’s ability to carry out an ambitious economic liberalization program launched after he came to power last year. Some analysts predict that the instability is likely to derail attempts to restructure the economy, including measures to reform the financial system, deregulate industry and attract foreign investment.

The violence demonstrated the fragility of relations between

India’s religious communities.

And it was a timely reminder of the words of Mahatma Gandhi, the spiritual founder of modem India and a strong proponent of peaceful coexistence between Moslems and Hindus. “Nonviolence is not a garment to be put on and off at will,” Gandhi wrote before his assassination by a Hindu fanatic in 1948. “Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our very being.” That lesson was lost last week as the flames of intolerance engulfed the subcontinent.

Hindus and Moslems, armed with crude weapons from iron rods to acid-filled light bulbs, attacked each other in a wave of religious violence rarely seen since the partition of the subcontinent by the British into Islamic Pakistan and predominantly Hindu India in 1947. By week’s end, the death toll exceeded 1,000, with thousands injured. The Ayodhya mosque has been at the centre of religious battles before: more than 2,000 people had already been killed in violence related to that dispute in the last three years, and two governments collapsed as a consequence. But last week’s razing of the mosque, long advocated by extremist Hindus, plunged India into one of the worst crises in its 45-year history. As violence spread to almost all of the country’s 25 states, shops and houses burned to the ground and charred and mutilated bodies piled up in streets. The government deployed tens of thousands of security forces with shootto-kill orders, but they were unable to stop the nationwide carnage. Meanwhile, the sectarian violence, condemned by national leaders worldwide, spilled across India’s borders into neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh and even as far as Britain.

Moslems and moderate Hindus openly worried that Hindu fundamentalists, who have

made impressive electoral gains in recent years, had undermined the country’s stability. The savagery clearly left Indian Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, whose Congress party commands only a slim working majority in the Lok Sabha, or lower house of parliament, fighting for its political survival. In an address to the nation after the mosque’s demolition, Rao spoke of “the grave threat” that the violence posed to India’s constitution, which

guarantees a separation of religion and state.

But in recent years, fundamentalist Hindu politicians have challenged that secularism and advocated the creation of a Hindu state called Ram Rajya, or the Empire of Ram. Members of one political organization in particular, the Bharatiya Janata, or Indian People’s Party, led by Lai Krishan Advani, argue that Hindus have become second-class citizens even though they make up 82 per cent of the nation’s 880 million people. Claiming that successive Congress party governments have pandered to the country’s 100 million Moslems, Advani’s party rallied Hindu support and increased its members

SCOTT STEELE with AJOY BOSE in New Delhi