Hindu-Muslim Violence Imperils India

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Youths with swords and sticks ride through the streets of Ahmadabad

A decade ago, Hindu-Muslim strife over the disputed holy site at Ayodhya helped propel India's current ruling party from the political margins to the corridors of power. Now that same strife threatens to topple the government of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Seventy people were killed in Gujarat province on Thursday, as Hindu mobs attacked Muslims and torched a mosque and other Islamic facilities. The violence came as retaliation for Wednesday's firebombing by Muslims of a train carrying Hindu activists returning from Ayodhya. Fifty-eight people, many of them women and children, died in that attack, fueling outrage that threatens to spark a new wave of communal bloodletting throughout India.

The military moved in late Thursday and imposed a curfew in 26 cities around Gujarat, but more trouble is on the way — Thursday's violence came during a state-wide general strike called by local Hindu nationalists; the strike call has been extended nationwide for Friday. Observers believe the only way for the authorities to avoid further bloodletting will be via firm action to prevent the organization of mobs.

Ayodhya is at the epicent of communal hostility stoked by Hindu nationalists in defiance of modern India's founding tradition of secular tolerance. In 1992, the city became the focus of the worst communal violence since India's partition 45 years earlier, when 2,000 people died in clashes after Hindu nationalists — including members of what is now the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — tore down the 16th century Babri mosque. Hindus claim the mosque had originally been built on the site of a temple marking the birthplace of the Hindu deity Lord Rama. Ever since then, the Hindu nationalist movement has been pushing to build a new Hindu temple where the mosque once stood.

The passions aroused by the temple movement helped propel the BJP into the political mainstream. In the first election following the Ayodhya violence, its parliamentary representation jumped from 2 seats to 86. Still, Vajpayee has to govern the world's biggest democracy, a self-consciously secular nation with some 150 million Muslim citizens, and as a result has always been careful to distance himself from the more extremist elements of Hindu nationalism. Today he rules by dint of a broad coalition of regional parties whose governing accord expressly precludes him from promoting the Ayodhya issue. Unless he's seen as coming down hard on any provocation over the temple issue, his coalition partners could bolt and remove him from power. And Vajpayee's international efforts to project the differences between secular, tolerant India and the more unstable and often extremist politics of neighboring Pakistan are challenged by the upsurge in communal violence.

After the train attack, Vajpayee lost no time in both condemning the violence and warning more extreme elements in the Hindu nationalist movement to call off plans to build a new temple over the ruins of the Babri mosque. Besides the obvious political concerns, India's courts have ruled any such construction illegal, and the prime minister has vowed to uphold the law.

But the more Vajpayee emphasizes moderation and restraint, the more he comes into conflict with much of his party's core support base. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an organization with close ties to his own party, openly rejected Vajpayee's exhortation to call off the temple construction plan and vowed to proceed on March 15. More than 15,000 Hindu activists have moved into Ayodhya for the job, and the site is now guarded by hundreds of Indian security personnel. The train massacre has only deepened the VHP's determination to force a confrontation on the temple issue. With communal tensions already past boiling point, Ayodhya threatens once again to spark nationwide bloodletting.

The Prime Minister's difficulties navigating the Ayodhya issue are compounded by recent setbacks at the polls — his party was badly beaten in three recent regional elections, including in the key state of Uttar Pradesh, which includes Ayodhya. Hindu nationalists charge that Vajpayee's moderation on the temple issue cost him the local election. Now, that issue has put him on a collision course with an activist core constituency of his own party. It may be easier, right now, for a government with Hindu nationalist credentials to crack down on extremists than for one with no connection to the movement. But whether or not India can avoid a new round of violence that challenges its very identity may now depend on the extent to which Vajpayee is prepared to stand up to the movement that helped carry him to power.

—With reporting by Meenakshi Ganguly/New Delhi