New Delhi — The Hindu-Muslim riots that shook the Bombay area this week are rooted in centuries of religious strife, compounded by new fundamentalist revival movements, despair, and social-economic unrest.
At least 193 people have died in the week-long violence which broke out in Maharahstra State last Thursday. It began when a Muslim state legislator from the ruling Congress Party draped a garland of leather sandals, or ''chappals,'' around the portrait of a militant leader of a Hindu fundamentalist sect who had been quoted earlier as having made offensive remarks about the Muslim prophet Muhammad and the Koran in particular.
Draping Bal Thackeray's picture with sandals, in a society where shoes are removed before entering a household as a sign of respect, was considered a most damaging offense. Two days later, in the loomtown of Bhiwandi, Hindu mobs burned 27 Muslims to death.
Since then over 6,000 impoverished now are homeless, 620 people have been injured, and nearly 3,400 are under arrest. And neither the deployment of the some 5,000 troops, a curfew, or a visit by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi have stopped the communal bloodshed yet.
Bombay, India's richest city, was once ''everyman's'' city, a beacon of glitter and hope. Today at least 600 new arrivals flock to the city each day, mostly impoverished, mostly unskilled. Half of the population of 9 million now live in officially designated slums. Over 1 million people live on the sidewalks , under glittering billboards of the city's film stars.
The tinder is thus dry and explosive. The state government has shown itself largely inept in dealing with communal crimes, and, as so often happens in India , religious processions in 110 degree heat, have proved a volatile combination often resulting in random violence.
There is a pattern according to officials monitoring the trend, and what is happening in Maharahstra - the state's worst communal outbreak since partition 37 years ago - is only part and parcel of a rising curve of communal violence throughout India.
According to a recent Home Ministry report, it could affect almost all urban areas where the population of Hindus and Muslims is roughly the same. And it happened increasingly, in 1983, from Hyderabad to Moradabad, Aligah to Bhiwandi, Meerut to Male-gaon. Outbreaks are lasting longer, according to the ministry's report. There have been more casualties in each incident, and, with the spread of communications,
the violence has swept from the cities to the countryside. The report does not include last year's carnage in Assam, where 3,000 Hindus, Muslims, and tribals died.
For a generation, India's Muslim population remained quiescent, economically and politically. (Some 30 million to 40 million stayed behind in 1947 when the subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan). Their leaders and their middle class had left India and gone to Pakistan. They were, says one official ''too poor to travel when the big boys left.''
Now there is a new generation, beginning to exert itself. They are too young to remember partition, are better educated than their parents, and have risen on the socio-economic scale. They have begun to revive a sense of Muslim identity, underwritten by vast remittances that their temporary workers have sent home from the Gulf. Today their numbers have swollen to almost 80 million, and Hindu fundamentalists view them increasingly as a political and economic threat.