India's Sectarian Strife Takes Highest Toll Among Poor

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IN a working-class neighborhood outside of London a few weeks ago, it was all there in microcosm: an Indian sweets shop where proprietors bustled around under the benediction of verses from the Koran; a travel agency, apparently run by Indians or perhaps Sri Lankans, decorated with Christmas bunting; and in the next store, a man in Sikh turban slicing fish.

A short walk away, a Hindu community association had converted an old teachers' training college into a temple. In the early morning hours of Dec. 8, two days after radical Hindus razed a mosque in north India, someone threw a fire bomb through a window of the temple. As always after a fire, the place was dank.

M. D. Patel, who runs the community association, warned me not to walk under the burned beams. But in the gray light he pointed out how the gilded stage, where an idol once stood of Hanuman, the monkey-faced god, the mover of mountains, was almost untouched by flame. Now Hanuman had been moved to be worshiped someplace else.

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He complained about people exporting India's strife. In the wake of the mosque demolition, carried out by members of India's looming Hindu nationalist movement, violence had spilled into Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as a few Indian enclaves in other parts of the globe.

What about India? I asked Mr. Patel, an East Londoner since 1972 and a British citizen.

"India needs time," he said.

A week later, in India, I came across a man who seemed to have very little time. He insisted that two reporters touring a part of New Delhi called People's Colony follow him. He spoke and walked quickly and kept turning around to make sure we were behind him.

Estimates vary on the number of people killed in this area, which lies across the Yamuna River from New Delhi, in the turmoil that gripped India after Dec. 6. Many people were burned out, because an arsonist's fire spreads quickly among cloth, plastic, and sometimes wood shanties.

In all of India, 1,200 people lost their lives after the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya, and half a dozen of them had lived in People's Colony.

But because the area is a slum colony, nobody was paying much attention. The people who died here immediately became statistics, and the causes of their deaths will probably go without investigation.

We got to the man's house, one of the few brick structures in the area. A curtain separated the lane from a tiny courtyard and we walked up banisterless stairs to the roof, where it was easy to imagine people sitting on string beds under the illusion of space afforded by the sky.

The shots had come from over there, the man said, pointing, and turned around to show us a chink where a bullet had hit a neighboring building. The roof had been washed, but there were still blood stains. A cousin or a brother or a friend of the man - I forgot to write down which - had been killed, and the man named a militant Hindu group he blamed for the shooting.

As we walked down the stairs, he made us promise to write about his loss.

Things are mostly quiet in India now; the Ayodhya crisis is in the hands of politicians - albeit in some cases sectarian ones - instead of sectarian mobs. There are new tensions and suspicions between Hindus and Muslims, but there are also plenty of people working to shore up India's attempt at a secular democracy.

But those who take a moderate line run a risk. Take Mushirul Hasan, a carefully spoken history professor. He also happens to be a Muslim suffering the anger of extremists - Muslim extremists. And the issue doesn't even concern Ayodhya.

In April he suggested that the Indian government rescind its ban against Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses," arguing that everyone has a right to be heard and read, and that book-banning is not democratic. Muslim students at the university where Professor Hasan is pro vice chancellor, Jamia Millia Islamia, demanded he resign his administrative post. They fasted and protested and threatened the teacher.

But he refused to comply and stayed home, under guard, to carry out his duties. Two days before the Ayodhya demolition, almost eight months after becoming India's surrogate for Mr. Rushdie, Hasan returned to campus. "Everybody thought that tempers had cooled," he recalled this week.

Instead he was stopped by 2,000 students. "They hit me very hard," he says. "I don't know how I escaped."

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