NEW DELHI — INDIAN troops successfully suppressed an antigovernment rally yesterday by a pro-Hindu opposition party that threatened chaos and sectarian clashes in the capital.
But to stop the rally, the government resorted to mass detentions and virtually sealed off the center of New Delhi along with areas dominated by Muslims. So while the confrontation ended in relative peace, the spectacle of a besieged capital city seemed yet another indication of India's slide into acute political instability.
The rally was called by the Indian People's or Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was responsible for the demolition of a 16th-century mosque in northern India last December. That confrontation led to week-long sectarian clashes throughout India that claimed 1,200 lives and to anti-Muslim riots in Bombay and two other cities in January that left about 700 more people dead.
The BJP called the rally to make three demands: the resignation of the government of Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of the demolished mosque, and the legalization of three far-right Hindu groups outlawed after the mosque's destruction. The government banned the rally and announced this week that 300,000 BJP supporters had traveled to New Delhi to take part.
After sealing off Muslim neighborhoods and the center of the city, the government sent 75,000 police, and Army troops yesterday morning to head off BJP supporters. Using water cannons, tear gas, and baton charges, the troops prevented the ralliers from leaving their neighborhoods and also detained three top leaders of the BJP, including former president Lal Krishna Advani, and the party's chief orator, Atal Behari Vajpayee.
The party's current president, Murli Manohar Joshi, was injured by water cannons and hospitalized. About 25,000 BJP supporters were rounded up in buses and temporarily interned in stadiums.
The purpose of the rally was to put pressure on Mr. Rao's government, which has a minority in Parliament and stays in power with the coalition support of other parties. Since December the BJP has seemed confident that it would perform well if a general election were held soon, and could gain power.
The destruction of the mosque and the subsequent riots have greatly weakened Rao's support and caused many Indians to question the viability of his Congress Party, which has ruled India in various forms for 41 years. One of the BJP's main charges is that the Congress has abandoned a truly secular stance, a critique many Indians support.
The BJP's own ideology is intentionally vague, promising a more just form of secularism along with a recognition that India is essentially a country for its Hindu majority, which comprises 82 percent of a population of 875 million.
The BJP rally was also designed to show that the party can control the country's capital at will.
The government foiled that intention and showed a peacekeeping resolve that it lacked during disturbances in Ayodhya, the site of the temple, and Bombay, the country's financial capital. Nevertheless, New Delhi remains one of the BJP's strongest areas of support.
The suppression of the rally gave rise to some scenes unprecedented in modern Indian history. The capital had to be fortified against members of the second-largest party in a Westminster-modeled democracy. Thousands of men in riot gear were called out to restrain mobs pouring from the middle-class dwellings of the country's majority. Rocks and bricks were hurled at the soldiers, along with angry jeers. "Go to Pakistan," shouted one protester at police and troops armed with batons and tear-gas guns.
"The suppression of the rally makes the BJP appear larger than life - I think it has won the battle more than half," says Parimal Kumar Das, a political scientist at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. "The suppression of your own people is an index not of strength but [of] nervousness and weakness in a democracy."