Indian government struggles to maintain order

Continuing riots test Hindu-led coalition's credibility.

As the fiery communal riots in the Indian state of Gujarat shift from the cities to the villages, the Hindu-led central government has begun to assess the damage to India's image and its own ability to govern.

The death toll thus far is more than 400, including the 58 who perished in the town of Godhra on Jan. 27, when a Muslim mob set fire to a train carrying more than 1,000 Hindu activists. But it could rise even higher, as Hindu activists seek revenge in Muslim shops, neighborhoods, or towns.

Cracks are appearing in the coalition government led by the Hindu-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has governed India since 1998. While the BJP was elected primarily for its fiscal restraint, it has also given substantial support to radical Hindu causes.

In the end, it is this social agenda that poses the greatest threat to the BJP's continued rule and moral authority.

"They have a movement of fringe ideologues who support the BJP the way the Christian right supports the Republicans in the US," says Ashish Nandy, political analyst at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. "Personally, I suspect now the ideological conservatives of the Hindu right will try to calm things down. They know that if the regime falls, their situation will be much worse."

Figuring out how to put out the flames of Gujarat would challenge even a strong and stable government, let alone one as precarious as the current BJP coalition. The BJP was weakened by last month's state elections, making it even more reliant on its more secular coalition partners. Those partners are pushing the BJP leadership to give up its Hindu social agenda, or else lose their support.

"Our political parties do nothing beyond struggling for power," said Defense Minister George Fernandes to reporters while touring the riot-stricken city of Ahmadabad in Gujarat this weekend. Mr. Fernandes belongs to another coalition party, the Samata Party. "There is no civic leadership. There are no tall men around."

No parties have talked openly of withdrawing from the governing coalition, but privately, they have told Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee that their continued support depends on his ability to rein in the Hindu right.

In Ahmadabad, after nearly 24 hours delay, the police now seem to be bringing the rioters under control. But it is clear the wounds of communalism will take years to heal. In the commercial and political capital of Gujarat, Hindu fanatics carrying tridents and kerosene razed more than 26 mosques, and then performed "purification" rites over the rubble, leaving behind statues of the monkey god Hanuman.

Some observers say the state government, led by Gujarat chief minister and BJP member Narendra Modi, was deliberately slow in coming to the aid of embattled minorities. Many locals say that the police looked the other way as Hindu-led mobs burned and looted Muslim shops and properties. Some witnesses say police did a little looting themselves.

"It's hard to imagine that such a government wasn't aware of all the buildup to this tension," says Mushirul Hasan, a professor of history at Jamia Millia University in New Delhi. "In every case, since the train attack, Muslims have been killed, Muslim property has been identified, targeted, looted, and ransacked. Why did they allow this to happen?"

For his part, Chief Minister Modi has steadfastly refused to condemn the Hindu rioters. While Prime Minister Vajpayee told the nation in a televised address, "Whatever the provocation, people should maintain peace and exercise restraint," Mr. Modi has taken to quoting Newton's law of physics.

"Every action has an equal and opposite reaction," Modi told reporters. "The five crore (50 million) people of Gujarat have shown remarkable restraint under grave provocation."

The roots of this conflict in Gujarat stretch almost 1,000 miles to the central Indian town of Ayodhya, where Hindu mobs destroyed a 500-year-old Muslim mosque in 1992. Muslims say the mosque is their property, and was built by the Moghul conqueror Babur the Great. Hindus say the same site was the birthplace of their god Rama.

Top BJP leaders, including current Home Minister L.K. Advani and Education Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, urged thousands of orthodox Hindus to converge on Ayodhya in 1992 to push for the handover of the Babri Mosque property to Hindus. The mob ultimately tore down the mosque, an act that set off riots nationwide that claimed more than 2,000 lives.

In the halls of parliament, many BJP members blamed the opposition for the violence and groused about the pressure from their top leaders to back off from the Ayodhya issue.

"The opposition failed to condemn the attacks effectively. [The train bombing] has naturally hurt the Hindus in the state and was quite natural for them to take revenge on those who killed many of their innocent brothers...." says Jayaben Thakkur, a BJP lawmaker from Gujarat. "They could not tolerate their brothers and sisters being burnt alive."

As recently as December 2000, Vajpayee himself defended the Ram Janmabhoomi (Rama birthplace) movement, saying, "The construction of Ram temple at Ayodhya is an expression of national sentiment that remains unrealized."

With the Ayodhya temple-mosque dispute awaiting a ruling from the nation's Supreme Court, Hindu stone masons are nearly finished carving the hundreds of sandstone columns that would be used to build a new Ram temple at the disputed site. Leaders of a Hindu movement called the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Congress, had originally given the government a March 15 deadline to resolve the dispute before they would begin to assemble the temple, with or without permission. Under pressure from the government, the VHP is now considering a delay in that deadline.

Yet while some critics say the BJP is using the current turmoil in a last gasp to win support from their hardest-core activists, other observers say that the temple movement is likely to wane.

"Jaswant Singh (the foreign minister) has been telling his party members, 'You cannot make the same soufflé rise twice,'" says Mr. Nandy. "The BJP is after power, they're not after a temple."

As for the long term, Mr. Nandy says, "I'm afraid it doesn't look good. The atmosphere is vitiated now. It is just waiting for someone to cast the next spark, and it will burst into flames again. There will be small riots off and on."

• Freelance reporter Liz Mathew contributed to this report from New Delhi.

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