Hindu zealots are on the verge of fanning a religious civil war against India's 130 million Muslims. The world's largest democracy can hardly afford it.
The last time Hindu militants unleashed violence against Muslims was in 1992, when they tore down a mosque in Ayodhya to make way for a temple to the Hindu god Ram. Over 2,000 people were killed then. The attacks of last week, however, occurred while the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) holds power. (See story, page 7.)
The party's weak response to the killings - more than 500 so far - should awaken Indians to the danger of letting ardent advocates of one religion claim any authority over secular government.
Muslim-Hindu clashes, of course, are nothing new to India. The 1947 partition of the subcontinent into India and two Muslim states led to immense violence, later wars, and now a nuclear standoff between Pakistan and India.
But this latest violence, centered in the state of Gujarat, provides a warning that India's democracy still needs strong defenders against the nativist tendencies of the dominant religion. India need only look to Iran to see how a nation's progress can be held back by letting religious radicals rule.
Fortunately, democracy itself has a way of reducing communal tensions. Muslims have found respected places in India's government and other centers of power, while the BJP itself has been backpedaling on its pro-Hindu stance in order just to stay in power. Voters are demanding faster economic progress. Hindu-Muslim violence only weakens the nation's ability to win foreign investment.
How well the BJP stands up to Hindu radicals in coming days will set India's course for the near future.