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Bombs fail to incite as Indian imams urge calm

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 14, 2006


The smell of explosives was still lingering in the air when the discussion began. Malegaon's streets had just been seared by three bombs that killed at least 30 people, and as the crowds began to seethe with anger, the city's most revered Muslim leaders gathered to decide what to do.

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There was little question about the purpose of last week's attack: Malegaon is one of India's few Muslim-majority cities, and the bombs were planted near a mosque on a holy day when thousands of worshipers would come to pray.

Yet even before police arrived, the imams had made a choice. They used the loudspeakers of their mosques to spread a blanket of audible calm over the frayed city, imploring patience and forbearance. And for the second time in two months, a bombing apparently designed to ignite Hindu-Muslim riots failed.

For a nation whose past has lurched from one riot to another, the response to this summer's bombings in Malegaon and Mumbai (Bombay) is no small shift, suggesting that – at least for the moment – the forces of calm are eclipsing those that would sow chaos.

The balance is a tenuous one at best, and experts do not suggest that India has put its violent past behind it. Even Wednesday, police found an unexploded bomb in Malegaon, though it was not yet clear whether the device was new or had simply failed to go off in the initial attack. But some say that an array of factors – from imams voicing reason in Malegaon to a less divisive political discourse nationwide – has helped India break its cycle of revenge violence in recent years.

"With all these things, the timing has to be right," says Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. For anger to kindle into a riot, he adds, "all the pieces have to fit."

Those pieces have not fallen into place since the Gujarat riots of 2002, when more than 1,000 Muslims were killed in response to an attack on a trainload of Hindu religious campaigners. The nationwide revulsion at the atrocities committed there has partly laid the groundwork for today's more inclusive political tone, some say.

An improved political climate

Though the extremist elements of the Hindu right are still a potent force in India, "the political climate is much more conducive to tolerance," says Teesta Setalvad, editor of the magazine Communalism Combat.

In the past year alone, terrorists aiming to weaken and divide India have bombed a Hindu temple in Varanasi and preparations for a Hindu festival in New Delhi. The lack of riots points to the fact that, for the time being, the political calculus has changed.

"As much as people like to make out that riots are spontaneous, they are rarely spontaneous," says Ms. Setalvad, agreeing with several other experts. "The parties responsible for hatemongering are on a downward slide."

Riots throughout Indian history

In the past, riots have been common enough to become waymarks of Indian history. The birth of India in 1947 brought its separation from Pakistan – and the related riots that killed at least 2 million Indians and Pakistanis. After former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984, more than 3,000 Sikhs were killed in Delhi alone, according to a government inquiry.