NEW DELHI — 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.
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.
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."
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.
More recently, Mumbai descended into riots in 1992 after the destruction of a Muslim mosque. In 1993, bombs rocked the city, killing 257 people, in an attack that some say was tied to the rioting. An Indian court is expected to deliver sentences Thursday on the first four people to be convicted in the bombing.
Riots also broke out in Malegaon in 2001 after anti-US protests got out of hand.
Now, these two cities in the state of Maharashtra are again linked, with law-enforcement officials hinting that the same terrorists responsible for the Mumbai bombing in July have simply changed their tactics: Now they are targeting Muslims to see if they can provoke a response.
If true, the claim suggests that Muslim terrorists are now willing to attack fellow Muslims in an attempt to destabilize India. With an estimated 145 million Muslims, India is home to the world's third-largest Muslim population.
For his part, Abdul Rehman simply wants those responsible caught – whether Hindu or Muslim.
His father, Maulana Abdul Bari, is the imam of the Hamidiya Mosque that was attacked last weekend in Malegaon. Mr. Rehman watched as the throngs outside seemed to be spiraling toward anarchy. "The situation was out of control," he says. "The people wanted to know ... what the police was doing. This is why they were angry."
Indeed, immediately after the bombing, there were several reports of attacks against policemen. Malegaon, it seemed, needed only the smallest spark to ignite. Says Rehman: "If the police had done something [aggressive], then the crowds would have been provoked."
That was when his father took to the mosque's loudspeaker.
"The Ulema [Muslim elders] said, 'The police are conducting their investigation,' " Rehman recalls.
" 'Let the ... investigating team do their job, and after they do their work, we'll certainly put pressure on them to give their report."
It was a decisive moment, and Malegaon's religious leaders – including Mufti Mohammed Ismail, the president of the Ulema council of Malegaon – have won praise for their part in keeping the peace so far, though the situation is still tense.
"The religious leaders in Malegaon played a moderating role," says Maj. Gen. Dipankar Banerjee (ret.), director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi.
Yet he also suggests that the Indian people have grown wise to the terrorists' aims. "Because we see this again and again, people begin to see through it," says General Banerjee. "If we respond in a manner that the terrorists are trying to encourage, then we are playing into their hands."
Like many others, Banerjee is wary of making too much of the recent calm. "One cannot take it as a trend," he says. "One must be careful."
But perhaps it is an opportunity for all Indians to examine the thinking that often divides them. "What this gives us is a moment toforge ahead on many issues," says Setalvad. "It is a moment of deep introspection."
• Saurabh Joshi contributed to this report.