India's Hindu-Muslim unrest carries overtones of Iran-style fervor
New Delhi — The widespread communal riots marring India's 33rd anniversary of independence this month have left Indian officials groping for explanations -- and fearful of an answer they hope not to find.
The Hindu-Muslim tensions simmering below the generallyplacid surface of Indian life boil over frequently in clashes large and small, provoked by incidents as slight as a shove in a crowded bazaar or as deliberate as the desecration of places of worship.
But officials are concerned that a more ominous ingredient has been added to the volatile mix of social, economic, and cultural differences dividing the Hindu majority and Muslim minority: the wave of militant Islamic fundamentalism sweeping the Muslim world.
No one is drawing conclusions yet. But Indian observers point to the rapid spread of riots and sympathy protests from their starting point in the small, predominantly Muslim, working-class city of Moradabad to other cities in western Uttar Pradesh state, the northern state of Kashmir, and even the capital city of New Delhi.
The snowballing to other Muslim areas, they say, is not typical of garden-variety communal clashes. Another unusual feature is their apparent genesis as Muslim-police clashes, later widening into Hindu-Muslim violence. By most accounts, the Moradabad violence started when enraged Muslims attacked police who had refused to shoo away a pig -- considered an unclean animal -- from a prayer ground where they were marking the end of the Ramadan month of fasting on Aug. 13.
Since then, an estimated 200 persons have died and more than 3,400 have been arrested in violence throughout northern India. In Kashmir, India's only predominantly Muslim state, officials banned a proposed international Islamic youth conference and cracked down on fundamentalist Muslim organizations, arresting more than 300 leaders and activists.
Among them was the head of a youth group who had earlier said the conference would finalize plans for an "Iranian-type Muslim revolution" to free Kashmiri Muslims from Indian domination.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has moved quickly to squelch talk of Arab petrodollars behind the current disturbances. But her aides are clearly worried that the Islamic unrest radiating from Iran through much of the Mideast and Asia will arouse India's Muslims.
Although they make up only 11 to 12 percent of the country's population, at 75 million people they represent the second-largest Muslim population in the world behind Indonesia. Bangladesh ranks third. Pakistan trails behind them.
With general lawlessness on the upswing, and Hindu caste clashes exerting their own toll, the last thing India needs is a militant Muslim challenge to exacerbate tensions.
"Violence and lawlessness have spread all over the country," said Mrs. Gandhi in a pessimistic Aug. 15 independence day speech. Offering her sympathy to the families of the Moradabad victims, she said that the "poison of communalism" has been part of Indian society for many years. "We see how easily it bursts out again."
While the propellant force of awakened Islamic consciousness has yet to be measured, many observers see the current riots as an eruption of long-pent-up Muslim grievances against authority in its most visible form -- the predominantly Hindu police force.
As a community, India's Muslims are impoverished, ill-educated, and unemployed even by Indian standards. Much of the country's Muslim political, professional, and business elite moved to Pakistan when the old British subcontinental empire was partitioned in 1947, leaving behind a largely leaderless community.
Muslim voters were intensively wooed during the parliamentary elections that returned Mrs. Gandhi's Congress-I Party to power in January and in June state elections. They share the complaint that Mrs. Gandhi's promise of a "government that works" has yet to materialize for them or other communities.