India's Muslim unrest fans feud with Pakistan
New Delhi — The communal riots now sputtering out after two weeks in northern India have touched off a new round of tensions between India and Pakistan over the treatment and protection of India's Muslim minority.
An Indian government crackdown on news photos depicting riot casualties also has prompted fresh worries of censorship among Indian journalists, who retain vivid memories of rigorous press censorship during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's authoritarian "emergency" rule from 1975 to 1977.
At a time of rising Islamic militancy around the world, India sees Pakistan as trying to smear its image among Muslim nations whose friendship it assiduously cultivates and on whom it depends for vital oil supplies.
India has reacted angrily to Pakistan's official expressions of sympathy for the families of riot victims and suggestions that it had failed to safeguard Muslim citizens. An official rejoinder from New Delhi protested "interference" in India's internal affairs -- in effect, a "mind your own business" report to its Islamic neighbor.
Offended by Pakistani newspapers' portrayal of the riots as anti-Muslim "genocide" fueled by Hindu lust for Muslim blood, India also expressed "deep disappointment" over what it called negative and exaggerated reporting by Pakistan's officially censored media.
Predominantly Hindu, India is a secular state with the second-largest Muslim population in the world. It has been stung by Pakistani editorials citing the riots as evidence that its commitment to religious freedom and tolerance is only skin deep.
More than 200 persons have died in the riots that began as clashes between Muslims and police but mushroomed into Hindu-Muslim violence in several northern cities.
Communal unrest erupts frequently in India's crowded towns and cities. But the latest riots have been marked by rapid spread from city to city and by signs of a new Muslim assertiveness, seen in Muslim attacks on policemen.
The rioting began in the small brass-working city of Moradabad on Aug. 13, when a crowd of Muslim worshippers attacked police for failing to drive away a pig -- considered an unclean animal -- from their prayer ground. Some 86 persons died in retaliatory police firing and a resulting stampede. In later fighting the city's death toll rose to 119.
As the riots spread to other cities, the Indian government called on the press to show restraint and moderation in reporting news that could inflame communal passions. The first sign of overt censorship occurred when the government's overseas communication service refused to transmit a United Press International wirephoto showing pigs near a corpse at Moradabad.
The police them compiled thousands of copies of a Hindi-language weekly for alleged objectionable coverage of the Moraldabad riots. The paper featured photographs of pigs near covered corpses and reports that placed the blame on the police. A government spokesman denied press censorship. But the weekly's editor, Ajay Singh, termed the seizure "the first blow against freedom of the press."
Ironically, it is the Pakistani government's open censorship of the news media that leads Indians to conclude Islamabad is orchestrating a hate-India campaign.
When the Pakistan Times editorialized that the "massacre of Muslims on one flimsy pretext or another is a regular feature of life in India," the Times of India joined the fray by accusing Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq of "whipping up anti-Indian sentiment at home to divert popular attention from his internal troubles."
Neither India nor Pakistan waste many opportunities to needle the other. But it appears that India is reacting with new, acute sensitivity to its standing with oil-rich Islamic nations.