THE sectarian trouble in India seems, from afar, like raw, religious fanaticism that cannot be controlled by soldiers or national leaders.
But recent history has shown that the opposite is true: Nearly all sectarian or communal incidents in India are provoked by politicians with something to gain. The current crisis, touched off by the destruction of a mosque in central India Dec. 6, is no exception and it has mushroomed into a national conflagration - potentially the most serious communal conflict on the sub-continent since the partition of 1947.
"We haven't seen this level of Hindu-Muslim hatred since the partition," says Rasheeduddin Khan, a political scientist here.
[At press time, the Associated Press reported that 400 people have been killed since the mosque was razed. Five leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the pro-Hindu party that led the Dec. 6 disturbances, were arrested Dec. 8 for inciting violence.]
The government of Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao has been shaken by the crisis. Even if the government survives opposition calls for its resignation and manages to control the violence, India's social equilibrium has been rocked. Relations between the majority Hindus, 83 percent of the population, and the minority Muslims, 11 percent, are likely to deteriorate. Major politicians in both the ruling and opposition parties have been discredited, and many Indians wonder if their country can survive witho ut the strong leadership it had under prime ministers such as Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi.
India has never aspired to be a melting pot but it does call itself a secular nation in which people of all religions have equal rights. Secularism was the ideological base for the Congress Party, which, in various forms, has governed India for 41 years. Muslims have voted en masse for Congress governments, but when Congress leaders Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv courted minorities with special favors, Hindus rebelled.
The current crisis dates back to 1986. At that time, the squat Babri Mosque in Ayodhya had been padlocked on government orders since 1949 when Muslim and Hindu communities started fighting over it. Muslims claimed the 16th-century structure as a mosque. Hindus said it was located on the birthplace of their god Ram. But in 1986 after the government passed legislation beneficial to the Muslim community, Rajiv Gandhi and his advisors decided the Hindus needed counterbalancing compensation. A court ordered t he unlocking of the mosque in Ayodhya and the government chose not to contest the order. The mosque was opened, Hindus took it over - and the fuse was lit for Sunday's explosion.
Gandhi lost the 1989 general elections and the pro-Hindu BJP captured 86 parliamentary seats compared to 2 in the previous general election. The BJP's meteoric rise was a sign that Congress was loosing its grip and voters were responding to new promises. The BJP campaigned against "pseudo-secularism," a reference to the Congress Party's courting of minorities with political favors. The BJP was also supported by militant Hindu chauvinists.
IN the 1991 general elections the BJP won more seats but supported in parliament Mr. Rao's minority Congress government. To consolidate its popularity with the Hindus, the BJP revived the mosque issue this year and asked supporters to travel to Ayodhya to build the temple adjacent to the mosque. It promised the Supreme Court that the Dec. 6 gathering would be peaceful but its supporters ran amok, demolished the mosque, and began laying the foundation for a Hindu temple.
Rao's government failed to protect the mosque, which it could have done by dismissing the local government, controlled by the BJP, or by sending national troops. Whether Rao's government was inept or also was playing communal politics is hotly debated. Either the prime minister was certain the BJP could control its supporters or, as some fear, he didn't want to alienate Hindu voters.
Many Indians see the Dec. 6 incident as a turning point: It is unlikely that India's minorities will put much faith in either of India's top two political parties in the future. Some analysts see an unraveling of the national ideal of a secular state, an ideal that has helped keep India united. "The minorities can't have any faith in the central government," says Anirudha Gupta, dean of international studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.