India's Chief Keeps Grip Despite National Unrest

As violence subsides, curfews are lifted, but crackdown on radical groups continues

A LITTLE more than week after radical Hindus destroyed a long-disputed mosque in the north Indian city of Ayodhya, prompting violent sectarian reprisals in many parts of the country, it seems likely that Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao will remain in power, at least for the weeks and months ahead.

Curfews were relaxed yesterday in 135 cities hit by rioting. But Indian authorities continued a nationwide sweep begun over the weekend, arresting more than 750 members of five radical religious organizations banned by Mr. Rao last week. The moves have placated critics calling for decisive action on the Ayodhya issue.

But it is also clear that the conflagration over the mosque, which killed more than 1,200 people in riots last week, is now burning in back rooms.

In recent years the Babri mosque at Ayodhya, which stood where some Hindus insist their god Ram was born, has come to symbolize the enduring tensions between this country's Muslims - who form 11 percent of a population of 844 million - and some members of its Hindu majority.

Radical, pro-Hindu groups have exploited prejudices between the two religions, claimed that Muslims are intent on destabilizing India, and charged that the Congress Party has too often offered Muslims unfair concessions in order to gain their political support. The groups vow to build a temple to Ram in place of the mosque.

The once obscure Bharatiya Janata Party, or Indian People's Party, almost took power in 1991 elections, largely on the strength of the Ayodhya issue and what it symbolizes. That vote followed an unsuccessful attempt to destroy the mosque, a crisis that also led to widespread sectarian violence. Political analysts here wonder if the BJP can turn the demolition - and repressive measures by the government in its wake - to its political advantage.

In the immediate aftermath of the mosque's demolition Dec. 6, even the elected members of the Congress Party, which has led India for all but a handful of the 45 years since independence, were unsure about whether Rao should continue to lead them and the country. Rao had allowed the BJP and several allied but more staunchly Hindu organizations to gather followers at Ayodhya to perform religious rituals at the site. He has said since that BJP leaders told him there would be no attempt to destroy the mosqu e.

Mani Shanker Aiyer, one of the party's most vocal backbenchers, recalled Sunday that there was "deepening anxiety on Congress benches" when Parliament met last week on Monday, the day after the destruction.

"The worst mood was on [Monday] night," Mr. Aiyer recalls, as Parliament broke up in a frenzy of recriminations and accusations over who was responsible for the mosque's destruction, and as evening news reports of retribution and rioting began to pour in to the capital.

By the next morning, after Rao announced several steps to control the situation, at least the party members' spirits had been lifted. The government said it would ban militant religious organizations, prosecute those responsible for the attack on the mosque, rebuild the demolished shrine, and deploy the Army to quell civil strife.

When Rao appeared at a meeting Tuesday morning of all of the Congress's parliamentarians, "there was a such a thunderous ovation given to him, that even if there had been rebels in our ranks I think they would have been quieted."

But columnist Tavleen Singh asserts that "there is definitely a move within the party to replace him." Rao is likely to stay in office for the next few months, she says, but only because the party's leaders do not want to risk the instability that switching premiers might provoke.

Rao's position has been weakened since the demolition, says political scientist Pran Chopra of New Delhi's Center for Policy Research, but "I would not say that there is anyone else in the party whose position is stronger."

In contrast to denunciations of the mosque's destruction filling the airwaves and newspapers since last week, Ms. Singh says her research and BJP officials tell her the demolition was popular among ordinary Hindus. Assertions that the razing of the mosque has undermined the BJP are "really wishful thinking," she adds.

Aiyer, however, asserts that the Congress will prevail, noting that the BJP has had a hard time gaining support among Hindus in the south of India, where tensions between Hindus and Muslims are less prevalent.

He says that the divide between the Congress's longstanding tradition of secularism and the religious politics of the BJP is now "too great to be papered over," and that Indians will side with the secularists.

In the meantime, some commentators are mourning last week's "frenzy of hatred," in the words of Anees Jung, a writer who identifies herself as first an Indian and second a Muslim. She says the answer to the crisis is not a matter of choosing a new prime minister or the rising fortunes of political parties.

"Everything is being reassessed now," she says. "These are all just conjectures."

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