Death Toll Tops 500 as India’s Riots Continue
Fierce Hindu-Muslim riots and pitched battles with police worsened significantly, killing at least 300 more people by today across India as embattled politicians and moderate religious leaders desperately sought to defuse the bloody cycle of attacks and reprisals that have inflamed the Indian subcontinent.
The reported death toll in two days of street riots climbed above 500, with about 2,000 injured, in the wake of the destruction of a long-disputed Muslim mosque Sunday by militant Hindu zealots in the dusty north Indian town of Ayodhya.
In some towns and cities, people have been brutally stabbed, chopped or burned to death by rampaging mobs. Deaths were reported in half of India’s 22 states, as the world’s largest democracy continued to splinter on raw religious fault lines.
Armed riot troops and army troops were widely deployed, in some cases with shoot-on-sight orders. Curfews were enforced in numerous Muslim areas for the second night to control the unrest.
The neighboring Muslim nations of Pakistan and Bangladesh were paralyzed by rock-throwing street protests in most major cities, the torching and bulldozing of scores of Hindu temples and national protest strikes.
At least 20 people were reported killed in anti-Hindu riots in Pakistan, including five women and children who burned to death in a firebombed temple.
In a country where politics and religion are inextricably linked, Indian Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao’s government announced that it would ban extremist religious groups and ordered the arrest of key Hindu nationalist leaders on charges of openly inciting the attack on the ancient mosque.
The government hopes the sharp crackdown will undermine the growing force of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. The hard-line Hindu party emerged from obscurity in the last five years to become India’s second-largest political party, largely by fanning anti-Muslim sentiment over the Ayodhya issue.
At least eight right-wing Hindu leaders were arrested, including BJP party chief L. K. Advani. As he was led away from his home, he told reporters that India is moving toward fascism. “This is a move to silence the voice of dissent,” Advani said. “It will be suicidal for India.”
In a pre-dawn attack at Ayodhya, paramilitary troops fired tear gas grenades to drive away hundreds of fanatic Hindus who already had begun constructing a Hindu temple atop the mosque’s ruins. No casualties were reported as the troops retook control of the pilgrimage city, the only good news of the day.
But in an indication of the site’s religious power, many of the Hindu troops then removed their boots and offered prayers and donations to the blue-faced, multiarmed idol of Rama installed in a makeshift shrine atop the rubble. No attempt was made to remove the shrine, despite a government pledge to rebuild the mosque.
Tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims and saffron-robed holy men began leaving the north Indian city by train, bus and foot. Television broadcasts showed hundreds perched precariously atop train roofs, together with their bundles of luggage and souvenir bricks and other debris from the demolished mosque.
Radical Hindus insist that the 16th-Century mosque was built over a Hindu temple that marked the birthplace of Rama, a fabled warrior-king mythologized in the Hindu epic the Ramayana. A widely watched TV serial of the Ramayana several years ago gave Rama new popularity and triggered a fundamentalist Hindu revival that has swept northern India.
A strict curfew in Bombay, the nation’s financial capital, was reimposed after two hours early Tuesday when Muslims attacked Hindu shops in the city center. Police said they opened fire repeatedly on street mobs; 130 people were reported killed in the Arabian Sea port and surrounding state of Maharashtra.
Two dozen Muslims were arrested after they tried to march in defiance of a curfew in Delhi’s Walled City. Otherwise, an uneasy calm pervaded the smoggy capital. But it was clear that the political and constitutional crisis had not ended. Parliament was adjourned for the second straight day as legislators screamed and traded insults and Rao was again unable to speak.
Even if the rioting stops, the country’s social fabric as a secular nation has been inextricably torn, analysts said. The Ayodhya issue is far more volatile than long-running military offensives against militant separatists in Punjab and the disputed state of Kashmir, where human rights groups charge that at least 20,000 people in the last three years have disappeared or been killed, some by torture.
“The country’s rhythm of life is not disturbed by that,” said Bhabani Sengupta, an analyst at the Center for Policy Research. “They are isolated. But when Hindu-Muslim rioting goes on at once in 25 or 30 places, that has a very different impact. It vitiates our entire social life. This is much more serious.”
Upendra Baxi, vice chancellor of Delhi University, said the Ayodhya attack had “dealt a mortal blow to the integrity of the judiciary.”
The growing turmoil may undermine India’s campaign to attract badly needed foreign investment. With his government in disarray, Rao’s controversial plans to privatize subsidized state industries and reform India’s long-closed socialist economy may be delayed or canceled as he seeks to regain support in Parliament and restore political stability.
But some said the crisis may ultimately strengthen this vast, resilient nation. India’s constitution guarantees religious tolerance and secularism in hopes of avoiding the wholesale religious war and murderous blood baths that followed independence.
“The shock was probably necessary to bring India’s secular and democratic values, shared by most of the population, back to life,” Sengupta said.
Hindus, who form about 80% of India’s population of 870 million, have long accused Muslims of supporting Pakistan, the country’s traditional enemy. A widely heard Hindu complaint, for example, is that Indian Muslims cheer Pakistan when it plays India in cricket and field hockey.
Many Hindus complain, too, that Muslims are permitted to marry four wives, as their religion allows, while Hindus may marry only one under civil law. Some Hindus even argue that the extra wives mean that the country’s far-outnumbered Muslims are breeding so rapidly they will overtake the Hindu majority.
There is little evidence for any of the claims, however.
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