Born in Blood Bath, India Faces Replay of Holy War : Asia: Nation divided by religion is undergoing what many call its greatest crisis since independence in 1947.


Deep in a dark warren of narrow, winding lanes, on a tiny roof overlooking the teeming Muslim quarter of Delhi’s curfewed Old City, Rashid Ali was trying to explain his feelings about the holy war that has swept India in a conflagration of sectarian terror.

“I have Hindus in my work,” the 30-year-old hardware shop owner said emotionally. “Ninety-nine percent of my business is with Hindus. They love us. They work with us. But now they tell us: ‘Go to Pakistan! You are Muslim. You are not Indian!’

“But we cannot go to Pakistan. Our children cannot go to Pakistan. My family has been here for 500 years. Now we are third-generation Indian. We love our country.”

Ali clenched his eyes and fists and began fighting back tears. He was silent for a long moment, then slowly wiped the tears away. When he talked again, his voice rose into an anguished cry that spoke of the pain and passion unleashed as rarely before in this strife-torn country.

“They say India is for Hindus only. They say Muslims have no rights. They say we must go away. No! We are Indian too!”


India was born in a blood bath in 1947, when the long, bitter struggle for independence from Britain led to the creation of Pakistan as a Muslim nation next door. Half a million people died in the slaughter of partition, and Mohandas K. Gandhi, the apostle of nonviolence, was martyred for his calls for religious tolerance.

But even today, in an overwhelmingly Hindu nation of 870 million people, India’s 100 million Muslims outnumber the population of Pakistan. Indeed, India is the world’s largest Islamic community after Indonesia. And it is clear that the nightmare of partition did not end ancient enmity between religions here.

In what many call India’s greatest crisis since independence, more than 900 people have been killed in five days of savage Hindu-Muslim clashes in virtually every corner of this vast country, as well as across Pakistan and Bangladesh. The British Broadcasting Corp. on Thursday reported a death count approaching 1,000. Rarely have communal riots here spread so far so fast.

On Thursday, two Hindu nationalist leaders, Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, were jailed pending trial after a preliminary court hearing on charges of inciting the riots.

In addition, the government banned three Hindu and two Muslim organizations for “promoting disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill will between different religions.” The Hindu groups were the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Service Corps, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council, and Bajrang Dal.

The first two are allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition in Parliament, and the World Hindu Council was the official organizer of a divisive campaign to replace a mosque in Ayodhya with a Hindu temple.

The banned Muslim groups were Jamaat-e-Islami and Islamic Sevak Sangh.

The general level of violence appeared to be easing, but there were fresh outbreaks in the north Indian city of Varanasi and in Calcutta, where police opened fire on a crowd and killed seven people; a strict curfew was reimposed on the metropolis in eastern India.

Near Surat, in Gujarat state, 14 people were pulled from a train and hacked to death with knives and axes. A day before, 24 other people were burned to death by mobs in the trading and textile town. At least 200 people have died in Gujarat.

At the height of the violence, at least 150 were killed in the bustling business capital of Bombay, where stone-throwing mobs stabbed passers-by, torched buses and smashed shops near the Gateway of India, a giant arch built to commemorate the visit of George V and Queen Mary in 1911.

Near the Bombay airport, Hindus and Muslims battled with stones, acid-filled light bulbs and firebombs Wednesday in one of Asia’s largest slums. Acrid smoke from burning cars and tires filled the air. A doctor at the nearby Sion Hospital said victims were streaming in and exhausted surgeons were operating without a break.

“It’s like a factory assembly line,” he said.

In the north, Hindus killed Muslims near the Nawab of Jaipur’s elegant pink palaces, not far from the gleaming Taj Mahal, built as a tribute to love. Far to the east, at least 80 Hindus were chopped up or burned by Muslims in remote Assam, a Himalayan state of tea plantations and cool hill stations, tigers and one-horned rhinos.

Across the country, hundreds have been shot and killed by police and troops.

And as it was decades ago, religion is again responsible. On Sunday, a frenzied mob of fanatic Hindu militants stormed and demolished the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, a gritty north Indian pilgrimage town, to build a huge Hindu temple in its place.

Radical Hindus insist that the mosque was built atop the birthplace of Rama, an early incarnation of Vishnu, the Hindu god known as the protector of the universe. Idols of Lord Rama, known as the Prince of Ayodhya, usually portray him as a blue-faced figure with 10 arms.

Although historians say it was erected during the 16th-Century reign of Babur, the Mogul emperor who brought Islam to India and launched a flowering of poetry, art and architecture, the mosque was undistinguished: a crumbling, red-brick, three-domed structure much like many of India’s mosques.

But it was the spark for India’s ever-dry tinder of religious fervor.

“It is not a question of the mosque alone,” Syed Abdullah Bukhari, imam of the Jama mosque and the country’s most powerful Muslim leader, told The Times in his first interview since the crisis began. “It is not just an attempt to destroy the mosque. It is an attempt to destroy Islam!”

Fanatic Hindus, he warned, will try to destroy 3,000 mosques allegedly built atop Hindu temples during three centuries of Mogul rule. “They claim the Jama mosque itself was a Hindu temple once,” Bukhari said darkly.

Leaning on his bamboo cane, the elderly, white-bearded Muslim leader stood on the steps of the magnificent red sandstone and white marble mosque built in the mid-17th Century by Shah Jahan--the same Mogul emperor who built the Taj Mahal as a monument to his late wife. Looming over Old Delhi--the ancient city now overshadowed in importance by the contiguous New Delhi, India’s capital--the mosque is still India’s largest and most important Muslim shrine.

Bukhari said anti-Muslim massacres in some areas, especially around Bombay and Uttar Pradesh, the country’s largest and most populous state, are “worse than partition.”

India’s constitutional guarantee of secularism, an attempt by the nation’s founders to separate religion from politics, is now “only on paper,” Bukhari said. “This is the death of secularism.”

And in what could provoke more bloodshed, the imam has promised to lead thousands of Muslim followers into the streets and “court arrest” after 1 p.m. prayers today if the government doesn’t stop the “butchery.”

In his first interview since the turmoil began, Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao said on a television news show that he had been duped by Hindu leader Advani and officials of the Bharatiya Janata Party who control Uttar Pradesh state, where Ayodhya is located, and who had repeatedly pledged to obey court orders to protect the disputed mosque. The Hindu nationalist party, now India’s second-largest, has led the violent drive to replace the Babri mosque with a temple.

Among neighboring countries, Pakistan in particular was rocked by violence this week. The government promised protection for Indian diplomats and their families after protesters ransacked the home of the Indian consul general in the southern port of Karachi. Police escorted 98 Indian women and children to the airport for evacuation home. Earlier, armed troops fought off mobs attacking India’s High Commission in Islamabad, the capital.

Other areas of the Islamic world seethed with anger. In Iran, Tehran Radio said bazaars and Muslim schools were closed in protest. In the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, the state news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry official as saying the attack at Ayodhya was a challenge to Islam worldwide.

Here in Old Delhi--also known as the Old City, part of the sprawling Delhi complex of cities and suburbs--hundreds of police officers, many with riot helmets and submachine guns, continued to enforce a 24-hour curfew for the 800,000 or so Muslims crammed in a confusing jumble of dingy tenements and street bazaars.

Every school, shop and store was shut tight, and residents complained of shortages.

Police trucked more than 2,000 gallons of buffalo milk into the area for sale Wednesday, and they planned next to bring in lentils, flour and rice, according to a local police inspector, who added, “Everything is under control.”

But the silence was shattered at precisely 3 p.m. Led by a call for protest that echoed from the Jama mosque’s towering minaret, thousands of families gathered atop terra cotta terraces and pastel-painted rooftops, punching their fists in the air and roaring over and over in Arabic, “We are one! God is great!”

“This is to show the strength of Muslims,” explained Adnan Arshi Khan, a 21-year-old student, pausing between shouts. “We are not less than anyone. Everyone is so desperate and frustrated, and they want to show it.”