Killing Thy Neighbor - Time Magazine Cover Story


http://www.time.com/time/asia/features/india_ayodhya/cover.html
Hindus and Muslims go on the worst murder spree in a decade. Is secular India a fast-dying dream?

When Afsana, an 18-year-old Muslim living on the outskirts of the Gujarati capital of Ahmadabad, heard last Wednesday that a Muslim mob had torched a train, the Sabarmati Express, at Godhra, she was appalled—and very, very frightened. She knew that revenge would be nigh. Her neighborhood, Naroda, is largely Hindu. On the day after the Godhra killings, local Hindu leaders gathered a crowd of 2,000 residents and gave them simple instructions: Muslims had to be destroyed. When part of the mob reached Afsana's house, she fled with her five-year-old brother to a Hindu neighbor's house. From the neighbor's roof, Afsana saw the mob pull her parents from their home, douse them in gasoline and set them alight. Her four sisters were stripped, raped and killed. Along the lanes, other Muslim houses were burning.


After a couple of hours, her neighbor said it was safe for her to leave. It was a trick. In the lane, a pack of men attacked her. "I fell on the ground," she says, "and I could see all these people. They were people I knew who lived around our house." Both she and her brother were splashed with gasoline but she managed to scramble up and get away, clutching her brother's hand. Both of their clothes were alight. When she reached a wall and started climbing up, she lost hold of her brother. Once on a roof, she looked down and watched him burn to death.


The quilt of the 20th century was a patchwork of bloodstains, one of the largest spreading from the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, when the departing British ordered Hindus to live in certain areas and Muslims in others. Millions of Hindus and Muslims picked up their belongings and took flight. And then the slaughter began: up to 1 million lost their lives in the bloody end to the colonial era. The most indelible memory of that tragedy is of railway carriages, filled with stabbed and mutilated corpses, coming across the border from India or from the newly created Pakistan—Hindus on some trains, Muslims on others.


Last week, almost 56 years later, it happened again. A train ferrying a group of Hindu pilgrims from the temple town of Ayodhya in central India pulled into the western town of Godhra shortly after dawn, where a group of local Muslims was waiting. As the engine gathered speed leaving Godhra, someone pulled the emergency brake chain and attackers stormed the passenger cars. They hurled bottles filled with gasoline, setting coaches aflame. Able-bodied men managed to escape the conflagration; 40 of the 58 deaths were of women and children charred on board.


The following days, it was the Hindus' turn. Mobs fanned out through Muslim neighborhoods like Afsana's in the western state of Gujarat, led by local politicians and their rabble-rousers—as the Muslims had been at Godhra, according to the police, who charged four local councillors, of whom two were arrested. Their blood lust was fanned by exactly the kind of rumors that fueled the slaughters in 1947: Muslims had abducted teenage girls, or slaughtered cows, which are worshipped by Hindus. The mobs burned families in their houses, demolished mosques, raped wives and daughters. Community police insist they were powerless, but if history is a guide, many probably stood back approvingly. The government in New Delhi, led by Atal Behari Vajpayee and his staunchly pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), didn't send in the army to cool things down for several hours. By the weekend, more than 300 people had been murdered following the Godhra ambush—most of them Muslims.


The sight of India devouring itself is depressing precisely because the scenes are so familiar from the past. More troubling, though, is what last week's mayhem says about the country's future. Even after partition, India ended up with one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, now numbering 150 million. Friction with the Hindu majority is inescapable. But the long-term solution for national harmony believed in by hundreds of millions for decades—a purely secular state that respects all religions equally—is looking increasingly like some hoary fantasy. Vajpayee and his BJP claim to believe in secularism, but they came to power by banging the drum of Hindu pride—and fanning hatred of the Muslim minority—by stirring things up in Ayodhya, where a revered Hindu deity was supposedly born. The party has been in power in Delhi twice for a total of four years, and there hadn't been a single communal riot, giving widespread hope that the BJP had gone centrist and wouldn't allow its chauvinistic urges to disrupt a country discovering itself economically—or, at the very least, that the supposedly moderate Vajpayee could rein in the wilder elements of his group. But last week's violence was sparked by more Hindu chest thumping in Ayodhya, where militant Hindus want to build a grand temple on the site of a mosque destroyed by mobs in 1992, which was virtually guaranteed to set off trouble.

 

The sight of India devouring itself is depressing precisely because the scenes are so familiar from the past. More troubling, though, is what last week's mayhem says about the country's future. Even after partition, India ended up with one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, now numbering 150 million. Friction with the Hindu majority is inescapable. But the long-term solution for national harmony believed in by hundreds of millions for decades—a purely secular state that respects all religions equally—is looking increasingly like some hoary fantasy. Vajpayee and his BJP claim to believe in secularism, but they came to power by banging the drum of Hindu pride—and fanning hatred of the Muslim minority—by stirring things up in Ayodhya, where a revered Hindu deity was supposedly born. The party has been in power in Delhi twice for a total of four years, and there hadn't been a single communal riot, giving widespread hope that the BJP had gone centrist and wouldn't allow its chauvinistic urges to disrupt a country discovering itself economically—or, at the very least, that the supposedly moderate Vajpayee could rein in the wilder elements of his group. But last week's violence was sparked by more Hindu chest thumping in Ayodhya, where militant Hindus want to build a grand temple on the site of a mosque destroyed by mobs in 1992, which was virtually guaranteed to set off trouble.


The main fear is that a secular India, with equal rights for all, will evolve into a tyranny of the majority Hindus—a calamitous idea in a country where the main minority group makes up almost 15% of the population. And if that tyranny ever arises, its soldiers are already identifiable and organized in groups allied with the BJP. They bear a frightening similarity to the fundamentalist Muslims who have declared war on the West. The Hindus wield tridents and sticks and talk of protecting the Hindu nation while the latter carry assault rifles and promote an Islamic state. Both feel their holy sites have been besmirched by outsiders. Both may be minorities within their faiths—the vast majority of Hindus are satisfied with their rituals and customs and the great land that nourishes them—but have supporters in positions of power. Yet, since 1992, the Hindu fundamentalists have kept a low profile and India has been calm.


Last week they came back with a vengeance. Just as each marauding mob in Gujarat had leadership, almost always a local pol, their inspiration (if not their directives) come right down from people within the party now ruling India. The big question: Which train is Vajpayee pulling? That of a modern India trying to get away from its blood-drenched past—or one heading off in a new and different direction?


ayodhya is a name mostly associated with conflict, like Beirut or Belfast. But in reality it's a charming temple town on the banks of the Saryu River just south of the Himalayas. It has plenty of places of worship, mostly Hindu but also Muslim. Its renown is based on the fact that Rama, hero of the eponymous epic Ramayana, is believed to have been born there.


In the 16th century, the fiery invader Babur swooped down from present-day Afghanistan to begin his conquest of Hindu India, which started three centuries of foreign rule known as the Mogul period. In 1528, one of his noblemen built a mosque in Ayodhya. History suggests the Muslim invaders dismantled a Hindu temple to do so. That's the building and the site that is provenance of the current conflict: some Hindus say the temple, and then the mosque, sat on the actual birthplace of Rama. For a century-and-a-half, Hindus and Muslims squabbled over the mosque. For Hindus, reclaiming the site is more about punishing the Muslims for the Islamic invasions and partioning of the subcontinent in 1947—in other words, a chance to reopen old wounds. For Muslims, the mosque was an ugly wreck, but it was a touchstone of the secular policy of postindependence India: Would the politicians treat them with respect, or succumb to Hindu sentiment to hold onto or gain political power?


That's exactly what the BJP did in the early 1990s. Sensing that the glory days were over for the Congress Party, which governed India for most of the years after independence, it started a rambunctious campaign to build a temple on the mosque's site. The campaign captured public imagination and the BJP did well in the general election of 1991. In 1992, it brought its masses to the mosque once again. As BJP leaders, including L.K. Advani, now the country's Home Minister, watched—professing to be shocked—trained kar sevaks (holy volunteers) broke down the mosque with iron rods and sledgehammers. That set off riots by Muslims across India, particularly in Bombay, its commercial capital. As usual, the Hindus followed. A month later in Bombay, three days of rioting killed nearly 500 Muslims. It was among the worst communal slaughters since partition.

 

They do now. Despite a central government injunction on construction at the Ayodhya site, the BJP's radical counterpart, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad party (VHP), announced it would start construction of the Rama temple on land surrounding the former mosque's site. Since 1992, craftsmen shipped into Ayodhya have been carving pillars and balustrades. In the past two weeks, the VHP has been ferrying thousands of Hindu pilgrims from all around the country in and out of Ayodhya to take part in temple rebuilding rituals. The VHP says it will start building on March 15, and that's when it was thought things would get dangerous. Until, that is, the Sabarmati Express pulled into Godhra from Ayodhya.


Not far from where Afsana watched her brother burn to death, a group of Muslim residents fled for shelter to the home of Ashan Jafri, a local Congress Party politician. Jafri tried scaring away the pursuing Hindu mob by shooting a revolver and inflicting injuries. But then the gang gained control, dragging Jafri and his family out and killing them. "I was throwing stones at the Muslims," says Roshan, a 12-year-old Hindu boy, "but when they began firing, I got scared and ran away." Roshan saw Jafri's daughters being stripped and raped. Would he do that when he was older? "Maybe not rape," he says, "because that is bad. But I would kill Muslims when they have to be punished."


In Naroda, 60 people died that day. Afsana was severely burned and is now in a hospital in Ahmadabad. "I had such a big family," she says, "and all of them are dead." But she is a lot wiser than Roshan, despite her own youth, despite her personal trauma, about what really happened that day. She, like most Indians, knows the reality of communal mayhem in India. "I did not hurt those Hindus and they did not hurt me," she says. "It is the politicians who hurt us both."

Those politicians were noticeably absent during the crucial first few hours after the attacks in Godhra. The 75-year-old Vajpayee finally scrambled over the weekend to restore order, sending 1,300 soldiers to Gujarat and ordering curfews in 34 cities in the region. Vajpayee appealed to his sympathizers in the VHP for peace and announced that he would skip a planned foreign trip. He said, "Violent incidents that have been reported are against helpless and innocent people, which is a big blow to the country's image."


But his brand of politics has already harvested dangerous fruit. The past decade of truce between Hindus and Muslims now seems to have been détente rather than peace, based more on mutually assured destruction than any deep understanding. That cold war turned hot last week thanks to Ayodhya, the genie that Vajpayee and Advani released from its bottle. Vajpayee is in a tight corner. The other parties in his ruling coalition have always insisted that the temple issue be downplayed because it was so dangerous, and he went along with the demand. But the BJP is as close to the VHP as Sin Feinn is to the I.R.A., and the activists at Ayodhya have their own agenda: to build the temple.

"Let us see how Vajpayee stops us," threatened kar sevak Jagish, 25, in Ayodhya last week. "He will have to shoot at his fellow Hindus and that will be the end of his prime ministership. If we can bring him to power, we can also take him down." Today's VHP has its holy men and wild-eyed fanatics, but also a whole lot of educated, soft-spoken professionals. Borrowing lessons from Christian missionaries and jihad forces, it has opened schools and health-care centers in rural areas to win public support and unite Hindus now divided by ethnicity and caste. There are also training camps where boys are taught unarmed commando warfare. "The Hindus are not helpless anymore," said one such commando, Rakesh Singh, lovingly stroking a lethal-looking trident. "We know how to protect ourselves." In fact, the close ties between the BJP, the VHP and the group's parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamasevak Sangh (rss), does give Vajpayee some leverage in calming down Hindu rioters—at least for now.


Meanwhile in Ahmadabad over the weekend, you could still smell charred flesh in the air and black smoke billowed from the torched Muslim homes, as if signaling a threat to the rest of the country. In one mob on Friday, an angry Hindu refused to disclose his name but was determined to explain who he was in another essential way. He wanted it known that he was from the neighborhood he was torching, and he knew the people whose lives he was destroying. "This was no outside mob," he said. "We did this ourselves." Another man, who claimed to have killed nine Muslims that day, offered this explanation: "I am just a Hindu. That is enough, because I was acting for all Hindus." For all Indians, those are frightening words.






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