Indian PM’s Appeal for Calm Falls on Deaf Ears
The lingering Ayodhya dispute once again threatens the stability of India’s coalition government. When the death toll from the Muslim-Hindu rampage in Gujarat, West India, crept over 350 on Saturday March 2, prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee pleaded for calm, declaring: “The burning alive of women and children is a blot on the country’s face.” But his appeal fell on deaf ears. The hundreds of troops deployed through the state failed to stem the killings, rioting and looting that spread out from the towns of Gujarat to outlying districts.
The violence erupted Wednesday, February 27, after Muslims in the town of Godhra torched a train carrying Hindu activists back from the disputed holy site of Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh, killing 58.
In revenge, a Hindu mob Friday night, March 1, doused petrol on a Muslim crowd in a village north of the state capital of Ahmedabad and burned 28 people alive and rampaged up and down the state.
The controversy has smoldered divisively in Indian politics since supporters of the radical Vishna Hindu Parashad (VHP) party razed a 16th century mosque at Ayodhya in 1992, triggering India’s worst ever Hindu-Muslim riots that claimed 2000 lives. Hindus claim the site is the birthplace of one of their leading deities, Rama, and it was a place of pilgrimage centuries before the mosque was built.
Hindu hardliners, in defiance of a Supreme Court decree, have sworn to start rebuilding the Ram temple at Ayodhya on March 15. Thousands of Indian security personnel have been posted in Uttar Pradesh with some 10,000 hard line Hindus streaming to the site every day. Tons of building materials and equipment, carved stones and pillars, are ready for the project.
The Indian prime minister is caught up in a dilemma. His own Bharatiya Janita Party, when in opposition nine years ago, helped destroy the mosque. Since replacing Congress as the largest party, BJP factions are pushing Rajpayee to introduce a Hindu agenda. However, the prime minister holds his fractious government together by a system of coalition agreements aimed at maintaining sectarian equilibrium in the country.
Rajpayee wants the issue settled by the courts or through negotiation, but the courts are too slow and India’s Ides of March is approaching too fast for half-measures.