By Y.P. Rajesh, 12 Mar 2006 06:23:16 GMT, Source: Reuters
NEW DELHI, March 12 (Reuters) – Starting bloody riots between India’s majority Hindus and minority, but large, Muslim population usually doesn’t take much doing.
A desecrated temple or mosque, a motorcycle rider of one group brushing past a bicycle rider of the other, or a boy of either community teasing a girl of the other, has been enough to kindle bloodshed and burn towns and cities for days.
Last week, though, saw something remarkable and followed other recent examples of uncharacteristic restraint by Hindus and Muslims.
After suspected Islamist militants set off bombs in one of Hinduism’s holiest pilgrimage sites in the northern city of Varanasi, killing 15 people and wounding dozens, police feared a wave of reprisal attacks.
There were none.
"The Indian state has learnt the lessons — and costs — of letting religious zealots run amok," Harish Khare, an editor with The Hindu newspaper, wrote after Tuesday’s blasts in Varanasi.
"India has changed dramatically … the new India does not want to be distracted by claims made in the name of medieval passions."
Politicians and analysts say a growing awareness of political and religious manipulation prevented any religious backlash in Varanasi. Weariness after decades of conflict and bloodshed and rising prosperity from the country’s booming economy also cooled tempers.
The two sides showed similar restraint last July when suspected Islamist guerrillas raided a holy site claimed by Hindus and Muslims, and again in October when they triggered serial blasts in New Delhi, killing 66 people as they shopped ahead of the biggest Hindu and Muslim festivals of the year.
Hindus account for about 80 percent of India’s 1.1 billion people and Muslims about 13 percent, giving the country the largest Muslim population after Indonesia and Pakistan.
Although they have coexisted largely peacefully since Muslim invaders brought Islam to the subcontinent more than 1,000 years ago, tensions flared during the past few centuries, particularly under British colonial rule.
More than one million people have been killed in clashes since the early 18th century, rights groups say. The worst in recent years were riots in 2002 in Gujarat state.
Rights groups say about 2,500 people, mainly Muslims, were hacked and burned to death after 59 Hindu pilgrims were burned alive in a train — an incident at first blamed on a Muslim mob, but now declared an accident by a special inquiry.
The partition of India along religious lines into India and Pakistan in 1947 exacerbated divisions, as did a Hindu revivalist campaign launched by nationalist groups in the late 1980s.
Much of the blame for setting Hindus against Muslims over the past few decades has been put on Hindu-nationalist groups allied to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was in power until 2004.
The groups deny the charge and say they are only opposed to Muslims being appeased by secular political groups for votes.
Last week, Vinay Katiyar, a hardline BJP leader with a reputation as a rabble rouser, arrived in Varanasi to protest against the bomb blasts and mobilise Hindu sentiment.
But he hardly drew crowds and left the city within a day.
"People seemed to have mellowed down," Katiyar told Reuters after his trip to Varanasi. "Those days seem to be over when people would get carried away by our ideas."
"Today you can’t move people with those slogans we used in the 1980s or 1990s. People don’t seem to be interested in confrontation."
Katiyar’s admission is rare, but his feelings are shared in private by many in the BJP, a party which ruled for six years from 1998 after putting its pet Hindu themes on the backburner to forge a coalition with secular parties.
Tensions between Hindus and Muslims have also eased due to a slow but growing rapprochement with old enemy Pakistan, one analyst said. Hardline Hindus have traditionally accused Indian Muslims of being pro-Pakistan.
"To a certain extent, people also feel that beyond India and Pakistan, beyond Muslim and Hindu, there’s a third force called terror which has a separate grammar," said sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan, referring to anti-Indian Islamist militant groups operating out of Pakistan.
"So no community is going to get caught or sucked from the attractiveness of fighting terror and substituting it with Hindu-Muslim confrontation.
"So that is tremendous maturity. And it is due to a bit of fatigue, a bit of commitment to stability, a bit of not wanting to be manipulated and a bit of suspicion of the politics." (Additional reporting by Sharat Pradhan in VARANASI)