NEW DELHI – focus
India risked being torn apart by sectarian conflict 20 years ago when Hindu zealots demolished a mosque, triggering deadly riots, but analysts say economic growth has proved a quiet balm on tensions.
More than 2,000 people — mostly Muslims — were killed in unrest after the 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, was razed by a Hindu mob on Dec. 6, 1992.
A campaign to build a replacement Hindu temple on the site of Babri mosque was spearheaded by Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L.K. Advani, who used the emotive issue to carry the party to national prominence.
With Hindu extremism on the rise, many feared India’s long history of religious tolerance was under threat as politicians fanned the flames of radicalism among the country’s youth.
But the ethnic conflagration did not materialize, with analysts saying that millions of Indians instead focused on securing the benefits of the country’s rapid economic transformation, the beginning of which coincided with the clashes.
A decade later, fears resurfaced of a nationwide Hindu-Muslim conflict, when another 2,000 people died in savage rioting between the two groups in Gujarat.
Once again, however, the violence was stamped out. Since then there have been sporadic, isolated clashes, but nothing on the scale of that which threatened to destabilize the country in the 1990s.
As Thursday’s 20th anniversary of the Ayodhya violence passed, attention was firmly focused on the growing economy and the wealth it can bring.
“I can’t imagine anything like it happening today, and the biggest driving force for that is the rise of the middle class,” said Gurcharan Das, a former multinational executive who is now a leading author on contemporary India.
“As the middle class mobilizes, it prioritizes investing in the future, supporting their children, better roads and good drinking water — things which don’t lend themselves to extremism,” he said.
“They have tasted success and the politicians can’t ignore that.”
Das, whose latest book “India Grows at Night” outlines how change often comes from the bottom rather than from the Indian government, said he remembered being horrified at the rabble-rousing and bloodshed of Ayodhya.
“It was lunacy. India is plural and tolerant, not what we saw then. Even within the BJP, there is now a realization that Hindu nationalism does not simply equal votes.”
Hindu fundamentalists flattened the mosque because they said it was built by the Moghul Emperor Babur on the site of a temple marking the birthplace of the Hindu warrior god Ram.
The destruction infuriated Indian Muslims, who make up 13 percent of the population, and the ensuing violence appeared to herald the start of a long and vicious cycle of inter-religious clashes.
Despite the resurgence of violence in 2002, the country has otherwise avoided major religious massacres.
Nonetheless, continuing sensitivity of Ayodhya meant a huge security presence at the site Thursday, with police dispatching an extra 3,200 officers there.
Proving that anger does still exist among Hindu nationalists, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh at the time of the incident, Kalyan Singh, said last month that he would mark the day without regret.
“I clearly remember the mood in favor of a beautiful Ram temple on the site,” he said. “I am optimistic that I will see it happen before I breathe my last.”
Ayodhya last hit the headlines two years ago when the Allahabad High Court divided the disputed and tightly-guarded site into three sections — one for Hindus, one for Muslims and one for a local Hindu trust.
The ruling did not spark any violent reaction, but it was widely seen as a flawed compromise and was later suspended by the Supreme Court in New Delhi, kicking the issue deep into the long grass.
Rudrangshu Mukherjee, a political historian, said the destruction of the mosque and the ensuing riots in Mumbai, Delhi and elsewhere were, in hindsight, an explosion of tension rather than a sign of India’s imminent descent into chaos.
“Only the disgraceful Gujarat pogrom has matched it since,” he said from Kolkata.
“There is still an undercurrent of tension, and many Muslims live in fear, but the BJP now realize that the ideology of Hindu nationalism is not enough to win an election today,” he said.
“1992 was a period of great fear and apprehension. Since then, India’s market economy, which also began at that time, has made people more prosperous and more likely to focus on secular issues.”
The BJP is currently working to revive its fortunes before general elections due in 2014 by steering clear of Hindu nationalist themes and attacking the ruling Congress government over a string of corruption scandals.