MADRAS, India — Indian secularism is in danger. Last spring the western state of Gujarat, perhaps the most economically prosperous region in the country, was the site of the nation’s worst communal carnage since the days of partition in 1947 when the British divided the subcontinent into India and Pakistan.

The majority Hindu population in Gujarat systematically butchered hundreds of Muslims in what was ironically once considered a land of peace by Mahatma Gandhi, who used principles of nonviolence to win India its independence from British rule.

The most horrific brutality recently took place in Ahmedabad, where Gandhi’s ashram still stands. In one incident a Hindu mob captured an eight-month-pregnant Muslim woman, ripped open her abdomen, scooped out her fetus and threw it into a fire!

The United Nations Human Rights Commission condemned the Gujarat atrocities, saying they were as bad as — if not worse than — what happened in Nazi Germany.

It was announced on Dec. 15 that the party in power during the Gujarat rampage, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, won a two-thirds majority in the Dec. 13 State Assembly election, winning 125 of 182 seats in the state legislature, up from the 117 seats it took in the last election in 1998. Narendra Modi, a key BJP man and chief minister of Gujarat during the riots, rode to victory on the back of a “hate Muslim” campaign.

Although the trouble in Gujarat began when Muslims burned a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, Modi is said to have spearheaded the spring communal riots that followed. Last month, a citizen’s panel that includes several retired Supreme Court judges charged that the Hindu rioters had acted “with the deliberate connivance and support” of Modi’s government. Although Modi denies the accusation, Human Rights Watch and other independent monitors have reached similar conclusions.

Returning as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi now says that in two years India will become a Hindu state and that there will be no place for any other faith. That would be a sad and terrible development in a nation whose constitution spells out in no uncertain terms the importance of equality for all religions.

Secularism has been the Indian constitution’s principal pillar, and men like Modi and his fellow hawks in the BJP are trying to demolish it. The BJP also heads the ruling coalition at the federal level in New Delhi. The hawks there have been open in their support for Modi.

The BJP is undoubtedly veering toward a “communal dictatorship of the majority.” Pushed by Hindu cult institutions such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, rightwing elements in the party supporting a hardline Hindu view are growing increasingly bold.

The victory in Gujarat has likely encouraged these hardliners, whose numbers are growing fast. BJP moderates such as India’s Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee now find themselves isolated and even ignored to a certain extent.

Even more ominous is the fact that the liberal-minded members of the government in New Delhi have not been able to check the BJP rightwing’s irrationality and religious intolerance. Despite his strong campaign to remove Modi from the chief minister’s chair immediately after the Gujarat genocide, Vajpayee found himself utterly helpless.

Modi’s latest triumph in the polls has proved that a hate tirade — in which a relatively few Muslim atrocities against Hindus were blown out of proportion — can be an effective tool to swing votes, win elections and carry an antiminority mind-set to disturbing conclusions.

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