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.