Riots began in India last Wednesday and raged through the weekend. These are only the latest in a history of violent Muslim and Hindu relations that date back to the birth of the country. They are also the culmination of tensions that have been festering since the 1992 razing of a Muslim mosque in Ayodhya.

Official figures put the death toll from the past week at about 600. Unofficial sources claim the dead could number over 1,000.

The widespread riots in the northwestern Indian state of Gujarat began as retaliation for the death of at least 57 Hindus aboard a train in the city of Godhra last Wednesday. Approximately 2,500 Hindus were returning to the capital city of Ahmedabad from the site of the razed mosque in Ayodhya.

Upon hearing Hindus chanting inside the train, Muslim townspeople of Godhra attacked with stones and other weapons. Then they set the train on fire. Flames gutted four cars.

Widespread riots and attacks quickly followed the incident. Godhra schools and businesses were closed and a curfew was placed on the city to stem retaliatory violence.

The most serious violence erupted in Ahmedabad, where the train (minus the attacked cars) arrived hours later. Muslims were attacked as they left the train. Shops and buses were set ablaze.

Violence only worsened through Thursday and Friday around Ahmedabad as Hindu activists burned Muslims in their homes, devised elaborate traps to lure them into electrified pools of water, destroyed at least one mosque, and hurled gasoline bombs. Indian army troops were sent into at least three Gujarat towns to end the escalating massacre. The Gujarat police have reportedly detained 3,976 people.

Twenty-six cities and villages reported attacks. Curfews were imposed on at least 50 cities. One civil official told The New York Times, "It's never been like this before; it's the first time I've seen violence like this in rural areas. This is very worrisome."

John Dayal of The All India Christian Council (AICC) told the Associated Press that Christians were also attacked during the violence. He said that rioters torched a Catholic mission in Sanjeli village, attacked two priests with stones, and ransacked a missionary school near Godhra.

According to the article, Hindus comprise more than 80 percent of India's population while Muslims make up 12 percent. Two percent of India's people are Christian.

The roots of the tension
On December 6, 1992, Hindu militants destroyed a 16th-century Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya to replace it with a Hindu temple. The destruction of the mosque led to widespread bloodshed and rioting that left 2,000 dead.

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Ayodhya, a city with a history of violence, is mentioned in Hindu scripture and is a place of holy pilgrimage for Hindus, like those attacked on the train last Wednesday. Many believe that the town is the birthplace of a Hindu deity, Rama.

The Ayodhya debate has important political ties within India. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—along with the hardline Vishwa Hindu Parisad (VHP) or the World Hindu Party—was closely involved in an early-'90s push to turn the mosque property over to Hindus. The push resulted in the structure's destruction. In that year's elections, the party emerged as the largest single party in the country. Two years later, the BJP formed a coalition government under current Prime Minister Atal Behal Vajpayee and has held power since.

The dispute over the land where the Mosque once stood has not been settled. Both Muslims and Hindus claim ownership. Vajpayee has attempted to resolve the tensions through peaceful talks and court hearings.

Attempting to balance allegiance to his party (which is closely allied with the VHP) and the support of a diverse multiparty coalition government, the prime minister has declared he will not allow unauthorized construction on the site. However, The Christian Science Monitor reports that as recently as December 2000 the prime minister said, "The construction of the Ram temple is an expression of national sentiment that remains unrealized."

The matter is currently in India's Supreme Court, but the VHP vowed to ignore any court action and to build its Hindu temple beginning March 15, legally or not. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Hindu activists are on the scene in anticipation of the construction.

The BBC reported yesterday that the VHP reached a compromise with Vajpayee and pledged to push its March 15 deadline back three months to let tensions cool. The group has allegedly also agreed to abide any decision the courts make. However, the compromise comes with a series of conditions. If denied access to build on the site of the razed Mosque, the VHP wants to build its Ayodhya temple on adjacent ground.

However, The Chicago Tribune reports today that little progress has been made and government talks with the VHP are still in deadlock.

The New York Times said the temple issue is a "moment of reckoning" for the BJP. Many observers are waiting to see what steps the prime minister and the government will take in future weeks.

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Yesterday, the AICC called for a crackdown on extremist Hindu groups in the country, claiming that government inaction was responsible for the massacre. While the BJP Indian government has banned one Islamic organization's operations, the AICC said, it has ignored Hindu militants "despite overwhelming evidence of complicity in violence against Christians and Muslims."

Gujarat police also claim party members incited last week's riots. Others claim the police themselves took part in the slaughter.

Bloody Gujarat
Like Ayodhya, Gujarat has a history of violence and murderous rioting. The state was the home of Mohandas Gandhi, who tried to reconcile the violent tensions between Hindus and the minority Muslims that led to nearly 1 million deaths in 1947. More deaths followed in riots in 1969.

After the 1992 fall of the Babri Masjid mosque, most of the worst violence occurred in Gujarat. Ten days later, a new round of violence between Hindus and Muslims broke out in the state and left ten dead.

Smaller riots occurred in Gujarat in 1986, 1993, 1999, and 2001. Twice in 1999, attacks were targeted in the state against Christians and their property.

Most past violence (including the 1999 murder of missionary Graham Staines) and persecution against Christians in India has occurred in the state of Orissa, located on the coast opposite Gujarat (see map).

Last week's death toll is a return to the massacres of the past in Gujarat, a time that many Indians hoped was over. A social worker told The Irish Times that during last year's earthquake, Hindus and Muslims were working side by side and many took it as a sign that "communal animosity had been left behind."

A Muslim woman told the paper that she too thought Gujarat's religious conflicts were past and now had strong relationships with Hindu neighbors. "We were betrayed by the very people whom we looked upon as members of our extended family," she said. " I saw my neighbor set my mother alight after dousing her with kerosene."

One encouraging story: Virsing Rathod, a Hindu, rallied his two sons to help him break through a mob of Hindus to rescue Muslims from their burning homes.

"There is much affection between the Hindus and Muslims here, and I could not just stand by and let them die," Rathod told The Dallas Morning News. "What has happened is shameful."

Peaceful but tense
Yesterday, news agencies reported that Gujarat was slowly returning to normal. Aside from isolated incidents, authorities said, the state was peaceful but tense.

However, observers fear that the worst may be yet to come as Ayodhya temple plans are far from settled and the VHP plans for the future are unknown. The New York Times quoted a leader of the group yesterday who justified killing hundreds of Muslims. "If the Muslims do not learn, it will be very harmful for them," he said.

Todd Hertz is assistant online editor of Christianity Today.