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End Of A Love Affair With India

By Luke Harding

The Guardian
16 September, 2003

I can identify the moment I fell out of love with India quite precisely. It happened at the end of last February. Riots had just broken out in the western state of Gujarat, after a group of Muslims attacked a train full of Hindu pilgrims, killing 59 of them. In Gujarat's main city, Ahmedabad, trouble was brewing. Hindu mobs had begun taking revenge on their Muslim neighbours - there were stories of murder, looting and arson. Arriving in Ahmedabad from Delhi, I found it impossible to hire a car or driver: nobody wanted to drive into the riots.

But the trouble was not difficult to find: smoke billowed from above Ahmedabad's old city; and I set off towards it on foot. There were rumours that a mob had hacked to death Ahsan Jafri - a distinguished Indian former MP, and a Muslim - whose Muslim housing estate was surrounded by a sea of Hindu houses. A team from Reuters gave me a lift. Driving through streets full of burned-out shops and broken glass we arrived half an hour later outside his compound, surrounded by thousands of people. Jafri had been dead for several hours, it emerged. A Hindu mob had tipped kerosene through his front door; a few hours later they had dragged him out into the street, chopped off his fingers, and set him on fire. They also set light to several other members of his family, including two small boys. There wasn't much left of Jafri's Gulbarg Housing Society by the time we got there: at the bottom of his stairs I discovered a pyre of human remains - hair and the tiny blackened arm of a child, its fist clenched.

Two police officers in khaki told us the situation was dangerous, and that we should leave; they seemed resigned or indifferent to the horror around them, an emotion I had encountered before during what would turn out to be more than three years of reporting on India for the Guardian. Later that afternoon, in the suburb of Naroda Patiya, we watched as a Hindu crowd armed with machetes and iron bars attacked their Muslim neighbours on the other side of the street. All of the shops on the Muslim side of the road were ablaze; smoke blotted out the sky; gas cylinders exploded and boomed; we were, it seemed, in some part of hell. "We are being killed. Please get us out," one Muslim resident, Dishu Banashek, told me. "They are firing at us. Several of our women have been raped. You must help."

When we asked a senior policeman to intervene he merely smirked. "Don't worry, madam. Everything will be done," he told a colleague from the Times mendaciously. We left. It was too dangerous to stay.

The causes of the rioting - India's worst communal violence for a decade - became clearer the next morning, when I returned to Naroda Patiya - now a ruin of abandoned homes and smouldering rickshaws. Virtually all of the Muslims had fled: I found only a solitary survivor, Narinder Bhai, standing by the charred interior of his home. "Everything is finished," he said, showing off his ruined fridge. "Many people have been killed here. My wife and children have disappeared."

Just round the corner, down an alley, I spotted a neat bungalow that had apparently escaped the chaos. It was only on closer inspection that I saw its owner: the charred and mutilated remains of a Muslim woman had been laid out in the front garden and framed by a charpoy. Round the back I found an address book - which identified the woman as Mrs Rochomal; next to it, the Nokia phone she had used in a doomed attempt to summon help. Her son's washing was hanging on the line, in the morning sunshine; inside there was a neat kitchen and black-and-white family photos. Mrs Rochomal's flip-flops were still by the front door, next to a swing-seat.

Five minutes later, her mobile phone rang. I didn't answer it. Her body was less than 60 metres away from the local police station. The police had not, it was obvious, bothered to rescue her: they had, I was forced to conclude, been complicit in her death.

Fifteen years earlier I had visited India for the first time as a backpacker, only dimly aware of the country's inflammable religious politics. I knew that India was a Hindu-dominated, though officially secular country. I also knew it had a large Muslim minority, which had failed to migrate to Pakistan at the time of partition. But the charming aid workers I spent four months with in the cool hills of Tamil Nadu, Madam Preetha and Babu Isaac Daniel, were eccentric and devout Christians; while the family friends I visited in Bombay were wealthy Parsis. It seemed also that India's Congress party - led by the secular Rajiv Gandhi - was destined to stay in power for a long time; the party had, after all, governed India for most of the period since Britain left the subcontinent.

Two years later, however, an arms corruption scandal forced Gandhi out of office and a new ideological movement began to dominate the political landscape - the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or India People's Party. The BJP rejected the idea that India should be secular; its more extreme supporters wanted to turn the country into a Hindu state, a sort of Indian version of Pakistan, an India-stan. By the time I arrived in New Delhi for the Guardian, the BJP was firmly established in power; and the multi-faith India of Mahatma Gandhi and Jarwarharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, was, it seemed, in big trouble.

Mahatma Gandhi still appeared on India's banknotes, of course. But nobody seemed to talk about him any more, and his vision of an inclusive India was under threat from something darker and arguably fascist. Driving last year around Ahmedabad, in Gandhi's home state, I found a group of Hindu men standing jubilantly around the ruins of a small brick tomb. They had just demolished it. The tomb had belonged to Vali Gujarati - Muslim India's answer to Geoffrey Chaucer, and the grandfather of Urdu poetry. In its place, the Hindu youths had erected a tiny petal-strewn shrine to the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman. "We have broken the mosque and made a temple," one of them, Mahesh Patel, told me. What should be done with India's Muslims, I wondered? "They should not live in India. They should go and live in Pakistan," he told me. This is clearly a tricky proposition: India has 140 million Muslims, out of a population of more than a billion. It is, paradoxically, the world's second-largest Muslim country after Indonesia. The Muslims I talked to during the Gujarat riots pointed out that they were Indian. They said that they didn't want to go anywhere.

Returning to Delhi after a harrowing week in dry Gujarat, where it is almost impossible to get a drink, I found dozens of emails from incensed BJP supporters in Britain and elsewhere. Like most commentators I had heaped blame for the riots on Gujarat's BJP government, and its chief minister, Narendra Modi. I wrote that Modi had condoned and encouraged what was in effect an anti-Muslim pogrom by instructing his Hindu police force to do nothing. The hate mail came flooding in. One email accused me of "anti-Hindu sentiment", and announced that dozens of demonstrators would gather outside my flat in the leafy Delhi colony of Nizamuddin the following day.

They didn't show up. Another pointed out, correctly, that Britain had chopped the subcontinent in half and looted "trillions of dollars in goodies from India" - including the Kohinoor diamond. He signed off: "I piss on your dead whore Queen Mother." More ominously, though, I was summoned to meet Mr Kulkarni, a special adviser to India's ostensibly moderate BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. As dusk fell, we sat on wicker chairs in the garden of Kulkarni's government flat, just opposite the prime minister's bungalow in Race Course Road. I had failed to understand the nature of Hindu society, he politely suggested over a cup of tea.

It would, perhaps, be an exaggeration to say that the worsening Hindu-Muslim divide in India threatens to tear the country apart, but certainly relations between the country's two major communities are as bad as they have ever been. Indian Muslims are now in the unenviable position of being cast as fifth columnists for Pakistan, India's Muslim neighbour and - for most of the time - its enemy. Nehru's India appears to be dead. Islamic extremists inside India, meanwhile, are taking their own form of bloody revenge - killing more than 50 people, for example, last month in two gruesome car bombings in Bombay.

The origins of the violence ultimately go back to Ayodhya, a small, sleepy temple town in north India, where cannabis grows in the ditches, and sadhus, or Hindu holy men, mingle with large gangs of monkeys. It was here in 1992 that Hindu zealots tore down a mosque on a site they claimed was the birthplace of Lord Ram, Hinduism's most important deity. The episode propelled the BJP to power, provoked widespread communal riots and severely damaged India's secular credentials.

The issue of whether a temple should be built on the disputed site - and India's hostile relationship with Pakistan - continue to dominate Indian public life. In the meantime, little attention is paid to the plight of the country's 400 million poor. Late last year I travelled to Baran, an impoverished district in Rajasthan, where dozens of low-caste tribal people had reportedly starved to death. I found plenty of villagers who were still eating grass; the rumours of starvation were true. There was, it transpired, plenty of food in government warehouses - it was merely that corrupt local officials had taken it for themselves.

In his latest book, India in Slow Motion, Mark Tully blames India's problems on the "neta-babu raj" - the alliance between politicians and bureaucrats to hang on to power. Tully is probably right. But it is not just in rural India that the pace of change has been slow. Faced with bankruptcy in the early 90s, India embarked on a programme of economic liberalisation. Delhi now boasts Marks & Spencer and Pizza Express. The biggest change in Delhi during my tenure in India has been the arrival of the coffee bar, and the admirable coffee chain Barista. It is now possible to buy a latte or espresso in India's big metros - in a country famous for its tea. But in general, India's infrastructure is as creaking and run-down as ever. During the monsoon, the phone lines crack up; and in the infernal summer months, the power fails. Maintaining electrical appliances - fax machine, water purifier, back-up power supply - is a full-time job. In the quiet periods after last year's Gujarat riots I thought often of Mrs Rochomal, lying burned and mutilated in her neat front garden, and of the horror of her last few minutes. Did her children stumble on her body? Did the people who killed her feel any remorse? I shall return to India, but not for a while.