Ancient Hate Has India on Edge of Chaos

Feb. 28 was the worst day in Imran Topiwala's life and he hopes it will stay that way.

A businessman from a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, Topiwala and his family had to flee their apartment that fateful morning when a mob of thousands of enraged Hindus stormed their apartment complex.

But harrowing as that experience was, Topiwala fears Friday could be a lot worse.

In a religious row that threatens to plunge the subcontinent into yet another horrific round of mass slaughters, Hindu hard-liners have set March 15 as a date to hold a controversial religious ceremony on a disputed site in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya.

Indian Muslims have opposed the ceremony because they fear it will pave the way for the building of a Hindu temple where a 16th century mosque was smashed to rubble by Hindu hard-liners in 1992.

On Wednesday, the Indian Supreme Court upheld an earlier ruling that "no religious ceremony of any kind" could be performed on the site until several legal cases were settled.

But the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), the right-wing Hindu organization at the heart of dispute, indicated it would go ahead with the controversial ceremony near the site where the mosque was torn down. Earlier today, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee vowed to uphold the court order and the government has launched a huge security operation around the disputed site, which is now under government control.

For Topiwala, a 28-year-old Muslim owner of a software business firm, legal rulings and political assurances made in the Indian capital of New Delhi offers him no real protection.

"We're still scared, very scared," he says during a phone interview with "The public is not going to protect us and the police is not going to protect us. It's very tense here, but all we can do is just wait and watch and pray for the best."

Attacked by a Mob

For Topiwala, New Delhi, with its wide boulevards and manicured gardens, is a world away from the madness his family has to cope with in volatile Ahmedabad.

It all began on Feb. 27, when a Muslim mob, heckled by Hindu hard-liners returning from a pilgrimage to Ayodhya, torched a train in the town of Godhra in the western Indian state of Gujarat, killing 58 Hindus.

When news of the torching reached Muslims in Ahmedabad, the state capital of Gujarat, they knew trouble was ahead.

And trouble arrived the next day for the Topiwalas in the form of an incensed, armed mob of Hindu extremists hurling petrol bombs, crude anti-Muslim invective and screaming for revenge.

"They came with talwars [swords], guptis [daggers], trishuls [tri-bladed locally-made spears] and petrol bombs," recounts Topiwala. "They were burning cars, throwing stones and shouting maro, maro [hit them, hit them]. We were terrified. I recognized three of my [Hindu] neighbors [in the mob] but the rest were all outsiders."

While the mob moved down the street to torch some Muslim-owned shops and businesses, Topiwala's family fled their apartment complex from a back entrance and ran to their uncle's house about half a mile away.

From his uncle's terrace, Topiwala could see the mob burning down his apartment block as well as his offices down the street. Two weeks later, the Topiwalas have joined the ranks of thousands of Indians rendered homeless by the recent violence.

And the toll on human lives was devastating with more than 700 dead, hundreds missing and thousands injured.

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