- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 18, 2002

AHMEDABAD, India Mohandas Gandhi's wooden spinning wheel still stands among the simple throw pillows where he once sat cross-legged, threading cotton, receiving world leaders and promoting his vision of a unified, secular India.

Today, just beyond the whitewashed cottages of the independence leader's ashram, across a dry riverbed where sacred cows graze under the searing subcontinent sun, Muslims and Hindus have turned on one another with a ferocity not seen in a decade.

The handful of elderly men who live among the lush gardens at Gandhi Ashram, or religious community, can see the smoke from burning homes and stores. Police sirens disturb their daily prayers.

The violence in Gujarat, Gandhi's home state where he founded his ashram, has claimed more than 900 lives statewide in the last two months, mostly Muslims beaten or burned to death, or killed in police firing. Human rights activists say the death toll may come closer to 2,000 when one counts the missing in the western state.

Gandhi the man who led his people to independence from the British revered by his followers as mahatma or "great soul," once wrote that "Hindu-Muslim cooperation is our inevitable condition for Indian freedom," and several times he threatened to starve himself to shame his people into halting their feuds.

"Gandhi would have been very sad. He would have fasted to his death to stop all this," said Chunibhai Vaidya, an 84-year-old Gandhi disciple who lives at the ashram.

"But we have failed Gandhi, we have forgotten him, we have betrayed him."

And yet, in many ways, the vision that Gandhi promoted until his assassination by a Hindu fanatic in 1948 is still alive.

A vibrant if sometimes messy democracy, a federal system and a constitution steeped in secular values allow India's 120 million Muslims to live in relative peace among nearly 1 billion Hindus.

There are many more examples of harmony than hatred among those Hindus and Muslims who live side by side in thousands of villages throughout rural India and in its massive metropolises.

Muslims serve as judges and lawmakers. India's richest man, Aziz Premji, chairman of the software giant Wipro is Muslim. Two of India's presidents have been Muslims. One, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, was a Muslim from the northeastern state of Assam.

Assam, 30 percent of whose 26 million people are Muslim, is an example of the coexistence that is the norm for much of India. It is symbolized by the door on a Hindu temple in Guwahati, the capital, on which is a plaque commemorating Usman Ali, the Muslim who donated the land for the temple.

"We all believe that God is one. When Usman Ali donated the plot of land, I'm sure he had no idea of the significance of his gesture," said Manmohan Das, the Hindu secretary of the temple. "Here, we are all living together in spite of the communal upsurge elsewhere in India."

Most Muslims in India think of themselves as Indians first, Muslims second. Muslims and Hindus marry each other, go into business together, play together for India's national cricket team.

India's most popular movie stars are Muslims: Aamir Khan, whose colonial cricket epic "Lagaan" was nominated for an Academy Award this year, Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan. They're known as the "the Khan Brigade."

Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan are married to Hindu women. And Hindu heartthrob Hrithik Roshan's wife is Muslim.

When Virsing Rathod heard the screams of his Muslim neighbors being burned alive during the first night of the riots in Ahmedabad, the burly Hindu and his two sons jumped in a truck, rammed their way through a Hindu mob and began pulling Muslims from the flames. They saved 25 Muslims that night and sheltered dozens more in safe houses.

"I did it out of humanity, because in my heart I knew it was the right thing to do," said Mr. Rathod.

Across the country in Calcutta live Srabani Das, a Hindu, and her Muslim husband, Naseer Khan.

"Never for a moment in our nine years of married life was there any tension because of religion," said Mrs. Das.

"Naseer never asked me to change my religion. I still write my Hindu surname and he never interferes with my Hindu way of life," she said. "We have friendly tiffs and we try to find the loopholes in each other's religion and even cut jokes."

Mrs. Das said their 7-year-old daughter, Karishma a neutral name that could be either Hindu or Muslim helps put things in perspective.

"Our daughter is the binding glue. She has a Muslim father, a Hindu mother and a Christian-English schooling," Mrs. Das said. "I think when my daughter, Karishma, grows up, she will be a truly secular person."

That sort of talk disgusts Hindu fundamentalist "kar sevaks," religious volunteers who dedicate themselves to promoting Hindu purity and preventing Hindu-Muslim marriages or conversions.

"Everyone living in India is a Hindu," said K.C. Sudarshan, head of the hard-line National Volunteer Corps. "It's not a religion, but a way of life."

The religious divide dates back to the Muslim Moguls who invaded in the eighth century. Independence was born in the blood of 1 million killed when the subcontinent was partitioned into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan in 1947. Frequent spasms of communal violence have followed, India and Pakistan have fought three wars and, now nuclear-armed, are spoiling for a fourth.


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