- The Washington Times - Friday, March 10, 2006

VARANASI, India — If anything was to set off the next round of bloodletting between India’s Hindus and Muslims, many feared it would be this week’s bombings in Hinduism’s holiest city.

Twenty persons were killed in the attacks, which were blamed on Muslim extremists and targeted a temple and the train station.

“Imagine if the Israelis attacked Mecca, or a Muslim man bombed the Vatican — that is how I, how we all, feel,” said Ravneet Sharma before offering prayers at the Sankat Mochan temple.

Yet in the days since, this wounded city of temples and holy men 450 miles east of New Delhi has shown remarkable restraint. The feared retaliation has not come to pass, despite the inflammatory rhetoric of Hindu nationalist leaders.

The calm — if angry — aftermath, many here say, is booming India’s modern response to ancient tensions that have long set South Asia’s Hindus and Muslims against one another.

“So much pain is coursing through my heart,” Mr. Sharma said. All around him the devout appealed to the monkey god Hanuman, chanting prayers and rubbing sandalwood paste on statues of the deity. The sound of monkeys running over the roof echoed throughout the building.

He made it clear he feels little love for his Muslim neighbors. “They are not my brothers,” he said.

But India is a growing economic and diplomatic power and “these extremists want to destroy our peace and prosperity,” he said. “Communal violence is their aim. We must control our impulses.”

Investigators suspect separatist Islamic militants from Jammu and Kashmir, the Muslim-majority territory claimed by both India and Pakistan, planted the bombs.

Instead of rioting, most of Varanasi’s million people showed their anger through a general strike that shut down the city Wednesday.

Yesterday, soldiers and police maintained a heavy presence in the city, but street life was bustling again. Narrow alleyways were choked with pushcarts and cars and the Ganges River was coursing with boatmen ferrying pilgrims and tourists. Shopkeepers chewing betel leaves tended display cases of cell phones, cheap electronics and Hindi music.

Hundreds of Buddhist monks, holding candles and oil lamps, walked three times around the temple and prayed for the souls of the blast victims. The monks were from a Tibetan monastery on the outskirts of Varanasi, among the world’s oldest cities and a site where millions of Hindu pilgrims gather annually for ritual bathing and prayers on the banks of the Ganges.

More than 80 percent of India’s 1 billion people are Hindu. Their relations with Muslims, the country’s largest religious minority, have been largely peaceful since the partition of the subcontinent at independence from Britain in 1947, when more than 1 million people were killed as overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan was carved from largely Hindu India.

But there have been periodic bouts of sectarian strife. Thousands died in rioting after Hindu militants tore down northern India’s historic Babri Mosque in 1992. A campaign to build a Hindu temple at the site propelled the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in 1998.

But it’s been two years since the BJP was voted out of national office, and with elections coming up in Uttar Pradesh state, where Varanasi is located, party leaders and other Hindu nationalists are making their presence felt here.

Seemingly endless processions of Hindu nationalists have made their way through Sankat Mochan since the attacks, chanting what sound more like a call to arms than a prayer.

“Indian people pick up rocks and sticks at the behest of politicians,” said Ashok Yadav, a 40-year-old shop owner. He said he was angry, but would “vote,” not riot.

The temple’s spiritual caretaker, 68-year-old Veer Bhadra Mishra, was more blunt. “Wherever there is a carcass, you have vultures circling overhead,” he said.

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