Into the darkness

India says Pakistan backs terrorism, but now it is charged with supporting terrorism itself

Your friendly local corner shop may seem an unlikely place to find links to religiously motivated violence and ethnic cleansing. But the Patels, a community (some say caste) who originally came from the Indian state of Gujarat, played an important role in the troubles that engulfed the state in March and April.

Together with other overseas Gujaratis in the UK and the US, Patels are among those who help to finance the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the arch-Hindu fundamentalist organisation whose political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), runs the state government in Gujarat and leads India's coalition government. Some of the Patels also help to finance the sect's small temples and schools in Gujarat's villages, where, according to local social workers, militant Hindus led attacks on Muslims in the past two months.

Without the dominant power of the VHP in Gujarat, riots that started after 58 Hindu train passengers were burned alive, by a Muslim mob in Godhra on 27 February, might have ended within a few days instead of leading to more than 2,000 deaths, with bloody scenes of rape and the burning of Muslims and their homes.

Instead, the violence accelerated, aided and encouraged by the BJP Gujarat government and police - led by one of the Hindu movement's most ambitious fundamentalists, Narendra Modi, the state's chief minister. Modi used the Godhra incident as a trigger to unleash attacks on Muslims, hoping that this would reverse recent BJP electoral losses in the state - and allow Hindus to settle long-running communal scores and drive Muslims out of their areas. "This has not been a communal riot, nor a one-off event. It has been genocide with the state being used as a laboratory for the VHP's aims," says Cedric Prakash, a Jesuit priest and leading social worker who has been in Gujarat for nearly 30 years.

The large-scale violence has now stopped and, apart from isolated incidents, is unlikely to begin again in the foreseeable future. However, tensions and even further killings will continue later, possibly instigated by Muslims marooned in refugee camps who do not expect to get any significant redress in the courts for their loss of relatives and property.

For the time being, though, the main protagonists are tired. Leading businessmen, who have mostly stood by in silence for two months (either because they supported the attacks on Muslims or were scared of being attacked themselves), are demanding peace. There is a general wish to revive the economy after two months of inactivity, with workers staying away and truck drivers refusing to enter the state.

Modi risks being dismissed for allowing the situation to deteriorate - and it is far from clear whether the BJP has gained politically. Government ministers and VHP leaders are loath to admit any involvement with the riots. Some Hindus are still prepared to voice anti-Muslim feeling, sentiments boosted by America's attack on Islamic terrorists , and by India's growing tensions with Pakistan over terrorist incidents in the disputed northern state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Nationally, the BJP has realised that, instead of enhancing its appeal as a strong Hindu party, the events have destroyed the secular image it had been cultivating since it came to power in 1998. India's reputation has been irretrievably damaged abroad, which will almost certainly lead to a loss of urgently needed foreign investment. Since 11 September, Pakistan has been condemned by the US and other countries for abetting terrorist activity in Indian Kashmir, but India itself is now being accused of permitting and even encouraging domestic terrorism. "What we have been seeing is state terrorism, nothing less," says A P Raman, a leading local lawyer and former senior judge.

This was probably the worst and most prolonged violence since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, and it raises the question of whether similar events will break out elsewhere in India, with militant Hindus in other states looking for excuses to copy Gujarat and ethnically cleanse their areas.

"What you have seen evolving here is the original RSS agenda when it was set up some 70 years ago to develop a Hindu rashtra (nation) and bring back the glories of Hindu kingdoms 2,000 years ago," says Mukul Sinha, a lawyer and opponent of the riots. He is referring to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Nazi-style organisation at the centre of the Sangh Parivar, as the BJP's and VHP's overall Hindu revivalist movement is known.

Although the state is famous as the home of the pacifist Mahatma Gandhi, there are tensions under the surface that have made it an ideal breeding ground for the Sangh Parivar. The Patels, in particular, turned to the VHP because elite Gujaratis failed to give them sufficient status as they gradually developed from farm workers to landlords and prosperous businessmen. Involvement in Sangh Parivar politics has changed that, and Patels now occupy leading positions in the state. "They have become one of the most influential supporters of the BJP and VHP in Gujarat, both politically and economically," says a local newspaper editor.

Special factors, therefore, led to the events of the past two months - a well-established but worried BJP ruling party, a Sangh Parivar that wanted to flex its fundamentalist muscles, supported by a large and prosperous social group which wanted to assert itself. There does not appear to be a similar political and social mix elsewhere in India. But that could change in sensitive states such as Maharashtra or Uttar Pradesh, so another "Gujarat 2002" cannot be ruled out sometime in the future.