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previous five years Indian politics had been dominated by the Babri Masjid dispute. This concerned a sixteenth-century mosque in the town of Ayodhya, reputedly built by invading Muslims over a temple marking the site of the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram.

      Every year since 1989, various of the Rajmata’s Hindu organisations had held an annual rally at the disputed mosque. There they had performed sacred rites to indicate their wish to rebuild a temple on the site. In 1992 the rally was called as normal, but things did not proceed as expected.

      Instead, having been whipped up in to a frenzy by the Rajmata and other BJP leaders, the vast crowd of two hundred thousand militant Hindus stormed the barricades. Shouting slogans like ‘Victory to Lord Ram!’ ‘Hindustan is for the Hindus!’ and ‘Death to the Muslims!’ they began tearing the mosque apart with sledgehammers, ropes, pickaxes and their bare hands.

      One after another, like symbols of India’s time-honoured traditions of tolerance, democracy and secularism, the three domes of the mosque fell to the ground. In little more than four hours the entire structure had been reduced not just to ruination but – quite literally – to rubble.

      By the time the last pieces of the mosque’s masonry had been brought tumbling down, one group of Hindu militants had begun shouting ‘Death to the journalists!’ and attacked a group of foreign correspondents with knives and iron bars, smashing cameras and television equipment. Having tasted blood, the mob set off to murder as many local Muslims as they could find. They finished off the job by torching the Muslims’ houses.

      While all this was happening, Rajmata Scindia – who had earlier signed a written pledge to the Indian High Court guaranteeing the mosque’s safety – stood on the viewing platform, cheering as enthusiastically as if she was a football fan watching her team win the World Cup. As the demolition proceeded, she grabbed a microphone and encouraged the militants over the Tannoy.

      Later that afternoon, a party of journalists stopped her limousine as she was leaving the town. They asked her whether she at least condemned the attacks on the correspondents. She replied in just two words: ‘Acha hoguy’ – it was a good thing.

      Over the next fortnight, unrest swept India: crowds of angry Muslim demonstrators came out on to the streets, only to be massacred by the same police force that had earlier stood by and allowed the Hindu militants to destroy the mosque without firing a shot. In all, about two thousand people were killed and eight thousand injured in the violence that followed the demolition of the mosque.

      Bombay was the scene of some of the worst rioting, but – as elsewhere – the trouble had pretty well died down by Christmas. Then, on the night of 7 January 1993, a Hindu family was brutally roasted alive when petrol bombs were thrown in to their shanty-hut. It is still unclear who was responsible for the killings – the evidence seems to point to criminal gangs working for unscrupulous property developers – but the local Hindu fundamentalists assumed it was the work of the Muslims, and set to work orchestrating a bloody and brutal revenge.

      For the next week Bombay blazed as Muslims were hunted down by armed mobs, burned in their homes, scalded by acid bombs or knifed in the streets by mobile hit-squads. A few prominent middle-class Muslims – factory owners, the richer shopkeepers, newspaper editors – were also singled out for attack. Some of the poorer Muslim districts of the city were completely gutted by fire. In several places the municipal water pipes were turned off, and when the Muslims began to creep out of their ghettos with buckets in their hands, they found themselves surrounded by thugs who covered them with kerosene and set them alight, burning hundreds alive. In all, an estimated forty thousand Hindu activists went on a meticulously planned rampage, with the tacit support of the (96 per cent Hindu) police force. For a fortnight Bombay, India’s effervescent commercial capital, was transformed in to a subcontinental version of Beirut or Sarajevo.

      When the army was finally brought in, a curfew declared and the acid bombs, flick-knives and AK-47s had been put back in their hiding places, at least fourteen hundred people – the overwhelming majority impoverished Muslims – had been slaughtered. Many more were injured and disfigured. Hundreds of thousands of others fled from the city to the shelter of their ancestral villages. According to a memorandum prepared by Citizens for Peace, a pressure group formed by Bombay’s business élite, the violence was ‘nothing short of a deliberate plan to change the ethnic composition of what was hitherto regarded as a cosmopolitan city’.

      Behind the mass murder and ethnic cleansing was the local Hindu nationalist party allied to the Rajmata’s BJP: the Shiv Sena (Lord Shiva’s Army). Their leader, a former cartoonist named Bal Thackeray, made no secret of the fact that the mobs were under his control, and boasted in a magazine interview that he aimed to ‘kick out India’s 110 million Muslims and send them to Pakistan’. ‘Have they behaved like the Jews in Nazi Germany?’ he was quoted as asking. ‘If so, there is nothing wrong if they are treated as Jews were in Germany.’

      Yet according to one newspaper report that I read, the Rajmata, far from attacking the bloodshed, let it be known that she regarded Thackeray and the Shiv Sena as close allies of the BJP: their aims were right, she said; only some of their methods were a little questionable.

      Her position on this, and her apparent lack of concern at the bloody massacre of several thousand Indian Muslims – indeed the whole country’s gradual slide towards communal anarchy – seemed irreconcilable with the impression I had formed of her in Gwalior as a cosy old grandma. Baffled, I decided to revisit the Rajmata, to try to understand how one woman could behave so very differently in different circumstances.

      I telephoned her aides in Delhi and discovered that the seventy-nine-year-old was now busy campaigning in the jungles and villages of central India: after the recent upheavals, she expected the government to fall by March, and wanted to be ready for the general election when it was called. The Rajmata was uncontactable, said her aides: she was campaigning in the remotest corners of her old kingdom, far from any working telephone. But, I was told, if I went to the town of Shivpuri the following weekend I might be able to catch her on her way through.

      I did as I was told. By Sunday morning I had tracked the Rajmata down to the house of the local Sardar in Shivpuri. She was heading south towards Bhopal in half an hour, she said. She did not have time to speak to me now, but if I came with her in her car I could interview her on the way.

      ‘Oh!’ she said as we headed down the driveway in the limo. ‘I wish you had been there at Ayodhya when the mosque fell! When I saw the three domes come down I thought: “This is what God wanted. It was His will.”’

      ‘But what about all the murders? What about the massacres in Bombay?’ I said. ‘You wouldn’t say Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena thugs were the hand of God as well, would you?’

      ‘I won’t criticise Thackeray,’ said the Rajmata benignly. ‘For so long the Muslims have been appeased by the Congress. What happened was a reaction. Thackeray is a bit extreme, but …’

      ‘No,’ said Sardar Angre. ‘He is quite right. The Muslims must be made to understand that they should be proud of Hindustan. We cannot tolerate Muslims in this country if they don’t feel themselves Indian. Look what happens at cricket matches: the Muslims always support Pakistan.’

      I wondered whether Angre realised he was unconsciously echoing the sentiments of Lord Tebbit, but decided not to complicate the issue. I simply said: ‘You can hardly justify murdering people because they support the wrong cricket team.’

      ‘Hindus are docile people,’ said the Rajmata. ‘They always welcome anyone – even the Jews.’ She nodded her head as if to emphasise what she clearly regarded as an extreme feat of tolerance. ‘They are not violent.’

      ‘They don’t seem to be very docile at the moment,’ I said.

      ‘The Muslims have been appeased for so long,’ repeated Angre.

      ‘The police don’t seem to appease them much,’ I said. ‘They always take the side of the Hindus.’

      ‘Well, naturally birds of a feather will flock together,’ replied the Rajmata

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