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what about the police raping Muslim women? There have been many reports of that.’

      The Rajmata considered this for a minute then replied: ‘I think that maybe those policeman who do that have seen some similar atrocity done to Hindu women by the Muslims. That would make them mad with anger and grief.’

      She looked across at me, smiling benignly as if she had just solved the whole problem.

      ‘Anyway,’ she said, ‘if only the Muslims followed the Hindu ideology there would be no more trouble.’

      ‘But you can hardly expect a hundred million Muslims to abandon their faith and convert to Hinduism.’

      ‘That’s just the trouble,’ she replied. ‘The Muslims should realise that they are Indians. Babur [the first Moghul Emperor] was not their ancestor, Ram was. They should accept our common culture and unite with us in the name of God. This must be the answer. Anyway,’ she added with a frown, ‘they are too many to drive out.’

      What can one make of a naive and pious old woman who can close her eyes to the massacre of innocent people carried out by her own supporters? Who can wilfully fail to make the connection between the emotions she whips up and the garrotted corpse lying in the dirt of a narrow alleyway? In her blindness, the Rajmata remains an unsettling reminder that you need not be personally objectionable to subscribe to the most deeply objectionable political creeds: charm and sweetness are clearly not guarantees against either violent nationalism or the most xenophobic religious fundamentalism and bigotry.

      My last image of the Rajmata was the sight of her addressing an adoring crowd in a remote district in central India. After she had finished speaking and the crowds were cheering and clapping, the drums were beating and marigold garlands were being thrown over her neck, she slowly made her way through a police cordon towards her waiting helicopter. Already the rotor blades were beginning to turn.

      ‘Who is going and who is not?’ asked an aide.

      ‘I have no idea. I am going. That much I know,’ replied the Rajmata, looking at the helicopter with some misgiving.

      ‘Are you frightened of flying?’ I asked.

      ‘No, no,’ she replied. ‘Flying I am absolutely at home. But it has to be with wings.’

      Then she smiled.

      ‘My Hanuman can fly too. He flew to Lanka to rescue Sita. But of course, he does not need a helicopter …’

      The aides were waiting. Bending low beneath the rotor blades, the old lady scuttled in to the cockpit, ready for another bout of campaigning in some other district of her old kingdom.

      As the crowd of villagers looked on, the blades turned quicker and quicker. There was a noise like a great wind, and clouds of dust blew over the podium where the Rajmata had been speaking just minutes before.

      Some of the villagers, terrified, ran for cover; others prostrated themselves on the ground. When they raised their heads they saw that the Rajmata had risen like a Hindu goddess in to the heavens, carried, as it were, on the wings of Garuda, the great winged vehicle of the immortals.


      In 1997 the Rajmata suffered a major heart attack, but following bypass surgery she has returned undaunted to full-time politics at the age of eighty-four. In the 1998 general election she retained her seat, albeit by a slightly reduced margin.

      Ever since the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya, the BJP has continued to grow in popularity and influence. In 1992 it took 113 seats in parliament, up from eighty-nine in the previous election. In 1996 the number rose to 161, making it the largest single party in the Lok Sabha (Indian parliament). It succeeded in forming a short-lived coalition government which survived only two weeks before losing a crucial vote of confidence. Finally, the BJP won the 1998 general election with a record 179 seats, but this still fell short of a majority, and its administration was forced to rely on a hotchpotch of minority parties, some of which were strongly opposed to its more extreme pro-Hindu policies.

      Moreover, the BJP’s entry in to the political mainstream from the mid-nineties onwards was largely achieved by toning down much of its more inflammatory Hindu rhetoric. The party’s leading moderate, Atal Behari Vajpayee, was appointed as its leader, and many of its more extreme figures, including the Rajmata, were sidelined. It remains to be seen, however, if this new, relatively acceptable face of the BJP represents a fundamental change in the party, or merely a disguise with which to woo the credulous voter. The decision to explode the ‘Hindu’ nuclear bomb, the hawkish anti-Pakistan rhetoric that followed it, and the call by some BJP activists to erect a temple at the site of the blast, would seem to indicate that the extremists and bigots in the party are still far from defeated.

       East of Eton

      LUCKNOW, 1997

      Just before dawn on 7 March 1997, two figures made their way to a small classical bungalow on the perimeter of La Martiniere College in Lucknow, India’s oldest and once its most distinguished public school.

      Walking silently to the back of the building, they found a broken windowpane looking in to the bedroom of the school’s Anglo-Indian PT instructor, Frederick Gomes. The two took aim and, at a signal, fired at the sleeping figure with a .763 Mauser and .380 pistol. One shot missed, but the other hit Gomes in the leg. The schoolmaster immediately leaped out of bed and hobbled in to the corridor.

      According to the police reconstruction, the two killers then ran round to the front of the building, kicked open the front door and took some more shots at the terrified man, wounding him in the back as he tried to run back to his bedroom. Bleeding heavily, Gomes succeeded in shutting the door and barricading it with a chair. But the killers returned to the back and fired a random hail of bullets in to the room through the window. When Gomes’ body was later discovered by another schoolmaster, the PT instructor was found to have sustained no fewer than eight hits: four in the chest, one in the leg, two in his back and the fatal one on his temple.

      The murder, which remains unsolved, created a sensation in India, particularly when several guns (though not the murder weapons) were found to be circulating among the school’s pupils. For La Martiniere is an institution of legendary propriety and distinction, as pukka as Kipling himself, who appropriately sent his fictional hero Kim to a Lucknow school – St Xavier’s – clearly modelled on La Martiniere. During the Raj, the school produced generations of District Magistrates, Imperial civil servants and Indian Army officers, and the names of many of these Victorian pupils – Carlisle, Lyons, Binns, Charleston, Raymond – are still carved on the front steps of the school. Since then La Martiniere has educated several members of the Nehru–Gandhi dynasty, as well as producing great numbers of cabinet ministers, industrialists and newspaper editors. If India’s increasingly endemic violence and corruption could creep in to such an institution, it was asked, what was the hope for the rest of India? ‘The killing is a metaphor of our times,’ I was told by Saeed Naqvi, one of the country’s most highly regarded political commentators and an old boy of the school. ‘For such a level of violence to reach the groves of academe and the sacred precincts of La Martiniere is symbolic of the way the country of Mahatma Gandhi has completely ceased to be what it once was.’

      In Britain there may have been widespread celebrations marking fifty years of Indian Independence, but in India there has been much less rejoicing. As The Times of India acknowledged in an editorial to mark the 1997 Republic Day, ‘in this landmark year not much remains of the hope, idealism and expectations that our founding fathers poured in to the creation of the Republic. In their place we now have a sense of abject resignation, an increasing sense of drift. We are ostensibly on the verge of a global breakthrough; yet the truth is that the deprived India is eating voraciously in to the margins of the prosperous India.’

      If decay and corruption have set in to many of the old institutions of the Raj, the

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