Courtesy Reuters

India's House Divided: Understanding Communal Violence

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India once stood tall in the annals of postcolonial nations. Beset by deep poverty, great inequality, and a vast population, the country still managed to avoid the dictatorships that befell so many of its neighbors. India's democracy, now encompassing a billion people, may have been maddeningly slow to reform, but at least it was resilient. Governments rose and fell, new participants swelled the ranks of the political elite, and the middle class kept expanding. Although the country's many religious, linguistic, and caste groups frequently squabbled -- and sometimes exploded into violence -- they also coexisted.

Whereas other multiethnic countries underwent violent breakups leading to ethnically homogeneous states, India appeared to have pulled off that unlikely feat: maintaining a pluralist administration under a secular government. The country's rulers proved surprisingly responsive to diverse ethnic and minority claims when compared to other developing nations, and even some developed ones. In its first 15 years of independence alone, India created 11 new states based on linguistic and cultural identity and also implemented a broad system of affirmative action to redress traditional discrimination. This record, combined with booming economic growth in the 1990s, led many in the international community -- and indeed, many Indians themselves -- to view the country as a force for stability in a volatile region.

Then came the Hindu-Muslim riots of this spring in the prosperous western Indian state of Gujarat, six weeks of violence that left more than a thousand people dead and a hundred thousand in makeshift shelters. The riots began when a Muslim mob torched a trainload of sloganeering Hindu nationalists, killing 59 of them. A wave of retaliatory rioting rolled over Gujarat; the overwhelming majority of the riots' victims were Muslim. Unlike earlier riots that ended as abruptly as they began, the bloodletting in Gujarat has not ceased. Although reduced in intensity, violence continues to flare up, primarily in the underpoliced Muslim areas of Gujarat's major cities, where there are daily instances of murder, looting, and arson.

The central and

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