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India's Poor Assess Damage From Rioting

Hindus, Muslims in riot-torn neighborhood play down national politics, focus on rebuilding

MUNI DEVI came home from the hospital last week in a boxy little car, crowded with relatives, that trundled along the eerily empty lanes of Welcome Colony. Dozens of policemen, leaning on long, bamboo staves, enforced a lingering curfew.

Almost 20 people - no one seems able to say exactly how many - died in this part of New Delhi in the sectarian unrest that gripped India this month. Police say more than 1,200 people were killed across the country in what is known here as "communal rioting," fighting between Hindus and Muslims.

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Mrs. Devi was almost one of them. She was trying to take her family away from the rioting when a bullet struck her left shoulder. Today her family crowds around to help her from the car to her small house. The end of her red sari is pulled over her face, and she takes her steps quickly.

Her husband, Babu Ram, has a low-paying cleaning job. He has not shaved in several days and his eyes show the strain caused by his wife's injury. He is asked what he thinks of the destruction of a 16th-century mosque in the north Indian city of Ayodhya on Dec. 6, the event that precipitated the violence that hurt his wife.

At first he demurs, allowing his relative, the one who owns the car, to answer. When pressed he says: "I don't have much knowledge about these affairs."

All over this country people are assessing the impact of the mosque's destruction. Political alignments have shifted, the country's economic reforms are in jeopardy, and new suspicions color relations between Hindus and Muslims. But among the poor of India's cities, in what are called "riot-affected areas," people seem less interested in the national drama of religion and politics and more concerned with healing its violent impact.

For the past several years the Indian People's Party or Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has exploited the religiously charged image of Ayodhya's Babri mosque for political gain. The BJP, along with several other religious and political groups that promote Hindu nationalism, insists that the mosque stood atop the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. They demand that a Hindu temple replace the shrine, which was erected to honor one of India's Muslim, Mogul conquerors. Leading opposition group

The BJP and other groups in a self-styled "Hindu movement" have sought to provide India with an alternative to the ruling Congress Party, which has governed India for all but a few of the 45 years since independence. Promising mature, organized leadership - free of the corruption that has tainted the Congress's image - the BJP says "only nationalism can stabilize India." It has become the leading opposition group in Parliament.

But the party has also played on historical enmities and base prejudices that divide Hindus and Muslims, rallying Hindus around the fear that Islamic enemies surround India and the perception that India's minority Muslim community, 11 percent of a population of 843 million, has won unfair concessions from Congress governments.

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The movement came close to destroying the Babri mosque in 1990, when police held back Hindu zealots. Even then, communal rioting followed as alienated Muslims struck back. So more violence was inevitable when the zealots returned early this month, broke past police, and demolished the mosque. The BJP says it could not control its supporters.

Anticipating a Muslim backlash, police clamped curfews on many Indian cities, but accounts emerging now suggest that radical Hindu groups and even Hindu police officers provoked Muslim retribution so they could strike back.

That view is popular among the Muslims of Welcome Colony.

"I am the eyewitness," says an electrician named Ershad Ahmed, a slightly built man with a fine-featured, rectangular face and a carefully trimmed mustache. The police, he says, "were burning only Muslim shops and they were firing only at Muslims." `Everything was peaceful'

Both senior and street-level police officers, questioned for a response, deny that police behaved partially. Ram Narayan, an additional sub-inspector sitting in a jeep on a Welcome Colony lane, says it is the nature of the job to bear "the bad feelings of one of the parties."

"Everything was peaceful until Dec. 6," Mr. Ershad says. "This was the first time communal riots took place."

The area is mixed and at the same time divided. Tinsel garlands that grace thresholds with the names of Hindu deities tend to appear on one side of the street. On the other side the homes feature the symbols of the "other community," such as lattice work spelling out, in Arabic, "God is great."

Welcome Colony has several lanes lined with timber shops, for the most part Muslim-owned, and many of these business were set aflame during the disturbances. Shakil Ahmed stands in the open during a few hours of curfew "relaxation," watching smoke curl up from heaps of brick and girder that once housed home and shop. He looks as if he cannot decide what to do next or where to begin.

A Muslim woman, Sharifa Begum, listens to Mr. Ahmed field a question about the destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya and the rise of the BJP. "We can't say about that," she interrupts. "It's only the poor people who are suffering."

Nowhere is that more clear than in an impoverished community of "hutments" called People's Colony, about a 20-minute walk from the lane of timber shops. Residents crowd around trucks bearing relief food for those unable to go in search of day labor.

The arson here was scattered, so that some clapboard and cloth shanties burned while others did not, but the destruction has not forced anyone to leave. Women and children sit on patches of blackened earth amid their burned possessions as if the walls of their structures still shielded them from their neighbors, going on as if nothing had happened.

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