WASHINGTON — Washington.--When I first reached the border of India, 25 years ago, I watched Muslim Pakistani guards wearing British-style uniforms -- save for the turbans -- tear apart the luggage of a couple of Hindu traders crossing to the East.
They made the fat Hindu man sweat, turning his possessions into a pile of crumpled cloth and packages. The rest of us travelers weren't even asked to open our bags.
When I reached the other side of the border, Indian Hindu border guards in identical British-style uniforms attacked the luggage of a couple of Muslim Pakistani travelers, giving them the third degree over their papers as they turned neatly packed personal effects into a dirty and wrinkled pile on the floor.
This month, the Hindu-Muslim tit-for-tat that has been going on for centuries reached a new and bloody plateau. More than 1,000 died in riots throughout the sub-continent after Hindu fundamentalists destroyed a 450-year-old mosque in Ayodhya. For those of us who keep a flame burning for the sub-continent, with its curious clinging to the same British colonial democratic roots that fueled our own American constitution and government, we hope it is a storm that will pass quickly.
Those 100,000 Hindus tore down the mosque, rumored to be built over the birthplace of the Hindu God Ram, because Indians are as confused and stubborn as people in the rest of the world. When demagogues tell them their jobs and women and magic are being stolen and polluted by others, they grab the ax and torch as quickly as a Serb or a German skinhead.
But there's a unique element in India that cannot be overlooked. Its very magic is that the existence of magic is accepted widely. Where else can one walk in cities and towns past trees draped in sacred cloth, anointed by sacred water and surrounded by prayerful people? Hundreds -- no, thousands of gods permeate the Indian environment. This makes life a movable holiday and living is a dance among spirits, devils, gods and symbols of their power.
To simply say as Marx did that these are opiates to make people ignore their poverty and the injustice of their feudal, caste-riven society is unfair. Without their beliefs, India remains just as crowded, just as poor, just as over-plowed, overplanted and clamorous. Belief in magic seems to have been a logical outgrowth of India's physical and cultural landscape. Apart from the Middle East -- which produced Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- India is the only other major producer of world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and related Chinese and Japanese faiths.
The root of the problems between Muslims and Hindus is both social and religious: Hindus are born into castes which are escaped only at death when one is reincarnated according to how one behaved while alive -- that is one's karma. But the Muslims are believed by Hindus -- and correctly so -- to be mostly lower-caste Hindus who converted to Islam about 400 years ago to escape the caste system.
Even today, armed with Saudi funding, Muslims offer the low-caste untouchables -- the ones Mahatma Gandhi called ''Children of God'' -- acceptance into a more just way of life. Christianity also offers such an escape, but there are fewer Christians and they don't rule neighboring, hostile nations such as Bangladesh and Pakistan.
So Hindus often see Muslims as shirkers who bucked the pecking order of caste. They failed to work their way through their karma to be born a Brahmin or another high caste. Draft dodgers they are. Traitors.
At the back of a Hindu's mind is some realization that to belong to a high caste requires someone else to be low. And if the low castes all abandon the Hindu boat, there will be no one to row, to empty the chamber pots, to sweep and to bow and scrape.
Yet among the Muslims of India and Pakistan, a similar devotion to caste has taken root. ''Don't drink there -- it's where the sweepers drink,'' some students once warned me in Lahore.
Both sides have ample ammunition to hurl at each other. To Muslims, Hindus are idol worshipers. To Hindus, the Muslims are renegade sweepers. Uppity too, especially since India's free and vibrant press and its liberal British-style courts and government have protected minority rights and brought Muslims into more prominent economic and political positions.
Into this charming incendiary mixture one need add the endemic spices of South Asia: illiteracy around 60 percent; poverty; population explosion (got to have more kids than the other team), and an entrenched elite that rides the eruptions of hatred, violence, famine and fundamentalism from the safety of protected compounds.