India's worst communal violence in a decade has as much to do with politics as religion. The deaths of up to 300 people in the western state of Gujarat are proof that the two do not mix. The immediate cause of the violence was the brutal killing of a group of Hindu activists returning from a disputed religious site in Ayodhya. The site has been a flashpoint between Hindus and Muslims since India's independence in 1947, but assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi tried to turn it into a vote-winner for his Congress Party in 1989 by having court-ordered locks removed so Hindus could pray there on what they regard to be the birthplace of the God Ram. The move stirred communal passions and the World Hindu Council, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) umbrella, took up the cause. Its members destroyed the mosque and the push to build a Hindu temple on the site was among issues which catapulted the BJP to government in 1997. Since then, the militancy of the council's members has become an embarrassment for Mr Vajpayee, who is hamstrung by the group's past favours and powerful patrons, many of them wealthy expatriates in Britain and North America. Mr Vajpayee is not the BJP's only voice, but is also not wholly a puppet of its leadership. The events in Ayodhya are not totally out of his control. He knows the issue could easily bring down his fragile coalition government, which in the past week has been weakened by poor showings in state elections. He cannot openly criticise the militants for fear of losing his job, but while he remains inactive, innocent lives are being lost. More than 30 states have been put on alert and thousands of troops mobilised. Hindu and Muslim mobs are escalating their wild rampages and there seems little let-up in the brutality of their attacks. The violence could easily spiral beyond Gujarat. The World Hindu Council intends to start building a temple on the site on March 15, and expects around 100,000 followers to gather at the site. Mr Vajpayee has one moral choice - to put the lives of his people before his political career. As Prime Minister, he is obliged to restore peace and order and he must do this with the utmost conviction. He must insist that the construction of the temple be immediately stopped. Either the courts should decide the fate of the site, or there should be a solution based on an agreement between Hindu and Muslim representatives. To do otherwise would be irresponsible.