With war in Iraq seeming closer each day, the trickle of North Korean nuclear revelations growing to a gush, and all the trouble with the economy, Americans can be forgiven for not noticing an event of huge portent in far-away Gujarat state in India.
Last December, in a stunning election result, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), aided by a host of extreme Hindu organizations, won a thumping two-thirds majority in state assembly elections. Its state chief minister (like a governor in the US, the highest elected state official) had conducted an openly communal campaign, concentrating his ire on the Muslim and Christian minorities, whom he castigated as anti-national, and labeling anyone emphasizing India’s secular traditions as virtual traitors.
This same chief minister, Narendra Modi, presided over the state government earlier this year when there was a huge pogrom of muslims in his state. All impartial accounts are agreed that the state government’s role in the communal riots was at best one of benign neglect, and at worst one of active connivance, abetment and encouragement.
Several hundred people died in the riots, which lasted for days across the state, and property worth hundreds of millions of dollars was destroyed. Several thousand people whose homes were burnt down are still living in refugee camps, with scarce drinking water and toilet facilities.
If he had heard the BJP’s election propaganda, an American might be led to wonder what all the fuss was over Trent Lott. The hapless Lott was hauled over the coals and had to resign for a statement which could likely be construed as racist. In India, by contrast, Mr. Modi’s party, and Mr. Modi himself, spared nothing in their open and sharp communal appeals. Painting a stark picture of Pakistani agents everywhere, hinting at their links within India’s muslim community, and making good use of the various terrorist incidents which happen periodically in India, Mr. Modi succeeded splendidly in uniting the Hindu vote, thus delivering a two-thirds majority for his party.
With results like these, India’s national leaders could care less about the means. The Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, also of the BJP, has blown hot and cold over the issue of the Gujarat riots. The immediate provocation for the riots was the burning down of a train compartment in Godhra, Gujarat, by a muslim mob, ending the death of scores of Hindu activists. The latter were returning from demonstrations to rebuild a temple over the site of a mosque, a dispute that has been simmering over the last decade. That Godhra tragedy was then compounded by retaliatory strikes by hindu mobs for several days. Mr. Modi who saw nothing more in all this than the working out of the natural law of “action and reaction”, was scarcely reprimanded by the national leadership, which did not even see fit to seek a different leader for the state.
And then, in an act of astounding insensitivity, Mr. Vajpayee, in celebrating his party’s Gujarat victory, added that muslims had not ‘sufficiently regretted’ the Godhra incident. Instead of binding the wounds, Mr. Vajpayee, under increasing pressure from his party to adopt a more ‘pro-Hindu’ stance, chose to placate the extremists.
Individuals leaders apart, communal extremism is on the rise in India. A large section of the middle class, including a goodly number of Indians outside India, has been successfully convinced that India’s future lies in a resurgent Hinduism, with muslims ‘being taught a lesson’. In this the BJP and its cohorts have successfully made common cause with the post 9-11 sentiments in the US.
The founding fathers of India, including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Sardar Patel, chose to enshrine the secular principle because they saw their people as Indians, not Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs or Christians. One of the battle cries of the BJP its fellow extremists, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, is the undoing of this consensus in order to make India a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu state). One of the VHP leaders vowed, in the aftermath of the Gujarat victory, that India would become a Hindu state in two years, and that the status of Muslims in India would be only marginally better than that of Hindus in Pakistan. This is no different from the sentiments which led the Taliban to making Hindus and Buddhists wear yellow flags.
With 10 Indian states up for elections in a year, Indians have a giant task ahead–not to let their country become a Hindu Pakistan, a hotbed of fanaticism, intolerance and obscurantism. Americans, too, have a stake–should the world’s largest democracy head towards a religio-fascist purgatory, the whole world, not just India, will poorer for the loss.
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN lives in Tigard, Oregon. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org