Haunted by the politics of hate
Religion - Behind the prosperous facade lurks an ugly strain of Hindu fundamentalism, argues Ziauddi
The old year closed with the discovery of a mass grave. On the banks of the Panam River in Gujarat, Muslim villagers of Pandharwada found the skulls and bones of relatives who had been declared "missing" by officials, but who had in fact been massacred by Hindu fundamentalists. As the remains were being unearthed, elsewhere in the country the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was celebrating its silver jubilee.
India, the ancient land of spiritualism, is home to many religions - Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Christianity. But the emergence of Hindu fundamentalism has made religious hatred and riots commonplace, and it threatens to undermine the multi-religious and multicultural nature of India itself.
Needless to say, not all Hindus are fundamentalists. Hinduism is probably more diverse than most faiths, and even Bollywood promotes a variety of Hinduisms. However, religious fundamentalism wedded to an ideology of Hindu nationalism is now a strong presence in India, and that is thanks largely to the BJP. Founded in 1980 (the name means "Indian People's Party"), it held power from 1998 to 2004. Its ideology of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, is based on the idea that all Hindus are one and that India, therefore, is an exclusively Hindu nation that should be ruled by a Hindu government. The BJP is umbilically linked to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu militia known for their extreme violence.
The party began as an ostensibly secular party, pledged to follow Gandhian socialism, but this soon revealed itself as a posture designed to hide its support for the violent communal politics of the RSS. That connection became evident when the BJP branded Muslims as "invaders" and "outsiders" and began openly to preach hatred against them.
Hindu chauvinism, and support for the BJP, is not a pheno-menon of rural areas and "ignorant people", as is commonly assumed. It is above all a middle-class cause, endorsed and promoted by educated, cultured businessmen and politicians. On the whole the rural masses favour the Hindu gurus who dominate Indian television - certain channels are exclusively devoted to the discussion and promotion of Hindu spirituality. It is the news channels, catering largely to the Indian middle class, that promote more communal brands of Hinduism. The message is always that other religions, such as Islam and Christianity, are an imposition on "Hindu India". This is the spectre that haunts India.
It has already claimed countless victims. Its most pernicious manifestation is the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, launched by the BJP. Its followers claimed that Muslims had built a mosque on the site of the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram, in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. They also demanded that this mosque, known as the Babri Masjid, be converted to a Hindu temple dedicated to Ram. The agitation stirred a series of religious riots that reached their climax with the destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. In this campaign the BJP not only openly encouraged Hindus to kill Muslims, but played a prominent part in the killing. Last 6 December the party celebrated the anniversary of these events as Shaurya divas, a day of bravery that all Hindus should be proud of, and the party has produced a list of 3,000 other mosques all over India that it aims to convert into temples.
The western Indian province of Gujarat is the laboratory of Hindutva policies. The BJP has ruled the state for the past decade and its chief minister, Narendra Modi, is a champion of violent Hindu nationalism. It was in Gujarat that Muslims were openly and systematically massacred in March 2002, in one of the worst incidents of inter-communal violence in recent times. A report from the National Human Rights Commission pointed out that the killing of Muslims was led by "well-organised persons, armed with mobile telephones and addresses". The police and the state government collaborated with BJP workers in orchestrating the massacre of more than a thousand Muslims. Since then there have been numerous other atrocities against Muslims.
Following the Gujarat massacres, Muslims in India have suffered a deep existential crisis. Despite comprising more than 11 per cent of the population - no fewer than 123 million Muslims live in India - and despite their high visibility in Bollywood and at cricket matches, Muslims are not integrated into the mainstream of politics and public institutions. They are also the least educated community in India and have pitiful representation in the police and in public and civil services. Not surprisingly, most Muslims complain that national and regional institutions discriminate against them and that they have been left behind in the phenomenal economic growth of India. Hence, there is no such thing as a Muslim middle class.
Islam in India is largely traditionalist and Islamist extremism is rare, coming solely from the province of Jammu and Kashmir, where various radical groups are fighting for independence. Kashmiri Islamic militants have been responsible for several terrorist attacks, most recently the bombings that killed 66 people in Delhi in October. Such actions have profound consequences for all of India's Muslims, who are easily represented as complicit.
In a general way the response of Indian Muslims to the rise of Hindu chauvinism has been to implode. They have retrenched into obscurantist dogmatism and ossified tradition, and Indian Islam is therefore in an acute state of crisis. Meanwhile the conventional ally of the Muslims in Indian politics, the Congress Party, has failed to address their issues. The Congress government has perpetuated division along religious lines by allowing religion to dominate the political agenda. Its strategy towards Muslims is to treat them as a minority with special religious needs. This has further strengthened the Hindutva notion that Muslims are alien to India, always pleading a special case, and that their demands should not be tolerated.
The forces of Hindutva are not content with attacking Muslims. They have other religions in their sights. Their next targets are Christianity and the tribal people of Gujarat. Christianity is now being projected as a dangerous foreign conspiracy aiming to destabilise India. Christian missionaries, pastors and nuns, like Muslims, are labelled invaders, and their healthcare and education programmes are dismissed as bribes for conversion. Other religions, such as Jainism (there are four million Jains in India), Sikhism and Buddhism, are also being targeted. Last August the Supreme Court rejected a plea on behalf of the Jain community to advise the central government to designate Jainism as a distinct minority religion. The legal move was motivated by concern that Hindu fundamentalists were trying to assimilate Jainism into Hinduism.
The ideology of Hindutva is not new. It has been a feature of writing about India for centuries, and its strongest proponents before the emergence of the BJP were Christian missionaries and British utilitarians. It is also featured in James Mill's influ-ential History of India, which won him a lifelong job with the East India Company. The British propounded this totalising vision of India as the best framework for determining how to manage the country's complexities.
As India develops into a major economic power its people face many important choices. Not least of these will be whether they embrace the totalising vision that propelled an earlier era of economic dominance in India, or opt for an alternative vision of nation and self. The politics of religious hatred and chauvinism is sure to dominate the debate in the years ahead.