Broader Lessons From Ayodhya
INDIA'S Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao is right when he stated that the recent destruction of the 16th century mosque at Ayodhya by Hindu extremists directly threatens the "institutions, principles, and ideals on which the constitutional structure of our republic has been built."Skip to next paragraph
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India is a secular state that recognizes and tolerates religious differences within its boundaries. The founding principles to which the prime minister refers have provided a framework of accommodation and reasonable stability in a country of enormous ethnic and religious diversity.
These principles correspond directly to newly emerging international norms devised to reduce religious intolerance and to create the conditions of peaceful pluralism. The United Nations declaration against intolerance was adopted specifically to uphold these norms, while actions like the recent attack on the Ayodhya mosque threaten them.
India's secular tradition has been a significant achievement of its democracy. Much has been written about the gross violation of human rights and the violence which has followed the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque, yet the more ominous dimension of the attack is the underlying political motive: the desire by fundamentalists to create a Hindu state. Given these motivations, the real threat of sectarian violence is the demise of the Indian constitutional system.
Both Hindus and Muslims have claimed the site of the Ayodhya mosque as holy ground for more than 400 years, and it has, in recent times, come to be a symbol of Hindu nationalism. Consequently, the site has been enveloped in controversy and has been the scene of Hindu-Muslim clashes, most notably in 1990.
The recent violence, however, was not spontaneous. The attack came after Hindu fundamentalist leaders called on rank-and-file followers across the country to come to Ayodhya to build a new Hindu temple in the mosque's place.
The demonstration was organized primarily by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing fundamentalist political party. The BJP is the main opposition party in the national parliament, and is the ruling party in the state where the attack took place, Uttar Pradesh.
The BJP, along with others, have called for the establishment of a Hindu state in India. This call is rooted in the notion that Muslims and Christians on the Indian subcontinent are foreign elements and that the land rightfully belongs to the Hindus. The fundamentalists' greatest enemy is often seen as not the Muslims themselves, but the secular state which tolerates Muslims in their midst.
In this view, the first step toward the redemption of India is the destruction of the existing constitution and the creation of a Hindu state. By definition, this entails explicit discrimination against all Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, or other groups who abide within India.
In any multi-ethnic society there exists a political dynamic which gains potency from playing on cultural and religious differences. There are times, however, when such antagonisms are taken too far. As V. P. Singh, the former prime minister who was forced from office in 1990 after a clash at this same mosque, commented, "This is similar to what happened in Germany in the 1930s. First they created an enemy, then they kept working on them and working on them."