Broader Lessons From Ayodhya

By , David Little and Scott Hibbard of the US Institute of Peace in Washington are involved in a project examining religious intolerance as a source of conflict. The views expressed are those of the authors.

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."

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.

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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."

Religious conflict often has more to do with how religion defines a people and a culture than it does with questions of doctrine. Religious disputes are normally between a majority and a significant minority over basic issues of ordering a society. The case of Northern Ireland is a good example, where social, economic, and political status are largely defined along religious lines.

References to religious identity give legitimacy to action, reenforcing the conviction that a given struggle is a worthy endeavor, particularly violent struggle. Furthermore, when issues are defined in religious terms it implies that the competing agendas are ultimately irreconcilable, that these matters are of such significance that only one party, finally, can prevail.

The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion and Belief was drafted largely to preempt the abusive use of religion in such instances. The declaration implies a clear distinction between civil and religious identity. Having to embrace or identify with a particular religious tradition as a condition of citizenship, or of enjoying civil privileges and opportunities, would violate a basic prohibition enunciated in human rights documents against discrimination on g rounds of religion.

To the extent that civil society may not be dominated or controlled by any one religious tradition, or by any combination of religious traditions, the civil order is properly "secular." In such a secular order each religion relinquishes any claim to special civil advantage over other citizens. The foundations of peace lie in this mutual acceptance of terms.

Implicit within the cry for a Hindu Nation is an "us" and a "them," the former being a rightful member of a new state that has no place for the latter. We hear echoes of this sentiment in "Germany for the Germans" or any other pronouncement of intolerance. Stability in a diverse society will only come through accepting and tolerating differences, using religion and respect for human dignity as means to bridge cleavages, rather than using those same tools to exacerbate existing divisions.

Religion and belief can and should contribute to world peace, social justice, and friendship between peoples. It should not be a source of conflict. Instances such as those in Ayodhya demonstrate the truly destructive capacity of religion. The future of India, however, rests upon the ability of the government and the Indian people to stand up to this current challenge of intolerance, to reaffirm the pluralist, secular tradition upon which the republic - with its myriad ethnic groupings - was founded.

This same challenge faces the rest of the world. Intolerance and the politics of hate arise in places as diverse as Bosnia, Germany, India, and even the United States. The recognition of the precepts and articles of the declaration against intolerance is the first step toward seeing religion as a source of peace, not of conflict.

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