Toward a Hindu Nation?

The rise of Hindu nationalism threatens to alter the country's character. But proponents promise the revival of a powerful India.

ACCOUNTS of last month's turmoil in India intimate that chaos may finally befall this country, that perhaps old volatilities engendered by religion and ideology cannot be defused.

Not at all, some Indians say, listing the crises they have withstood. Take the assassinations of three leaders named Gandhi. Or wars with China and Pakistan.

But in the wake of a radical Hindu mob's destruction of an old Muslim shrine on Dec. 6, an ensuing cascade of violence that killed more than 1,200 people, and a dramatic polarization of the country's political life, many others are saying India is confronting a crisis of national character.

More than ever before, people here are addressing the rise of what is often termed Hindu nationalism. Its proponents say they want to develop India's economic and military strength, redress ancient humiliations, and unite the people of South Asia in common acknowledgment of their Hindu heritage. Critics argue that the Hindu nationalists are undermining India's secular ideals, alienating the country's large Muslim minority, and pursuing their vision with fascist zeal.

Most disconcerting to analysts is this: While they are convinced that the highly symbolic act of destroying the mosque at Ayodhya will affect the fortunes of the movement's political face, the Bharatiya Janata or Indian People's Party (BJP), no one is quite sure how. Even now, a month after the event, there are no polls to say how the event played among what the Indian elite calls "the masses."

The BJP is already the main opposition group in India's Parliament, and its leaders are confident that they are now at the foyer of power. They have vowed to force a mid-term dissolution of the Congress Party government through mass action and parliamentary agitation, in order to bring about national elections this year.

So there is a lot of worry about the "concealed joy," as one New Delhi historian puts it, of Indians like Lal Bahadur, a 25-year-old Hindu. A quiet satisfaction

Mr. Bahadur stands on the roof of a house in East Delhi, in an area where a clutch of Hindu homes faces a swathe of Muslim-owned buildings, many flying small black flags mourning the mosque's demolition. Thirty feet below, part of a small Hindu temple has been destroyed. Just across the street, Muslim homes lie gutted.

The area is quiet, stilled by a curfew, and the narrow streets and lanes are like chasms.

Bahadur acknowledges that the destruction of the mosque generated violence nationwide. In this neighborhood, which had never before seen strife between Hindus and Muslims, some 20 people died. He knows that a host of Indian courts and the government had forbidden the demolition.

But he applauds the razing of the mosque. "It was right," he says. "It was due." He adds that a temple to the god Ram - who stands in the Hindu pantheon as the earthly manifestation of perfect character, a ruler of unblemished virtue and fairness - should be built where the mosque stood. Radical Hindus have long claimed that a 16th-century nobleman, in order to honor the Mogul Emperor Babur, destroyed a Hindu temple marking the site of Ram's birth before he erected the squat, three-domed mosque at Ayodhy a. Mogul invaders conquered India in 1526 (see chronology at right).

"If this will not be given to the Hindus in India," Bahadur says, meaning a new Ram temple, "then for Hindus to live in India is useless." He won't say whether he will now vote for the BJP. It may be what is concealed about his joy. History avenged

Bharat Wariavwalla, a historian at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in old Delhi, says Bahadur's reaction is likely to be shared by a large number of people who live in, or close to, India's cities, Hindus of middle and lower caste and class. "Their reaction is that history has been partly avenged," he says, referring to centuries of Muslim rule.

Indeed, members of the National Volunteer Corps or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organization formed in 1925 to promote Hindu culture, argue that Indians have yet to dispel a torpor brought on by 1,000 years of domination by Muslim conquerors and European colonizers.

"So far we have been very, very submissive," says Tarun Vijay, an RSS member who edits a Hindi weekly published by the organization. "We have traits of being subjects of the British and Mogul empires."

Independence from Britain, obtained in 1947, by no means put an end to submissiveness, in Mr. Vijay's view. India's post-independence rulers, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in particular, were too enchanted by the developed world, he says, adopting a socialist, state-controlled economy highly in vogue in Nehru's time and closely following the British model for India's judicial system.

Vijay's office is in a grimy part of New Delhi, among the small industries and businesses that form the BJP's core constituency, but the issue of submissiveness strikes a chord all over India, even in the leafy garden of Mr. Wariavwalla's think tank.

Some analysts have diagnosed a national inferiority complex - a feeling that India somehow is unable to claim its proper place in the world - that angers Indians and makes them receptive to a rhetoric of national revival promoted by Hindu nationalists.

Wariavwalla explains this dynamic: "You are bullied by Americans and Europeans into signing the NPT," a reference to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which India refuses to sign, insisting on a global disarmament agreement. "The Chinese are in the big league and you're not. No one consults you on the Middle East. Sri Lanka thumbs its nose at us; we had to retreat from Sri Lanka. Does anyone take us seriously?"

Part of the Hindu-nationalist appeal resides in its promise to make India a more powerful nation. BJP leaders favor the aggressive development of India's nuclear-weapons capability and have attracted a number of the more hawkish members of India's military establishment to the party.

Although the RSS claims to promote India's ancient culture, the Hindu nationalist cause also espouses policies very much in keeping with modern trends. To remedy the results of Nehru's planned economy, for instance, the BJP has for years advocated a market-oriented economy, including technological assistance from the West. Hindu reformers

At the core of Hindu nationalism, the firmament of its strength-through-unity ideology, is an attempt rearticulate what Hinduism is.

Hinduism is a notoriously difficult religion to articulate in the first place, much less reform. Many academics say it is a mistake to call it a religion; it is more a cultural system that governs and orders a Hindu's relationships to God, society, and family. It lacks any central institutions or clergy and there is no single text or set of tenets to which Hindus subscribe.

A Hindu will say that she believes in an all-encompassing, universal God, and then propitiate a handful of deities, their idols tucked into niches in buildings or trees, on her way to a temple. The worship of these gods, as well as non-Hindu religious practices, are said to be paths to the same thing.

Ashis Nandy, who writes on the psychology of culture from a cluttered office at the CSDS, says Hindu nationalists have sought to develop a simplified, modernized form of Hinduism in order to unify Indians under their banner.

"The RSS," he says, "has an underlying admiration for Christianity and Islam as faiths which can sustain a modern nation-state and a nationalistic spirit." The organization has also worked to abolish caste and erase divisions between Hindus.

To the RSS and the BJP, Vijay says, a Hindu is anyone who lives east of the Indus River, which runs through Pakistan. Most of India's Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists, his argument goes, are really Hindus whose ancestors were coerced into other faiths, and who should acknowledge their Hindu identity and the dominance of Hindu culture in South Asia. He says there will never be a bar to the practice of these religions - by `Hindus.' The biggest `vote bank'

In the political arena, however, it has not been the RSS's attempt to reform Hinduism that has won Hindu nationalists the popular support they now enjoy. Their effort to build a temple to Ram at Ayodhya, a decades-long process embraced by the BJP in 1989, has galvanized public opinion and boosted party popularity exponentially.

But this initially quixotic project would have been nothing more than a good deed, were it not for what stood in the way: an old, neglected mosque evocative of Muslim invaders, and India's federal government.

Ayodhya, scholar Nandy says, was made to symbolize the defeat and humiliation of Hindus and the resistance of the government to give adequate recognition to Hindu humiliation, because the government chose to protect the mosque. Officials said they were acting in defense of Indian secularism, a concept that stresses respect for all religions, rather than the American notion of separating the state from religion.

The Hindu nationalists accuse the political establishment of being "pseudo-secularists" when it comes to Islam, of offering Muslims too much respect because of their political power. Muslims make up 11 percent of India's 844 million people.

Partly this is a historical problem, in that the leaders of India's independence struggle, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Nehru, believed that the government had to "make an effort to protect the fears of the minority," says Bipan Chandra, a historian at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

But this protection has become a problem during the past decade, as politicians have sought to create and maintain "vote banks." The ruling Congress Party, especially under the leadership of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, has been especially criticized for creating a Muslim vote bank.

In an oft-cited example, Gandhi introduced special legislation allowing Muslims to be governed by Islamic law in personal matters after India's courts had ordered a Muslim to pay alimony according to civil law. Hindu nationalists acknowledge that a separate personal law for Muslims does not directly impinge on Hindus, but they have made much of the government's appearing to bend to Muslim will.

The party has combined this critique of the established political culture with crass appeals to Hindu prejudices about Muslims and with a host of conspiracy theories about Muslim ambitions: that Muslim polygamy is intended to swell their number in India; that the economic migration of Muslim Bangladeshis into India is a stealthy "infiltration"; and that Indian Muslims will someday join forces with Islamic countries that threaten India.

The BJP has also attacked a law giving residents of the northern state of Kashmir - the majority of whom are Muslim - special rights and criticized the government for not helping Hindu refugees from the Muslim-led insurgency in Kashmir.

The result is that the BJP has had some success in carving out the biggest captive constituency this country could offer: a Hindu vote bank.

A final aspect of Hindu-nationalist appeal is clean government. The BJP is known for organization and discipline, which contrasts favorably with a political culture, dominated by the Congress Party, that is considered rife with corruption and overweening political ambition.

Arun Shourie, formerly a crusading editor known for standing up to the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when she was at her most authoritarian, praises the BJP government of Uttar Pradesh, the largest of India's 25 states.

Former Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, Mr. Shourie says, managed to break a number of kidnapping rings, slow significantly the widespread practice of cheating on exams in state schools, and force sugar mill owners to pay their growers on time - all problems that had stymied earlier governments. (The government was dismissed by federal authorities after the mosque's demolition.) `An ethos of revenge'

But in contrast to the measured respect the party has won from some Indian liberals, there are many who level the fascist charge. One of these is Syed Shahabuddin, an outspoken opposition member of Parliament, a former diplomat, and a Muslim.

"The entire philosophy of the BJP is actuated by an ethos of revenge," he says. "They start from a base of hatred."

Visions "of concentration camps, of liquidation, of gas chambers," cannot be ruled out, Mr. Shahabuddin warns. His comments are an extreme example of the concerns many Indians voice: that a BJP government would be authoritarian and anti-democratic.

Ironically, the government of Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao last month demonstrated an authoritarian tendency of its own by arresting BJP leaders, dismissing BJP governments in four states, and banning five organizations, including the RSS, on grounds of fomenting religious discord.

The government's actions cause Professor Chandra, an archdefender of Indian secularism, to shake his head: "I believe you have to fight these people [Hindu nationalists] at the level of ideas, and you are not fighting at the level of ideas if you are using administrative measures against them."

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