India Seeks Harmony Amid Diversity

By , an economic consulting firm based in Lexington, Mass. The views expressed are his own.

IT is ironic that the worst Hindu-Muslim violence in recent times should have taken place in Ayodhya, literally meaning the land of no fight. Even more ironic is that proponents of Hinduism, a religio-social way of living that preaches nonviolence, have become demagogues. In a stroke, one of the world's oldest cultural systems seemed to lose its poise and dignity as fanaticism surfaced in its practitioners.

On Dec. 6, 1992, a frenzied crowd of more than 200,000 Hindus stormed the territory of a disputed mosque in Ayodhya, northern India and leveled the 16th century structure. In the aftermath of the crime, more than 1,800 people, mostly Muslims, have died. To understand the recent events in India, one must revisit the foundations of the Muslim and Hindu conflict in the context of present-day India. India today

Picture a multi-storied apartment house in which a different family has lived in each apartment for generations. Each has a different cultural orientation, speaks a different language, and eats different food. A visit to any one apartment reveals a different form of art, entertainment, and music. To this add different religions and, at times, their conflicting practices. The ultimate masala (mixture) obtained is a potpourri of cultures called India.

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The nation suffers from serious social and economic malaise. There is hunger, poverty, bureaucracy, and corruption. While slowly moving toward extinction, the rigid caste and dowry systems prevail. The pressure of a population still growing at about 2 percent a year has pushed millions of Indians into wretched living conditions. Even within this intractable framework, the Indian economy, often compared to a lethargic elephant, has lurched ahead. The success of the Green Revolution seemed to herald a new era in agriculture. India's space program and peaceful nuclear program, place it among the top industrial countries. Only 18 months ago, Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao began a drive to unshackle the economy. Despite having to live on a per capita income of less than $400 a year, Indians have maintained a functioning secular democracy.

The goal of remaining secular has often been hampered by the diversity of languages, people, and religions. For example, there are more than 15 major languages, nearly 24 other languages, each spoken by a million people or more representing different broad ethnic groups. The roots of the conflict

Historically, relations between the Hindus and Muslims have not always been placid. But despite the difference between the two religions and their practices, they have lived for decades in relative harmony. During the struggle for independence, Muslims and Hindus worked shoulder to shoulder for an India free from colonial domination. The discontent between Hindus and Muslims can probably be traced to a few legal actions by the colonial masters in the early part of this century.

In an attempt to officially recognize the large Muslim population in India, the English government passed bills that designated Muslims as a voting block separate from the Hindus and other Indians. The law mandated that Muslims could vote only for their Muslim leaders. By accident or design, the separatist sentiment of being a "Hindu" or a "Muslim" was reinforced every time Indians went to the polls.

As the image of majority rule by Hindus in free India loomed, greater efforts were made by Muslims to build the Muslim League, led by Jinnah, into a strong national party. The Indian National Congress remained a secular party of Hindus and Muslims. The League, however, had one major difference in that it was a party of Muslims only and had one agenda - the creation of a separate Muslim state to safeguard the interest of its members.

The transition to an independent state was anything but easy. The national betrayal and trauma associated with the cruel dissection of India engendered widespread animosity. More than half a million Indians were slaughtered and more than six million people were displaced on either side of the new border. The creation of Muslim Pakistan in 1947 did not solve the problem of communal strife.

The dastardly act in Ayodhya wiped the slate clean of India's achievements since independence. Around the world, people rightly scorned the incident as the nation's shame and ridiculed the Indian government. What had gone wrong? More importantly, is India, with its religious diversity, another time bomb in the world's stockpile of ethnic and religious explosives?

Politicians are responsible for much of the blame for India's quagmire. They have exploited to their advantage the religious differences, the caste system, and the poverty of the people. Ayodhya was perhaps known best to Indians as the birthplace of the mythological god Ram.

Although the judiciary has been debating on the dispute of Babri Masjid (mosque) in Ayodhya for more than 40 years, it had remained a nonissue until the mid-1980s.

It is not a mere coincidence that the Hindu Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which in 1984 had only two seats in the Lok Sabha (Lower House), won a strong 119 seats in the 1991 election. Undoubtedly, it has done so largely by campaigning to retain the territory of the disputed mosque to "safeguard" the interest of Hindus. India at a crossroad

During the struggle for independence, India's leaders had vision and a vibrant intellectual capacity to debate "what ought to be " as opposed to "what is." Today, many politicians, having grown up in an ideological vacuum and with a distorted world-view, find themselves bankrupt of ideas to solve India's problems.

It is a mistake to take the act of 200,000 Hindus as representative of the feelings of 710 million Hindus in India. This minority calling for a Hindu state has been systematically brainwashed by extreme right-wing politicians. Even the violence and reported deaths that have taken place have occurred in areas which have a strong presence of a network of Hindu organizations.

The extent to which runaway emotions can be harnessed will largely depend on the actions the government of India takes. In the aftermath of the crime, the government banned the Hindu BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sang (RSS), arrested their leaders, and dismissed some of the state governments. These are token measures to keep the Muslim sentiments in check and will solve nothing.

Many leaders in the banned parties are well versed in the techniques of noncooperation and civil disobedience launched by Mahatma Gandhi. They will not hesitate in using them to further their cause.

Among the alternatives reported are challenging the banning of the Hindu parties by initiating thousands of legal appeals, organizing massive rallies to fill jails, and generally harassing the Indian people.

Observers who believe that banning parties in India will mitigate fanatical party allegiance are mistaken. The RSS is the same disciplined party that played a major role as an underground resistance force during India's fight for freedom. Moreover, arresting the party chiefs may only transform them into heroes and boost party membership.

The ruling Congress party must seize the political moment and quell the growing communalism. But it first must address internal divisiveness. It is a national party with proven access to the common person. It should use this power to counter vested, albeit minority, interests' message of hatred. Bringing the warring factions to the negotiating table can still pay dividends, as can striking a balance between economic reform and the needs dictated by socio-political conditions.

The fires of fanaticism will take time to cool. The debates on the unity of, and secularism in, India have only begun. Many questions remain. How differently is secularism practiced in India compared to its practice elsewhere? In a society as diverse as India, can secularism be synonymous with complete religious freedom? Or should secularism be guided by the freedom to practice what the state judges, within restrictions imposed by diversity.

India has survived many crises, and once again it seems to be at a crossroads. Whether it emerges from the present crisis a better, stronger, and a more united country will depend on the collective commitment to secularism and democracy.

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