A rare trip to divided South Asia
On Sunday, Clinton begins a week in a region seething with nationalistic fervor.
As President Clinton flies to South Asia on Sunday for the first official visit by a US president to the region in 22 years, he is coming to a troubled part of the world that is searching for new identities.Skip to next paragraph
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It is a world struggling mightily between 14th-century feudalism and 21st-century culture. Nor is it clear which is winning.
Powerful new strains of fundamentalism are rising in South Asia. Every morning in India, for example, in some 45,000 shakhas, or outdoor gatherings, rows of young, khaki-clad Hindu cadres exercise in tandem to a song that goes, "Hindu tan-man, Hindu jeevan," which means "Hindu body and mind, Hindu life." It's lyricist: Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.
Across the border in Pakistan, similar cultural dynamics are at play. The Supreme Court ruled in January that Pakistan must "Islamize" its economy and end in one year the practice of riba, or interest-based financing, which the Koran prohibits.
Much of the White House trip to India, Bangladesh, and in a brief stopover in Pakistan, will focus on how South Asia is "globalizing," and creating new markets. President Clinton will visit the gleaming, wired HiTech City in Hyderabad where Microsoft founder Bill Gates opened his company's first offshore development office. Mr. Clinton will also visit villages in Bangladesh and Rajasthan state in India, where an increasing number of women are taking up leadership roles.
Yet in India, and more acutely in Pakistan, the dominant cultural trend - and the main story, in recent years - is not the ascendency of Western liberalism, or secular niceties.
After the cold war, and partly due to a vacuum created by the end of competing ideologies, the Indian subcontinent is witnessing a powerful rise in popular fundamentalist identity movements, analysts say. Indicator after indicator - from school curricula, to middle class attitudes, to local laws on religious freedom, to artistic expression and political rhetoric - shows a more authoritarian and less-tolerant tenor.
India, last visited by President Jimmy Carter, is no longer the pacifist, nonaligned state fathered by Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister. It's BJP-led government is a proud offshoot of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist group that regards India as a holy land that has been victimized by outsiders and must reassert its greatness.
For the first time, orange-clad Hindu sadhus or holy men, can be seen in Parliament. Reports last week noted that a new book by Dara Singh, the recently arrested extremist who killed an Australian Christian missionary in Orissa last year, is selling briskly. Mr. Singh is seen as a hero to many young Hindu villagers in the eastern India.
Pakistan, last visited by President Richard Nixon, is no longer a moderate military regime. The current regime boosted the orthodox Taliban movement in Afghanistan; the No. 2 in Pakistan's military regime, Gen. Mohammad Aziz, is regarded as an Islamic visionary. Spiritual leaders like Mufti Sham Zai, the leader of the Benari Mosque in Karachi and the teacher of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, are known to have far more grass-roots power in setting the agenda in Pakistan than a host of civil ministers.