A rare trip to divided South Asia

On Sunday, Clinton begins a week in a region seething with nationalistic fervor.

By , Staff writer The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

Recommended: How well do you know India? Take the quiz.

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.

Rising fundamentalism

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.

Experts point out that no region as vibrant and diverse as South Asia can be reduced to the intensities of its more-extreme politics. Inventive Indians make up 30 percent of the software engineers on the planet. Bombay is a city of fashion designers and financiers. Next month, the American cable network HBO will make its debut in South Asia; Rupert Murdoch, who has been traveling through India for the past week, described to local press of the "burst of energy" he feels in India since his last trip eight years ago.

Commenting about White House statements on the enormous talents of Indians, but the devastating tensions in the region, Rajiv Desai, author of a new book on Indian business culture, says the US will "play an active role in the subcontinent where governments, egged on by religious fundamentalists on both sides, have upped the ante by resorting to tit-for-tat nuclear explosions."

Indeed, in a country of a billion people, most Indians are more worried about pollution, dirty water, corruption, and making enough money to buy bread - than they are about "cultural nationalism," as the recent trend is sometimes called.

Still, many more lower- and middle-class Indians are sending their children, for example, to RSS schools. In one RSS school visited recently in Delhi, a fifth-grade text argues that Indian Vedic heritage thrived until the Muslims arrived in AD 1200. However, prize-winning scholars here rebut such notions. The Vedic glory period faded by 200 BC, more than a thousand years earlier, they state. Yet in the growing network of "saffron schools" in India today, such ideas are gospel.

More significant in the past month has been the attempt of two influential state governments to lift a ban that forbids government employees from being members of the RSS. For years, government servants in India have not been allowed to join either the Muslim Jamait-e-Islami or the Hindu RSS, on grounds that the groups create communal hatred and problems of bias among members.

Laws withdrawn

Yet in January and February, the federal government in Delhi nearly came to a standstill when the states of Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, for the first time ever, passed laws allowing RSS membership for government employees. When Prime Minister Vajpayee attempted to define the RSS as a cultural organization, not a religious one, his ruling coalition members threatened to create trouble. The laws were eventually withdrawn.

Not to be fundamentally outdone, Pakistan's chief executive, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has been publicly legitimizing the Islamic view of jihad in the disputed region of Kashmir.

Given that both India and Pakistan now have nuclear weapons, some commentators argue that the United States must play a greater role in cooling tensions, and bringing out the best in both states.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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