Hard-line pro-Hindu rhetoric colors Indian elections

Voting takes place today in Gujarat State, considered a test case for religious violence.

Ten years ago last week, Hindu rioters tore down a 600-year-old Muslim mosque in India's most populous state. At the time, most Indian politicians decried it - and the subsequent riots that claimed the lives of 6,000 nationwide - as acts of Hindu chauvinism.

Today, many of those same Indian politicians have taken up that chauvinism as the driving force of Indian politics.

Just how far Hindutva, or Hindu-ness, can continue as a national political force will be seen in a series of state elections starting today in the western state of Gujarat. Even after Hindu-Muslim riots this past spring killed 1,000 Gujaratis - mostly Muslims - the two main parties, Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are unapologetically trying to out-Hindu each other, fielding candidates who pledge to protect the Hindu way of life.

The Gujarat campaign concluded Tuesday with incendiary speeches by two local BJP officials. "Muslims and the police will kill the Hindus," if the BJP is not reelected, Jaydeep Barot told a large crowd of Hindu farmers. Another BJP official in Gujarat called the political campaign a religious war.

"There is no doubt that if the BJP wins big, there will be BJP functionaries who will try out the same thing in other states," says Kanti Bajpai, political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "But now in addition to communal riots, the politicians will also see terrorism as a permanent communal divide, so that the majority Hindus feel constantly under threat."

Sharp divisions among India's five or six major religions, dozens of major languages, and thousands of castes tend to be muted in day-to-day life. This, many historians argue, is the real genius of India's 5,000-year-old civilization. Lacking armies that could repel invaders - from Aryan nomads to Mughal princes to the British - India has survived by raising the white flag of defeat, and then absorbing the invaders with hardly a ripple.

But since independence, Indian politicians have used these communal divides as a form of power, unifying members of a common religion, race, or caste against a perceived enemy within the country. These internal divisions have brought India as much bloodshed as any external enemy ever could. The technique is so pervasive for most Indians that "communal" is a negative term.

The case study for communal politics is Gujarat, birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi and a key industrial state. There, leaders of the BJP, including chief minister Narendra Modi, have promised to protect the Hindu majority against any Muslim agitation.

This strategy has worked wonders for the BJP, especially after a horrifying February attack, when apparently Muslim thugs torched a train full of Hindu pilgrims in the town of Godhra, killing 50. The attack led to three months of unfettered riots.

Human rights activists say the pro-Hindu state government was complicit in these revenge riots. Hundreds of Muslims were killed in their homes, and many of the survivors fled to refugee camps across the state. But the violence has not been entirely one-sided. A September attack by Islamic gunmen at the Akshardham Temple in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, killed some 32 Hindu worshippers.

Complicit or not, Mr. Modi hardly cast a conciliatory tone. He argued that Hindu anger was "understandable," and carried on a gaurav yatra, or pilgrimage of pride, to boost the morale of his statesmen. In a recent interview with the Delhi-based Asian Age newspaper, Modi said this election is a choice between nationalism and terrorism - and denied that the Hindu riots of last spring could be equated with terrorism.

"Remember one thing," he said. "There cannot be a Hindu terrorist. The day there are Hindu terrorists, you would not see Pakistan on the world map."

The opposition Congress Party has largely copied Modi's hardline politics. Sidelining their longtime state party leader, a secularist, Congress has chosen an unabashed pro-Hindu newcomer, Shankersinh Vaghela, hoping to attract alienated Muslim voters as well as Hindus who blame the BJP for Gujarat's failing economy in the past year. In his campaign speeches, Mr. Vaghela said he would defend Hindus and their culture, although he would not antagonize the Muslims.

Whether either of these strategies, hard or soft Hindutva, will work, remains to be seen. Heading into today's elections, where state police have been placed on high alert, opinion polls predicted a close race. The leading India Today magazine gave the BJP the narrow edge of 12 to 15 assembly seats. Other polls predicted that Congress would win by that same margin.

Ultimately, the violence of the past decade may be an expression of how five decades of democracy are finally chipping away at India's millenniums-old caste system, which preserved the power of rich landowners and priests and kept shopkeepers, farmers, and laborers in their place. As lower castes increasingly exert themselves at the polls, upper-caste Hindus have tried to reassert power by uniting Hindus under a saffron flag.

"The elite of India is being displaced, and there is a tremendous inferiority complex here toward the lower castes," says Saeed Naqvi, a columnist for the Indian Express newspaper.

"These people [the upper castes] have lost out in liberal democracy, but if the relations between Hindus and Muslims are so divided, with 9 percent Muslims on one side and 91 percent Hindus on the other side, then it's a cakewalk."

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