India's Hindus Raise Their Voice

Fundamentalists challenge secularism and shape of future politics

SAYING the Indian government is pampering minorities at the expense of majority Hindus, a growing number of middle class Hindus fear their religion is endangered. ``Hindus have become like a minority,'' says G. Raguvir, leader of the right-wing Hindu National Volunteer Corps. ``They are appeasing the minorities who are starting to dictate to us.''

Hinduism, one of the world's oldest and most tolerant religions, is taking on a new image. For three milleniums, Hindu culture has been like a sponge, absorbing values and beliefs brought by frequent foreign invaders.

When India was freed from British rule in 1947 and partitioned, Pakistan became a homeland for Muslims, while predominantly Hindu India was founded on a secular ideal.

Today, Hindus are caught up in the fundamentalist wave sweeping religion. Hindu chauvinism not only challenges Indian secularism, analysts say. It also has stirred religious tensions which will shape politics at home and abroad and pose the biggest threat to the 17 day-old government of Prime Minister V.P. Singh. ``The concept of Hinduism is changing completely,'' says Romila Thapar, a prominent Indian historian. ``The frightening part is that in the next few years we will see a new militant religion emerge in this country.''

That changing Hindu view is most evident in the new power of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Five years ago, the organization had just two seats in the 545-member lower house of India's Parliament.

As part of the successful opposition effort to unseat former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the party surged to 88 seats in a Parliament where no party enjoys a majority. The party's uneasy support is crucial to the survival of Singh's minority government.

BJP leaders push a controversial agenda they call ``positive secularism'' which they say will safeguard minorities while giving Hindus their rightful place in the country where they account for 80 percent of the 800 million population. But critics predict they will undermine secular policies and protections for Muslims and other minorities.

Lal Kisha Advani, the president of the BJP, bristles at suggestions that the organization is communal. In India, communalism refers to differences and tensions over religion, language, and caste.

``There's a curious secularism in this country,'' says the leader, a refugee from Pakistan more than 40 years ago. ``A Christian saying he is proud of his religion is a good thing. A Muslim saying he is proud of Islam is a good thing. But Advani saying he is proud to be a Hindu is communalism.''

A major test for Singh, who supports secularism but took an ambivalent stand on the temple issue during the campaign, will come in January. At that time, Hindu activists say they will continue work on a new temple on a disputed north Indian site sacred to both Hindus and Muslims.

The controversy already has cost hundreds of lives as Hindus and Muslims clashed in the election campaigning. India's huge Muslim minority is uneasy that the issue will snowball into Hindu demands for other disputed sites. Analysts fear that the BJP rank and file will be emboldened by the party's election strength and override its more moderate leaders.

``Communal antagonism and violence could get worse over the next few months,'' says Bashiruddin Ahmed, a political scientist at the Center for Policy Research.

The new Hindu assertiveness also could affect Indian foreign policy toward rival Pakistan and others in the Islamic world.

Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was deeply embarrassed before the election when Iran and Saudi Arabia, key economic partners for energy-poor India, criticized the handling of the shrine controversy.

That international insecurity has combined with Hindu anxieties and resentment at home over poverty, population pressures, joblessness, Westernization, and expanding programs for lower castes and minorities.

Organizations such as the National Volunteer Corps, founded more than 60 years ago, have resurged in recent years on fears that thousands of years of Hindu tradition are under siege.

``The Hindu way of life here is supreme,'' says S.P. Kapur, a retired government employee who has been attending the National Volunteer Corps since 1940. ``We are patriots and want to safeguard our country.''

Analysts suggest the temple controversy will prompt many Indians dismayed by the religious accord to take a stand. ``Most Indians willingly go along with secularism up to a certain point,'' says Thapar, the historian. ``People are secular because they haven't had to make a choice. Now they are being forced to make that choice.''

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