Indian Politics: End of Secularism?

MAHATMA GANDHI used populism to fight for Indian independence. He embodied a formidable mix of inner strength, moral stature, and political acumen that often left the British rulers confounded. He rallied the masses and fought against religious divisions. But somewhere along the past four decades of independence, his legacy got lost. Today in India, a generation of opportunists plays with divisions of caste and religion. Indians face a serious crisis. The 11-month National Front government of Prime Minister V.P. Singh has collapsed. His rival, Chandra Shekhar, split the National Front and maneuvered to become the next prime minister with the support of Rajiv Gandhi's Congress (I) Party.

Mr. Shekhar, with even less mass support than Mr. Singh, will have to tackle the same problems that undid Singh's coalition. In northern India, Hindus and Muslims clash over a religious site claimed by both communities. Hindus want to demolish the 16th century Babria Masjid mosque and build a temple to their god, Ram. Supporting this dubious venture is the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a former partner in Singh's government. BJP and other parties have threatened to demolish thousands of mosques across India if the temple is not built.

The temple-mosque controversy tests Indian secularism. Singh refused to let Hindu fundamentalists demolish the mosque and arrested the BJP leadership. In Parliament he asked, ``What kind of India do most of us want?'' Many politicians have exploited but not answered this question, especially the new prime minister. More than 300 people have died in recent weeks defending ``religion.'' For their part, the BJP whips up sentiments, telling Hindus that their identity is at stake.

It is a primitive time in Indian politics. BJP leaders went through sensitive northern India in a truck made to resemble a religious Hindu chariot. Hindu-Muslim riots flared alongside the chariot's path. This generation of Indian politicians has never shied from pitting Hindus against Muslims, or lower castes against upper castes. Singh himself played the caste card after his government began to drift. His promise to clean government and rebuild democratic institutions remained unfulfilled. The country lurched from crisis to crisis during his short tenure.

In August, Singh announced an affirmative action plan that reserved 27 percent of federal jobs for lower castes. Upper-caste Hindus and students protested. Sixty-three students died, many through gruesome acts of self-immolation. Hindus were bitterly divided. As Singh courted backward castes and the Muslim vote, the BJP solidified its Hindu vote bank by forcing the temple-mosque crisis to a head. Factional fighting in the National Front, which had been simmering ever since Singh's nomination as prime minister, boiled over and clear battle lines were drawn.

Singh tried to blunt Hindu fundamentalism by provoking casteism. Sadly, there is no longer strong popular support for the secular Indian state as defined by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in the crucial Hindi heartland of North India. Saner elements in the political spectrum must realize that soon.

While politicians play dangerous games, India burns. Terrorism in Punjab and Kashmir shows no signs of abating as democratic institutions are eroded daily. Assam in the northeast is in the grips of another militant movement that espouses Maoist solutions. Other problems of India continue to mock the decisionmakers - rising prices, unemployment, a soaring foreign debt, shortage of foreign exchange, a dwindling share of the world's trade, rising population, overburdened schools, an uncertain industrial policy, rampant corruption.

Most Indians are aware of the bleak times they live in. They know the entire cast of characters - Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh, and now Chandra Shekhar. A certain cynicism is beginning to set in. The middle class, intellectuals, and professionals are becoming increasingly hostile toward politicians as a class. But unless the educated and secular forces unite and fight the fascism preached by Hindu fundamentalists and their Muslim counterparts in the name of religion, the unity of India will be threatened.

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