India's Dangerous Religious Conflict

AT 5:30 in the morning a melodic wail from a loudspeaker pierces the rural tranquillity of Coorg, a lush hilly region in Southwest India. It is the Muslim call to prayer - familiar to Muslim faithful the world over.

These are Moplahs Muslims who have settled from nearby Kerala State. Some are traders, but most labor on local spice and coffee plantations. To nearby landowners, the loudspeakers are a source of resentment - especially to native Kodavas. Loudspeakers blaring at odd hours may seem a small matter - but it expresses a much larger conflict.

Obscure noise ordinances in country towns don't work. Religious and minority rights and practices often have precedence over Indian civil law. In a transitional society attempting to shed its socialist moorings and bureaucratic shackles, religion, communalism, and regionalism consume more time and energy in already hot domestic electoral politics.

What is at stake is the survival of India not just as a secular state, but a pluralistic and democratic society. How India deals with its contradictions matters not only to itself - but has international ramifications.

Of importance is a burgeoning Hindu backlash and revival, and growth of the right-wing Bharitya Janata Party (BJP) in places like Coorg. Since the end of the British raj, Hindu activists charge that successive governments have given special status to so-called minorities and have practiced nothing but the politics of appeasement toward these groups.

In a profoundly diverse multilingual, multiethnic, and multi-religious nation of 850 million, Muslims are 15 percent of the population. Given this mix, an unintended slight or irreverence to a religious symbol could spark a full-scale riot. It was no accident India quickly banned Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses."

It took an elderly Muslim woman, Shah Bano, to shake the Indian justice system. She sought maintenance due to her under civil law. Her errant husband refused to pay, citing Muslim law and the Koran. She sued and the Indian Supreme Court ruled in her favor. A furor erupted among conservative Muslims, and several Muslim politicians exploited the issue. The late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi succumbed to pressure and passed legislation that his critics, including a Muslim Cabinet colleague, said would send Mu slim women back to the Middle Ages.

Hindu revivalists say Muslims are a pampered lot who enjoy rights and excessive privileges in India greater than those they would enjoy elsewhere. Many Muslims, however, say they are unjustly accused of being unpatriotic and for showing greater allegiance to Pakistan or some other Islamic country.

Among its goals, the BJP and Hindu chauvinists hope to reclaim Hindu religious sites by converting mosques allegedly built on Hindu temples destroyed by Muslim invaders. Many Hindus support closer ties with Israel, and see a meshing of sentiments between the two countries, since both face Islamic fundamentalism. They question whether India's steadfast support of Arab positions over the years is effective in neutralizing Arab affinity for Pakistan, with whom India has fought over the state of Kashmir.

A sore point among Indians is Article 370 in India's constitution - created to integrate Kashmir into India. Critics say the opposite is true - that the statute has preserved and reinforced the separatist and fundamentalist inclinations of the Kashmiri leadership. Article 370, its supporters say, was designed to safeguard the local cultural and demographic character of Kashmir, and shelter the state from being absorbed by the Hindu majority.

The battle for Kashmir must be viewed in the context of a global Islamic resurgence. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Indian policymakers are wary of an Islamic crescent in the north that includes the muslim former Soviet republics. With both India and Pakistan showing a nuclear capability, an ominous dimension enters into the politics of the subcontinent.

The rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India scarcely compares with its counterpart in Islamic countries. So far, the BJP groups have not spelled out a national vision, but have been reactive. Hindu activists do not call for an autocratic state. But with increasing communal fissures in several Indian states, the nation's democratic and secular credentials are severely tested.

India has remained intact since independence from Britain by religious and cultural tolerance, and democracy. Amplifying those principles will maintain India's unity and integrity.

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