Saturday, May 16, 2009

Hindu Nationalists Set For Gains In India

The world's largest democracy, India is set to have elections for its Lokh Saba or parliament. Although the Congress Party is expected to show up in first place, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to register major gains and to make a first place showing in some regions.

For years the issue of free wheeling capitalism versus the heavily state regulated state economy that has prevailed since India's independence has been a dominant issue in Indian political discourse. On this issue, the BJP has been a proponent of less government regulation and encouraging investment. Such policies have been accompanied by an economic boom in India which boasts a large work force of highly trained individuals and more English speakers than the United States. (India is a polyglot country. English, the colonial language is the glue that holds the country together. Politically neutral, it is tied to no single region or ethnic group.)

"Communalism" or strife between members of different ethnic groups is a hot button issue in India. From Kashmiri separatists to Sikh extremists, from Hindu-Muslim tensions to inter-caste tensions, there is a multitude of socio-ethnic fault lines in Indian political life. Although a majority of Indians (80%) are Hindu, there is a 12% Muslim minority. India's calendar of national holidays includes all the major Muslim holidays. Since India is a secular democracy, any religious or caste discrimination is prohibited. The lowest caste Hindus (untouchables) have seats in university and civil service positions set aside for them. Although this opens some doors, it does not correct the attitudes that persist and thrive towards untouchables and lower caste Hindus. Disenchantment with the caste hierarchy has provided a socio economic incentive to convert from Hinduism to Christianity or Islam. This has fueled violence towards converts from Hinduism and towards the clergy of the Christian minority.

On the issue of religious conversion, BJP is opposed to missionary activity directed towards Hindus. They would like legal curbs on such activities. There are high caste people who are struggling economically to whom the Bharatiya Janata Party has strong appeal. They resent caste and ethnic set asides that they feel limit their economic opportunities. Tensions concerning the Ayodyha Mosque still fester.

The Ayodhya Mosque was built upon a site revered by Hindus as the birthplace of one of their gods. It was built during a time that the area of which it was a part was under the rule of a Muslim dynasty. Hindus have for centuries viewed the presence of a mosque on the site as an affront to their faith. In 1992 a Hindu religious procession at the site in which BJP was a participant spun out of control. The mosque was torn down in a frenzy of violence that claimed hundreds of lives as it morphed into violence against entire communities.

It should be remembered that the partition of India in 1947 did not totally separate Hindus and Muslims. There are more Muslims in India than there are in Pakistan. Despite statutory equality, there have been numerous instances of inter communal violence in India since its founding in 1947. In America after 9/11, there was no significant anti Muslim violence. This contrasts markedly to India where public anger at Muslims can erupt into bloody pogroms.
The Milli Gazette, a Muslim newspaper in India details the demographics of such violence as follows.

"The history of 55 years of grievous anti-Muslim violence in India shows that in townships and villages, where Muslims are 20% or more of the population, not much harm happens to them in communal riots. In such townships all across India, Muslims were always able to defend their lives and properties and beat back the attacks of fascist Hindu marauders. In the horrible 1992/93 anti-Muslim riots in Mumbai, Muslims were safe in Muslim pocket localities like Mahim, Bandra, Mohammad Ali Road, Bhindi Bazaar, but over a thousand Muslims were killed in localities where their population was sparse. Similarly in the other cities in Maharashtra, UP and Bihar, where many anti-Muslim riots have occurred over the years, Muslims suffered losses of life and property in those localities where they were under 10% of the population, while they were safe in localities where their population was 20% or more.

To live in pockets where Muslims are 20% or more of the population, does not mean that those localities become ghettos. For instance in New Delhi such Muslim pockets exist in localities like Okhla, Jamia Nagar, Zakir Bagh. These are nice areas with clean residential and business operations. In such localities in New Delhi, Mumbai and other cities, Muslims have built high quality educational, medical, civic institutions and business enterprises. And all of them have remained safe in the many large-scale anti-Muslim riots in these cities."

From these demographics it can be inferred that whatever one's ethnicity, it is safer to be in an area where one belongs to the local majority.

For millions of Indians, freedom from fear of inter communal violence is a genuine concern. In addition to Muslims, the Christian minority in India has suffered considerable violence, including murder of clergy and believers, rape and destruction of churches.

Spero News gives some idea of the scope anti Christian violence can take in a recent article on such outbreaks in Orissa State. Spero News reports as follows.

"Hundreds of people affected by anti-Christian violence in Orissa are continuing their legal battles for compensation with Church support. Father Dibya Parichha, spokesperson for the archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, said they were fighting for justice and human rights. "We don't know when it will end but we will continue it until each victim receives justice," he said. The archdiocese covers Orissa's Kandhamal district that was the focus of four-month long anti-Christian violence starting on Aug. 24, 2008. According to the Church's latest list, about 90 people were killed and 50,000 others, mostly Christians, displaced in the riots. The state government, however, says only 42 were killed and lists the rest as "missing" because their bodies are not yet found, Father Parichha told UCA News May 14. The violence broke out a day after Maoists killed a Hindu leader in Kandhamal. Hindu radicals, blaming Christians for the murder, orchestrated the attacks."

It is chilling to note the word "only" being used in connection with 42 deaths. Additionally, it is hard to imagine the social turmoil that would have created 50,000 homeless in one wave of violence.

India's election should be watched with interest and concern in the west. Whether one is a Christian, Muslim or simply concerned with human rights, India's complex ethnic balance must not tilt into bloody anarchy. Whether it is "Hindutva" (pride in Hindu culture) Muslim pride or and other forms of religio ethnic pride, the tranquility of the world's largest (1.2 billion people) democracy is a matter of great concern. Mohandas Gandhi, the founder and first Prime Minister of India had a multi ethnic vision for India. It would be a pity for that to unravel.

Rabindranath Tagore, (1861-1941) Is India's national poet and a 1914 Nobel Prize winner. In his famous poem for India "Let My Country Awake" he writes as follows.

"Where the mind is without fear and the head held high; Where knowledge is free; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; Where words come out from the depth of truth; Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever-widening thought and action; Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake."

India stands at the threshhold of a possible economic boom. It is critical for it to rise to the challenges of its own diversity. India's government and people have their work cut out for them. I hope and pray for their success .

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