Largest democracy disintegrates

Georgie Anne Geyer

May 28, 1991|By Georgie Anne Geyer

New York -- WHEN RAJIV GANDHI came to Washington as prime minister in 1985, he was a breathtaking figure. He strode into meetings like an Indian prince of old, resembling in his stunning white Nehru suits some young god of light.

Last week, white sheets covered the handsome young man, his face blown apart by still another unknown assassin's bomb, his body ripped open and black ened where only moments before followers had pressed garlands of flowers into his hands.

We saw a white sari, this time worn in mourning by his Italian-born wife, Sonia. We saw more shops burning in rage, and still another cremation in the family of the great Nehru. On this same river his mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was cremated in 1984 after being assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

But we can see beyond the tragedy of modern India, the world's largest democracy, and beyond the decline of the Congress Party and the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty that have ruled India for most of the 44 years of its independence from Britain.

When Rajiv's grandfather, the aristocratic Jawaharlal Nehru, marched into the Bandung conference in Indonesia in 1955, he and the others of that first postcolonial leadership in the Third World of Africa, Asia and the Middle East ushered in the new leadership phase. These leaders tended to be the elites come to power, and they had the idea that development would come magically.

When that did not happen, and when the magic of "secular development" began to tarnish irrevocably in most of these countries over the last 10 years, the smaller countries of more-or-less one people turned to the market for relief.

In the larger countries of many peoples and religions -- such as India, such as the Soviet Union -- the process of breakdown into tribal and ethnic groups began with a ferocity that is carrying people back to earlier, far more primitive times. In India, the Congress Party's secular universalism is clearly dead. Around the peripheries, Sikhs in the Punjab, Kashmiri separatists in "beautiful" Kashmir, Assamese in the Indian state of Kashmir, Tamils in neighboring Sri Lanka -- all took part, in spirit at least, in the murder of Rajiv, for all are involved in the tragic dismemberment and re-tribalization of India.

Indeed, at Rajiv's death, the Indian papers clearly noted the tragedy that is setting upon the once-hopeful country like the wrath of the ancient god Shiva. "An increasingly violent political culture," one said, while another wrote of India as a country of "madmen full of madness and intensity destroying all that Indians hold dear," and still another described a country engaged in "the destruction of secular values."

How do these violent movements in Kashmir, Punjab, Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the subcontinent compare to the "liberation movements" that took over so much of the imagination, the politics and the time of the world between World War II and now? In truth, they are quite different in inspiration although they are similar in their violence.

"They are secessionist movements, not liberation movements," the Indian foreign secretary, Inder Kumar Gujral, told a small group of us recently in Washington. "There is a certain degree of alienation in parts of the country. It will be difficult to control."

And at the United Nations, analyst Mahbub ul Haq of Pakistan tells me of this new world, ominous in its implications for all of us:

"We see two trends that look contradictory but are not. On the one hand, you see globalization. On the other side, you see this search for ethnic roots, this search to belong. The nation-state in the middle is being whittled away. That is what we see in Pakistan and India, an assault on the nation-state.

"People find themselves so threatened by the globalization -- even in Pakistan, cooks and drivers talk about CNN bringing the gulf war into their living room -- that they revert to the ethnic search. At the same time, these new 'liberation movements' are more and more indigenous; their origins are not from outside."

But these kinds of breakdown -- and their outcomes -- are not witnessed only in the subcontinent and in heterogeneous societies such as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. That breakdown along ethnic and racial power lines is also happening right here in the United States.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist specializing in foreign affairs.

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