Bloody India Again

December 09, 1992

India is a nation full of contradictions, and it is nowhere s evident as in the relationship between religion and politics. In constitutional theory, and usually in practice, it is a secular state. But it is a state with an overwhelming majority of one religion (Hindu) locked in a history of mutual animosity with its largest minority (Muslim). It is also a nation that has been governed virtually all of its independent life by one political party. Frustrated opponents strike out time and again for the tools to bring it down. Religion is only the latest of the weapons.

The onslaught on the Muslim mosque at Ayodhya, in northern India, and the rioting that has inevitably followed elsewhere in the country, is neither purely religious nor purely political. The tens of thousands -- perhaps hundreds of thousands -- of Hindu militants who flocked to the remote town to destroy the 16th Century, unused mosque were driven by religious fervor. But they were also goaded by leaders whose agenda is as much political as religious. In a nation where frustration still overwhelms millions, despite the great economic and social progress India has made, igniting mass emotions is one of the few cards unscrupulous politicians have to play effectively.

Above all else the successful destruction of the Babri Mosque testifies to the relative weakness of the national government. Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao wears the mantle of the Congress Party of Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi, but he is not of the same fiber. Well-meaning and innovative in some areas, he has failed to dominate India's turbulent and badly factionalized politics. The right-wing parties which draw their strength from orthodox Hindus in north central India -- the so-called Cow Belt, India's counterpart to our Bible Belt -- seek to tear him down by one way or another. They hope that fomenting violence, especially against minority Muslims, will succeed where democratic means have failed.

India may now be in for one of its periodic outbursts of senseless, wanton violence. None can rival the Hindu-Muslim carnage that marked the birth of free India and its Muslim-majority neighbor Pakistan in 1947. But bloodshed has repeatedly stained India's tricolor flag, meant to symbolize the peaceful coexistence of the world's major religions. India has survived with strong, enlightened leadership in the past. Only political leadership of the same caliber will bring it through this episode.

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