Trying, Against Odds, for National Reconciliation Ethnic Divisions Are the Enemy of True Democracy INDIA

December 13, 1992|By ROBERT M. HAYDEN

It would be comforting to see the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in an India once famed for Gandhian tolerance as simply the revival of some form of "oriental" politics based on "age-old hatreds." Yet the anti-Muslim campaign in India is perhaps best compared with the nationalist fervors that have swept central Europe, and the violence in Ayodhya (where Hindus destroyed a mosque) with the attacks on foreigners in Germany.

In India and central Europe, chauvinistic politics based on the supposed need to protect the majority from the minority are being used by some politicians to gain power in democratic elections. If such politics succeed, the result must be the death of democracy.

Indian democracy has been raucous and rough since its inception, yet it has nonetheless been real. Even the dictatorship imposed by Indira Gandhi from 1975 to 1977 was overthrown by democratic means. The intensity of popular involvement in Indian elections makes American politics seem extraordinarily tame.

A basic principle of this democratic process has been that India is a secular state. The Muslim population of India is huge: at least 110 million people. Jawarharlal Nehru knew that a house divided against itself cannot stand, and that democracy had to be based inclusion of all citizens and not exclusion of a permanent minority. He also knew that a focus on defending the majority from the minority would cause politics to become a contest between extremists' claims to represent the true essence of the silent majority, a path that leads quickly to totalitarianism.

India's constitutional secularism, the inclusion of Muslim elements in state symbols (the green in the flag) and the elevation of Muslims to prominent positions in government (president, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, cabinet positions, major ambassadorships) were all aimed at reinforcing the equal citizenship of Muslims in a Hindu-majority country.

The sharp contrast to Pakistan, which was created from colonial India at the time of independence as a Muslim state, has always been apparent: Pakistan's leaders have been able to channel political debate into issues of Islamic purity, and they have thus sabotaged democracy.

The current crisis of Indian politics has been caused by the rejection of secularism by politicians who want to mobilize the Hindu majority. While they claim democratic legitimacy, these politicians would scrap India's democratic institutions, the better create a purely Hindu state. Thus they would use democratic means to destroy democracy, a strategy well established by 20th century dictators in Europe.

The key to majoritarian politics is the definition of the minority as foreign, socially and politically. At first this rejection of foreign bodies is only a metaphor, but soon it takes on more concrete forms of physical exclusion, through discrimination, segregation and finally violence, first against structures (Kristallnacht, Ayodhya), then against people. Foreignness passes from metaphor to social fact, despite the clear evidence of facts on the ground, the living proof of cultural blending.

It is here that the significance of the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque becomes clear. The mosque stood for more than four hundred years. Hindus and Muslims have lived together in India for even longer. The destruction of the mosque represents a rejection of all that is Islamic in Indian culture. Carried to its logical conclusion, this process would require the demolition of the Taj Mahal, which has in fact been closed temporarily for fear of just such extremism.

It is this xenophobia and the demonization of "foreignness" in a society that has long incorporated influences from many cultures that links Ayodhya to Rostok (site of German anti-foreigner violence) and both to European political tragedies from pogroms to genocide, death camps such as Jasenovac in Croatia (1941-45) to the murder of Sarajevo (1992).

Yet there is a more disturbing link. In their earliest stages, the politics of chauvinism are linked to democratic elections. Like Hitler in the 1930s and the leaders of Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s, the politicians of the Bharatrya Janata Party in India are employing xenophobia as an electoral tool. And in all of these cases, the "foreigners" are fellow citizens, members of groups who have long lived in the countries concerned.

Rostok is different in this regard, since the German violence is aimed at newcomers. Yet other distinctions may grow. Germany may now seem homogenous, but its past is marked by conflicts between Bavarians and Prussians, Catholics and Protestants. One of these, or perhaps the new distinction between "Ossies" and "Wessies," may lead to its own brand of mutual xenophobia, on the model of Serbs and Croats.

Democracy in India is thus threatened by political movements similar to those that destroyed German democracy in the 1930s and that are again coming to prominence in central Europe. Combating these politics may be difficult and require actions from the current democratic governments that are distasteful and harsh. The alternative, however, is chaos. Turning fellow citizens into foreigners in the name of "democracy" is a political strategy that leads to "ethnic cleansing" and civil war.

Robert Hayden, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, has done extensive research in India and the former Yugoslavia.

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