India teeters on the edge, and the reasons are familiar

Gregory D. Alles

December 15, 1992|By Gregory D. Alles

WHEN you think about it, it seems absurd: people are willin to die or kill for a modest, three-domed mosque in a small north Indian town.

Shouting to a deity, young Hindu fundamentalists wield crowbars and pickaxes, break through police cordons, scale barbed-wire fences and demolish a 500-year-old structure. In the process, they hurl the world's largest democracy into chaos. With clumsy handling, the dispute could even spark another Indo-Pakistani war, this time fought in the shadow of nuclear conflagration.

The mosque, built in 1528 in the holy town of Ayodhya, was called Babri Masjid, after the Muslim conqueror who founded the Mughal dynasty. It sat, traditionalists say, on the ruins of an older temple, built where Rama, the seventh incarnation of the Hindu god Lord Vishnu, was supposedly born. (Vishnu's eighth incarnation was Krishna, of Hare Krishna fame.) Even before Indian independence in 1947, some Hindus were calling for the mosque's removal in order to rebuild the temple. Since 1986, it has cost India several thousand lives and two governments. In the coming weeks and months, expect more of the same.

Cynics like to see in the agitation nothing more than political opportunism, something like George Bush's appeal to the religious right. The slogan "Mandir!" ("temple," for the temple at Rama's birth site) catapulted the right-wing BJP (Indian People's Party) to its status as India's major opposition party. According to India Today (India's Time magazine), a recent meeting of BJP moderates and hard-liners brought agreement on no other common cause. They decided to play their old, religious trump card.

It is possible, however, to tell another tale. On this view, those frenzied blows last week hammered home the truth of the Roman philosopher Lucretius' ancient indictment: Religion can and does persuade people to do evil. In fact, the political cynics ignore the devotional fervor that led thousands of Hindus to travel to Ayodhya, then to cheer on the demolition with shouts of "Jai Shri Ram" ("Hail Lord Rama"). If Hindu sentiment had not been genuine, the leaders of the BJP could not have played with devotional fire.

But both of these views -- Ayodhya as political opportunism or as religious evil -- are only partial truths. They miss what gives every American a stake in the events. When Babri Masjid was demolished, deep strains in Indian society snapped. Try them out. The names are different, but the problems should sound familiar:

* Hindus outnumber Muslims in India eight to one. As a (rightly) nervous minority, India's Muslims have received a variety of legal concessions. In some Hindu eyes, these concessions deprive the majority Hindu population of equal treatment. They also aggravate long-standing prejudices against Muslims, who have historically violated cherished Hindu norms. The result is a communal powder keg with a Hindu fuse.

* Many Hindus see themselves as the true, indigenous Indians, while they see Muslims as descendants of destructive invaders. That Babri Masjid and an estimated 3,000 other mosques sit atop the alleged ruins of Hindu temples is an open sore. For some, the demolition of the mosque and subsequent (re)building of a temple on Lord Rama's birth site would help redress this centuries-old theft.

* India now has MTV, steamy movies, a highly visible consumer society, feminism -- in short, traditional Indian mores and values are changing, some say dying, under the pressures of modern life (a.k.a. Americanism). Mythological serials on national TV, most famously depicting the life of Rama and the Mahabharata battle, have been one tremendously popular way to reassert those traditions. So is, for some, demolishing an insult of a mosque.

(It can't help much that modern scholarship, in the person of B.B. Lal, the leading archaeological authority on Ayodhya, insists that Babri Masjid could not possibly have been Rama's birth site. His assertion is only one more attack on tradition. The question of whether a temple preceded the mosque has been delegated, somewhat quixotically, to the courts.)

* Since independence, India has been struggling to create a national identity where previously there existed only expansive (but not nationwide) empires and a large number of princedoms. Officially, India is a secular state. But "India" and "Hindu" are obviously cognate, and over 80 percent of India's 882 million people are Hindus. To members of the World Hindu Council, the National Volunteer Corps and BJP, it is obvious that India should be a Hindu nation, just as it is obvious to some that the United States is a Christian nation. Those who don't like that fact, they say, should simply leave.

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