India and the Yugoslav Example

February 10, 1993

The specter of mayhem between Hindus and Muslims in India is nothing new. The hostility dates back many generations. Nothing that has happened in recent years comes even close to the butchery that accompanied the partition along religious lines of the old British colony 45 years ago into India and Pakistan. But the wave of rioting in the past two months has some ugly elements not previously seen in what is blandly termed communalism there. They strike at the foundation of the Indian republic, the heritage of Gandhi and Nehru.

A disquieting New York Times report documents what many suspected during the riots that followed the dismantling of a controversial mosque by Hindu militants. In Bombay, police not only stood by as Hindu mobs rampaged through Muslim neighborhoods, they abetted the thugs. During the assault on the Babri mosque in north central India the police were also strangely inactive. In both cases the state governments, which have principal (but not exclusive) responsibility for law and order, were disgracefully complacent about the wanton destruction. The central government's response was not much better -- a crackdown on political opponents in December but hardly a word against its political allies in Bombay last month.

India is not a homogeneous nation. It is more like a patchwork quilt, composed of two racially distinct ethnic groups, which speak over a dozen different languages, and adherents of every major religion in the world. The thread that has bound these elements together has been the skill and integrity of the nation's civil service and the quality of its political leadership. Both of these threads are becoming frayed, judging from recent events. One need only look to the former Yugoslavia to envision the consequences of their breaking.

Doomsayers have predicted disaster for democratic India before. They were wrong then, and hopefully they will be wrong in the future. Once described disdainfully as not a nation but a geographic expression, India has proved itself resilient many times. But India's tradition of secularism, one of its great strengths, is seriously threatened by Hindu militants. Theocracy doesn't mix with democracy -- or with economic and social progress.

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