Secularism under siege

April 22, 2002

WITH THE world riveted by the violence in the Middle East, the recent horrific flare-up in another long-running religious conflict - between Hindus and Muslims in India - has not gotten much notice. It's a dangerous turn, not only for India but also potentially for its tensions with Pakistan over Kashmir. And that could even spell trouble for Pakistan's attention to the U.S. war on terrorism.

Since late February, about 1,000 Muslims have been killed in savage Hindu attacks that have been called a state-led pogrom and that have included lynchings, live burnings, torture and mass rape. An estimated 60,000 homeless Muslims have fled to makeshift camps.

It is India's worst run of such killings in a decade. And last week the slaughter threatened the Indian parliament's ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee - who rode to power as the moderate face of Hindu nationalism. If his government were to fall, it would be an appropriate payback for the ugly passions stirred by the political-religious fundamentalists in his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and in a closely tied group of even more hard-core Hindu supremacists.

Antithetical to the secular foundations of India's more than 50 years of democracy, Hindu nationalism came to prominence in 1992 when the fundamentalists, including BJP members, tore down a 16th-century mosque where some believe one of the most revered Hindu gods, Lord Ram, was born. That triggered religious battles killing 2,000.

With the BJP gaining control of parliament in 1998, militant Hindus have threatened to return to the mosque to build their own temple there, which sparked the sudden return of violence in February. Muslims killed about 60 Hindu hard-liners in the western state of Gujarat as they rode a train from the mosque. Hindus retaliated with more than six weeks of killing unhindered by Gujarat's government.

The BJP and other Hindu nationalists essentially seek a kind of theocracy built on Hindu values and culture. One such group (to which Mr. Vajpayee has been connected) gathers members early each morning for martial arts and talk of a Hindu "motherland."

Trouble is, India's billion people, though predominantly Hindu, include more than 100 million Muslims, the world's second-largest Islamic population. And beyond that, Indian society is one of the world's great mixed stews, with endless ethnicities, beliefs and tongues. One of the great triumphs of modern India - the India forged by Mahatma Gandhi (who was killed in 1948 by a Hindu militant) - has been its political and social commitment to secularism, including respect for minority rights, at least in theory.

In challenging that, Hindu nationalists, including Mr. Vajpayee, have been playing with fire for decades. Having been widely rejected in state elections across India this year and facing a parliamentary revolt for doing little to stop the violence and for not dismissing Gujarat's BJP governor, the real threat now is that these fundamentalists will rely even more on what brought them to power - enflaming dangerous passions.

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