India's Dangerous Religious Conflict

Article excerpt

AT 5:30 in the morning a melodic wail from a loudspeaker pierces the rural tranquillity of Coorg, a lush hilly region in Southwest India. It is the Muslim call to prayer - familiar to Muslim faithful the world over.

These are Moplahs Muslims who have settled from nearby Kerala State. Some are traders, but most labor on local spice and coffee plantations. To nearby landowners, the loudspeakers are a source of resentment - especially to native Kodavas. Loudspeakers blaring at odd hours may seem a small matter - but it expresses a much larger conflict.

Obscure noise ordinances in country towns don't work. Religious and minority rights and practices often have precedence over Indian civil law. In a transitional society attempting to shed its socialist moorings and bureaucratic shackles, religion, communalism, and regionalism consume more time and energy in already hot domestic electoral politics.

What is at stake is the survival of India not just as a secular state, but a pluralistic and democratic society. How India deals with its contradictions matters not only to itself - but has international ramifications.

Of importance is a burgeoning Hindu backlash and revival, and growth of the right-wing Bharitya Janata Party (BJP) in places like Coorg. Since the end of the British raj, Hindu activists charge that successive governments have given special status to so-called minorities and have practiced nothing but the politics of appeasement toward these groups.

In a profoundly diverse multilingual, multiethnic, and multi-religious nation of 850 million, Muslims are 15 percent of the population. Given this mix, an unintended slight or irreverence to a religious symbol could spark a full-scale riot. It was no accident India quickly banned Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses."

It took an elderly Muslim woman, Shah Bano, to shake the Indian justice system. She sought maintenance due to her under civil law. Her errant husband refused to pay, citing Muslim law and the Koran. She sued and the Indian Supreme Court ruled in her favor. A furor erupted among conservative Muslims, and several Muslim politicians exploited the issue. The late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi succumbed to pressure and passed legislation that his critics, including a Muslim Cabinet colleague, said would send Muslim women back to the Middle Ages. …