Right Tilt

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India and the BJP

On January 23, 1999, an Australian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two young sons were burned to death by Hindu extremists as they slept in their car in a rural Indian village.

This incident, which shocked Indians throughout the world, was but one in a series of recent attacks on India's tiny Christian population. Allegations of forced conversions of Hindus by Christian missionaries have led many right-wing Hindu extremist groups to attack churches, missions, affiliated schools, and prayer halls. Just before the Staines' murder, a new government had taken power in India: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), an organization long affiliated with Hindu extremism. Among the partners in the BJP's parliamentary coalition was the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) party, a traditional bastion of Hindu extremism and the party out of which the BJP originally grew. Whether or not this government's rise to power and the increase in religious extremism are linked is debatable. Since mid-1999, perhaps spurred by outrage at the Staines murder, the anti-Christian violence has declined. The BJP and its extremist allies, however, remain in power. An unusual struggle has developed within the coalition as the BJP, led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, attempts to resist the extremist pressures of the RSS and their other allies. At stake is not just secularism in India, but also issues such as foreign trade and relations with Pakistan. The interaction of the BJP and the RSS will likely have a major impact in India's future political development.

The RSS was founded in 1925 and has been outlawed three times since then. It was initially banned in 1948 after orchestrating Mahatma Gandhi's assassination. The RSS members and admirers who perpetrated the crime claimed that Gandhi was too pro-Muslim and that he encouraged the murder of Hindus. In 1994, one of the conspirators, the brother of the actual assassin, told an interviewer, "You can say that we grew in the RSS rather than in our home. It was like a family to us." The RSS today still preaches an ideology of Hindu nationalism; its web site declares, "The Hindu culture is the life-breath of Hindustan [India]. It is therefore clear that if Hindustan is to be protected, we should first nourish the Hindu culture." The party received increased notoriety in recent months when it called upon India's Christians and Muslims to renounce their foreign influence and to form their own versions of "Indianized" Islam and Christianity. Now, for the first time, the extremist party is in power as a member of the ruli ng coalition.

The relationship between the RSS and the BJP is an old one. The BJP began under the political auspices of the RSS. Additionally, both parties are members of an umbrella organization known as Sangh Parivar. Some Indian observers, including the leading news magazine India Today, go so far as to call the BJP a "front organization" for the RSS. Many BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Vajpayee, are former RSS members, and some openly support the RSS. Home Minister L.K. Advani provoked a storm of controversy in October when he attended the RSS's 75th Anniversary celebration near Agra and declared, "The RSS exercises moral influence on the government and both Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and I share a historical bonding with it."

The BJP also has a history of religious extremism; an editorial in the Japan Times in 1999 declared that the BJP's increased political popularity in the 1990s was "achieved on the back of an anti-Muslim campaign, tapping into the backlash against appeasement of Muslims by Congress governments." In this decade the BJP is most famous for its role in the 1992 Ayodhya incident, in which mobs of Hindus destroyed a 400-year-old Muslim mosque that was believed to have been constructed on the birthplace of an important Hindu deity. …