Hindu and Muslim Strife in India

By Ninian, Alex | Contemporary Review, June 2002 | Go to article overview
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Hindu and Muslim Strife in India


Ninian, Alex, Contemporary Review


HINDU versus Muslim is an issue big enough, bad enough and deep enough for anyone. But in India it is a sub-text to a subject which, if that is possible, is even bigger and deeper. That subject is whether secularism or religion is to form the basis of future Indian society and the Republic itself where 82 per cent are Hindu and 12 per cent Muslim.

The independent state was founded on the principles of secularism - the exclusion of religion from government, and the encouragement of religious freedom. These are the tenets advocated by Mahatma Gandhi and, under his leadership and that of his immediate successors, are enshrined in the Constitution. Indeed, Gandhi was assassinated by Hindu nationalists and religious extremists and such fundamentalism has been until now a pariah movement in the country.

Furthermore, in the recent past India has accused Pakistan of having a government which cannot control its Muslim fanatics. Last month's murder of 31 Indians was blamed on three suicide attackers. India has scored points with the West by attributing terrorism and murder as well as Pakistani incursions into Kashmir to Muslim fundamentalism. The government has used the countering of Pakistani Islamic terrorism as the reason for a popular military build-up of staggering scale.

Now its mirror image - Hindu religious fundamentalism - is on the increase in India and is growing in the mainstream of political life. How far it has advanced is hard to measure. There are so many states, castes, races, languages and self-interests that such radicalism is accepted or rejected in varying degrees by the astonishing diversity of the Indian people. But recent images of rampaging mobs torching Muslim neighbourhoods and pictures of the charred bodies of Muslim children burned alive are challenging the government to say where it stands. The worst excesses are and were in the state of Gujarat but the flashpoint was the temple issue at Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The Sabarmati Express returning from Avodhya was burned at Godhra in Gujarat on 27 February. This in itself is complicated enough. Uttar Pradesh is the country's most populous state with a huge political pull based on its numbers and economic weight, while Gujarat has a volatile reputation and an active Hindu nationalist movement, and has the capability of igniting emotional fires beyond its boundaries.

Behind it all is the even more complicated organisation or organisations which direct and manage Hindu religious nationalism. The RSS (Swayamsevak Sangh) or the National Volunteer Association is the centre of a 'movement' of affiliated organisations who believe in India as a Hindu rashra or Hindu nation. The World Hindu Council is its religious incarnation and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the political party which most of its adherents support. Their beliefs include the idea that all Indians are ancestral Hindus and that those who are Christians or Muslims have converted to foreign religions and must accept the primacy of their ancient Hindu heritage.

This belief is the engine which powers the temple issue. The Babri mosque in Ayodhya stood there for 200 years under the Moghuls and survived another 200 years under British rule. It even survived more than another 40 years in independent India. But Ayodhya is known to all as the birthplace of Ram, the revered incarnation of the great god Vishnu, and some even say that there was a Hindu temple to Ram on the very spot before the mosque was built. It is not difficult to see how Hindu activists have been able to denounce the existence of a Muslim mosque as an affront and a sacrilege.

It was these attitudes which, in 1992, inflamed thousands of Hindu zealots to overcome the police and the army to demolish the mosque stone by stone and brick by brick. In the ensuing riots more than 1100 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. It is the same sentiment which has this year caused Muslims to burn alive 58 Hindus (mostly women and children) on a train returning from Ayodhya and 600 Muslims to be slaughtered in several days of rampaging Hindu vengeance.

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