WHEN THE NATIONS OF SOUTH ASIA won their independence from the British almost 50 years ago, they were at once united and divided by claims of identity. A shared history and cultural civilization, as well as the common legacy of British rule and Indian nationalism, provided potent forces for cohesion in the region. Modern communications technology, starting with elaborate rail, telegraph, and postal nets inaugurated by British ingenuity and expanded upon by Indian brilliance, had physically integrated all of South Asia by the dawn of the century. The English language, newsprint and publishing, Anglo-Indian higher education, and the lure of public service and professional life to young Indians combined with the growth of political consciousness to weave potent nets of social and political consciousness in South Asia that have proved more enduring than the Raj that stimulated them.
Yet despite such bonds that tied South Asia together after the British withdrawal, the region also showed signs of old and new conflicts along lines of religion and ethnicity. Almost fifty years of independence have hardly helped to resolve some of these deadly conflicts, from Kashmir to Sri Lanka to Karachi. Recent exchanges of mortar fire in Kashmir almost brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war, especially frightening now that both nations have the dreadful capability of launching nuclear weapons.
With well over 900 million people and a rapidly globalizing economy, India has emerged as South Asia's "superpower." Since independence India's constitution and New Delhi's central government have stood for a secular and democratic state transcending the lines of religion, language, and ethnicity. But in the last half century, New Delhi has been drawn more and more to a populist identification with Hindu fears and feelings, if not actually toward the outright pursuit of "Hindu-first" policies, because of the Hindu identity of the overwhelming majority of its citizens.
Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's failure to stop the violent demolition of the Babri Mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya by a Hindu revivalist-led mob in December 1992 is the most recent notorious example of the growing distance between New Delhi's secular rhetoric and populist practices. The destruction of the Ayodhya mosque, built 460 years ago to commemorate the conquests of the first Mughal Emperor of India, was incited largely by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a political party riding the tide of Hindu nationalism. Though there is no historic proof that Raja Rama, the royal hero of Hinduism's most popular epic, the Ramayana, was born beneath that now demolished mosque, hundreds of thousands of Hindus were moved to march on the mosque when told by swamis that it was the original site of Rama's birthplace temple, destroyed by the conquering Muslims. In the wake of the 1992 Ayodhya crisis, thousands of people all across northern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, were beaten or murdered, and hundreds of other temples and mosques destroyed, before any semblance of rational calm could be restored.
The shock of the mosque's destruction and violent aftermath initially made many Indians withdraw their support for the BJP, which lost several local elections the following year. India's Muslim minority, of course, remains especially apprehensive about its community's fate under any BJP-led government, whether at New Delhi's center or in any of India's states. The moderating responsibility of power in a few of India's regional governments, however, seems to have brought considerable restraint to that party's leadership.
The Ayodhya crisis was not the first violent episode growing out of New Delhi's increasing sympathy for the frustrations of its Hindu masses. Eight years earlier, in 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi insisted that Sikh threats to India's secular integrity justified the deployment of army tanks into Amritsar's Golden Temple to "clean out" Sikh separatists. …