Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

As Ayodhya Anniversary Nears, Religious Frenzy, Caste Tensions Drive Indian Politics

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

As Ayodhya Anniversary Nears, Religious Frenzy, Caste Tensions Drive Indian Politics

Article excerpt

State elections in November and December in five states within what is known as northern India's Hindi Belt are likely to determine the outcome of next year's national elections. Specifically, the real political battles will be fought in Uttar Pradesh (UP), where a BJP-BSP (Bharatiya Janata Party and Bhojang Samaj Party) government led by BSP leader Mayawati recently fell, allowing Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadhav to form a new government. Forthcoming elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Delhi (and in Mizoram, in the country'snortheast) are expected to draw over 140 million people to the polls. The ruling Congress Party in these states is expected to go mano a mano with the right-wing BJP, which heads the national coalition government.

Of course, the political waters already are muddied. The BJP government is using its intelligence agencies to dig up dirt on rival leaders, who in turn have leveled charges of nepotism against BJP leaders (citing, for example, the wealth amassed by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vaj payee's foster son-in-law, Ranjan Bhatachariya), as well as of strongarm tactics against minorities.

For the first time in 50 years, the Indian Election Commission has asked candidates to submit their financial statements along with their criminal records. This has already created misgivings about the real intentions of the government agencies. Strong political pressure is being exerted on the supreme court, which until now has retained a degree of independence. The ruling BJP has used its parliamentary majority to offset judicial rulings in recent months, and judicial appointments also have been subject to political considerations.

Heating Up Ayodhya

As national elections draw nearer, Hindu extremist parties like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal and the Rashtriya Swayem Sewak Sangh (RSS)-all members of the ruling BJP coalition-have stepped up their demand to construct a Hindu temple in Ayodhya (once Faizabad), UP, on the site of the Muslim mosque demolished in December 1992. Only a court decision stands between the right-wing Hindu "volunteers" known as Sewaks and the site. The Supreme Court of India has yet to render its verdict on the 1992 incident, or confirm whether a temple was buried under the site of the mosque. To date excavations have unearthed no verifiable evidence of a temple.

As the anniversary of the Dec. 6 demolition approaches and electioneering heats up, the Sewaks, led by hard-line Hindu leaders, are trying to reach Ayodhya with their bricks and shovels. Thus far the UP government has managed to keep them outside the municipal limits. With the number of militant Hindus traveling to Ayodhya increasing with each passing day, however, pressure is mounting. VHP Secretary-General Praveen Togadia has threatened Prime Minister Vajpayee and UP chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadhav that, if the Sewaks are stopped in Ayodhya, the VHP will unleash its demand to "demolish 3,200" other mosques across the country, and threatened communal Hindu-Muslim riots throughout India-citing Gujarat, where over 2,000 Muslims were massacred just three months ago-as an example of what may come.

Reports from other parts of India are equally fearsome. The national English-language daily Indian Express on Sept. 28 reported that the entire village of Aklera, Rajasthan, was made "Muslim free" by local Bajrang Dal squads forcibly evicting local Muslim families from the village. Overnight, Muslims who had lived in the area for centuries had to abandon their hearths and homes and flee for their lives.

Following the Gujarat riots, it will be recalled, those accused were set free by the local court when all the witnesses strangely turned hostile. On appeal, the supreme court, which now has taken up the case of 14 Muslims burned alive in a bakery, has issued strong strictures against state chief minister Narender Modi. …

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