Indian Politics: End of Secularism?

Article excerpt

MAHATMA GANDHI used populism to fight for Indian independence. He embodied a formidable mix of inner strength, moral stature, and political acumen that often left the British rulers confounded. He rallied the masses and fought against religious divisions. But somewhere along the past four decades of independence, his legacy got lost.

Today in India, a generation of opportunists plays with divisions of caste and religion. Indians face a serious crisis. The 11-month National Front government of Prime Minister V.P. Singh has collapsed. His rival, Chandra Shekhar, split the National Front and maneuvered to become the next prime minister with the support of Rajiv Gandhi's Congress (I) Party.

Mr. Shekhar, with even less mass support than Mr. Singh, will have to tackle the same problems that undid Singh's coalition. In northern India, Hindus and Muslims clash over a religious site claimed by both communities. Hindus want to demolish the 16th century Babria Masjid mosque and build a temple to their god, Ram. Supporting this dubious venture is the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a former partner in Singh's government. BJP and other parties have threatened to demolish thousands of mosques across India if the temple is not built.

The temple-mosque controversy tests Indian secularism. Singh refused to let Hindu fundamentalists demolish the mosque and arrested the BJP leadership. In Parliament he asked, "What kind of India do most of us want?" Many politicians have exploited but not answered this question, especially the new prime minister. More than 300 people have died in recent weeks defending "religion." For their part, the BJP whips up sentiments, telling Hindus that their identity is at stake.

It is a primitive time in Indian politics. BJP leaders went through sensitive northern India in a truck made to resemble a religious Hindu chariot. Hindu-Muslim riots flared alongside the chariot's path. This generation of Indian politicians has never shied from pitting Hindus against Muslims, or lower castes against upper castes. Singh himself played the caste card after his government began to drift. …