India Hindu-Muslim Disputes Flare Over Questions of Religion and State

Bharat Wariavwalla is senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies

An aesthetically depressing site of minor religious significance in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, has become a new symbol of old Hindu-Muslim antagonisms in India. The Hindus claim the site is a temple dedicated to Lord Rama; the Muslims say it is a mosque built by the first Mogul emperor, Babar, in the 16th Century.

History cannot decide a brouhaha so charged with religious passions and ugly politics. The Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Mosque controversy has meanwhile taken a bizarre modern turn. Half a million bricks, washed in the holy waters of the Ganges, are to be used to reconstruct the temple in Ayodhya. The Vishwa Hindu Purished, a religious-cultural organization of growing political significance that is orchestrating this "brick march," is committed to reconstructing the temples desecrated by the Muslims over the centuries of their rule. History is to be recast in bricks and mortar.

Religion surfaces in India's public life with a force seldom seen. Apart from corruption, the other issue in national elections set for Nov. 22-24 is Hindu-Muslim relations. How are they to live with each other, on what terms and in what kind of a state, are questions Indians debate with passion. The smug belief held by the Indian leadership since independence--that modernization would mellow and even dissolve religious differences--is now questioned.

Religion must be kept out of politics--that is the credo on which the Indian state rests. The post-independence Indian leadership rightly believed that only a secular state could hold together a country as religiously and ethnically diverse as this one. But leaders mistakenly thought state-sponsored modernization would eventually free people of religious passions and relegate religion to an insignificant role in public affairs.

The people feel differently. Between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. each Sunday, life throughout India comes to a near halt--it is time to watch the televised production of the epic "Mahabharata." A tea-shop owner or a car mechanic stops work--not just for entertainment but for spiritual identification with the past.

Religion also increasingly manifests itself in politics. The chief minister of the southern state of Andhra, N.T. Rama Rao--a principle opponent of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi--rose to power in 1983 by putting together an amalgam of religion and populism. His technique is reminiscent of Evita Peron. Religion comforts the frustrated Sikh youth and drives some to violence--it is in defense of Islam that thousands of Muslim youths in Bombay decreed death to the defiler, Salman Rushdie, author of "The Satanic Verses."

Still, there is no religious ferment here to compare with the fury in the Middle East. The increasing role of religion in politics does not suggest rejection of modernization in favor of tradition, at least as far as the dominant Hindu majority is concerned.

Hindus readily accept secularism, the neutrality of the state in religious affairs. Without a core dogma and highly syncretic, Hinduism can embrace a variety of views without loosing its exclusivity. And Hinduism--unlike Islam--has not aspired to state power. What the upper-class and caste Hindus, who have benefitted most from economic growth, demand today is that the state stop giving special privileges to the Muslims and the Harijans (untouchables). Let them sink or swim, the Hindus now assertively say.

The Bhartiya Janata Party takes this view and it has gained great popularity. Polls suggest the party will do well in next month's election. The party opposed enactment of the Muslim Women Bill in 1987, on grounds that it would legally deprive a Muslim woman from seeking redress under the more just common law, forcing her to rely on the archaic Muslim canonical laws. The party wants a common civil code for all Indians, as it wants an eventual end to special quotas and reservations for the Harijans and tribal minorities in schools, colleges and government service. Laissez faire is its prescription for ending religious strife and building a strong, modern country.

The Indian Muslims, the third largest group after the Indonesian and Bangladeshi Muslims, face a twin challenge: Hindu assertiveness and modernization. A large majority of Muslims believes that Hindus are a threat and that modernization destroys values. Religion is their anchor, perhaps more out of despair than conviction.

"Muslim people are searching for alternatives but they are frustrated," said a young Muslim leader. "Only Islam has strict rules which give life meaning." No alternative other than religious fundamentalism is offered to the Muslims by their leaders. A liberal progressive Muslim leadership now seems a thing of the past.

Religion is much a part of public life. Modernization has not made Indians forget religion, as Jawaharlal Nehru thought it would. Nehru's idea of a secular state now seems like a Western import. Some people insist on developing a wholly Indian structure for government--declare India a Hindu state, establish politicians and parties of the right.

In the coming years the upper- caste and class Hindus, regardless of political affiliation, are going to assert themselves. However at home with science and technology, with Thomas Jefferson and John Mill, they think this is not enough to inspire people. Something Indian has to be put into the Western ideology of modernization.

A Hinduized nationalistic elite is now replacing the elite of brown Englishmen that ruled the country for so long. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi belonged to the latter elite; in the first two years of his rule he exclusively relied on the technocrats--they replaced politicians and politics was programmed.

Gandhi now admits the experiment has failed. Old-guard politicians of the Indira Gandhi days have returned, occupying key positions in the Congress Party and the government. Gandhi has also started visiting temples and opening mosques, as his mother did in the last years of her rule. These days it pays politically to appear religious.

Unless this religious turbulence is skillfully managed, it could end in violence between various ethnic and religious communities. Punjab, Kashmir, Assam are caught in this vortex. Something of the political genius of Mohandas K. Gandhi is needed now to give religion a humane role in politics. He invested the Western ideology of modernization with Hindu symbols and meaning--without draining away traditional humane contents. But no politician today seems capable of channeling religious forces toward such benign political ends.

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