PERSPECTIVE ON INDIA : Tolerant Hinduism Under Assault : Those who strike out at ancient Muslim wrongs risk becoming like their enemies--believers in a theocratic state.

Veena Talwar Oldenburg is a professor of history at Baruch College, City University of New York. She is the author of "The Making of Colonial Lucknow" (Princeton University Press, 1984) and is working on a book on the political economy of India

The surge of Hindu militance and Muslim fundamentalism that brought down the coalition government of Indian Prime Minister V.P. Singh this month is as dismaying and bewildering to the average Hindu as it must be to non-Hindu readers in the United States.

In a land as vast as Europe and with far greater ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity, it is imperative that a truly secular and democratic form of government be at India's helm, and that was exactly Singh's aim. The only political idea that all Indian citizens--Hindus of all castes, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains--can accept is the unique brand of "secularism" that Indians have claimed to practice since the bloody riots that marked the partition of the subcontinent into secular India and Muslim Pakistan in 1947. The state should sponsor no religion and tolerate them all. As a historian and a Hindu agnostic (which is not an oxymoron) I despair over the mindless, reactive and hysterical piety of the few that chills the rest of the country.

Logically and theologically, Hindu "fundamentalism" is a contradiction in terms. Hindus have many gods; they have scores of religious books, but no agreement on a "bible"; they have no organized church, only temples with regional and local influence. Sects with competing deities, texts, rituals and ideologies flourish; it is quite possible to be an atheist or an agnostic, observe no rituals, eat beef or be a vegetarian, and still be a good Hindu.

There are some overarching beliefs that people largely accept: karma (action) and reincarnation; the notion that all human beings have an atman (self) that is a fraction of Brahman (universal, uncreated energy); and the sacred geography--the rivers, mountains and lakes--of the subcontinent, including the areas now designated as Islamic Pakistan and Bangladesh. Most important, Hindus must respect and honor the gods of others. Tolerance is the hallmark of Hinduism; to tolerate the intolerant, the monotheistic, the jihad- waging and the proselytizing is the test the Hindu must not fail.

The current crisis is caused not by orthodox Hindus but a new breed of "protestant" Hindus who made their appearance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They include:

-- The Arya Samaj (Aryan Society), a sect that pioneered Hindu conversion and ceremonies to win back converts to Christianity and Islam; its members wanted to strip the old Hinduism of its wishy-washy, tolerant ways and (quite rightly) reform Hindu society's caste prejudice. The enemies were Muslims and Christians.

-- The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS; National Volunteer Corps), formed in the 1920s, is an even more avowedly militant and nationalistic Hindu movement that fears the national ambitions of Muslims will divide the indivisible geographic and sacred entity of "Mother India." This and other sects of Hindu "reformers" fabricated a militant creed that distills nationalism, religion and militant protest into one volatile potion.

The minority political party that represents this ideology, the Bharatiya Janata Party, supported V.P. Singh's coalition, giving him the numbers he needed to form a government. The party's latest tactics include opposition to Singh's plan to implement a broadened affirmative-action plan for the lower castes and support of a plan to restore about 3,000 temples that were torn down in the Muslim era, some of them replaced by mosques.

The mosque in Ayodhya that has figured in the recent violence was built in 1528, after the destruction of a 4th-Century temple that commemorated the birthplace of Rama, a greatly revered god of Hinduism. Yes, it was wrong for the 16th-Century Mughal emperor Babar to order the destruction of the temple. But can that wrong be undone by destroying the mosque and rebuilding the temple? It cannot, for a good Hindu.

Bharatiya Janata leaders see their opportunity in a political landscape charged with other communal and religious agendas that fuel the fears of the Hindu community. A resurgent, expansionist, fundamentalist Islam is vivid in Iran, in the crumbling Soviet Union (India's loyal friend), and in the oil-rich gulf states. Within India, there are more Muslims than there are in Pakistan, and its only Muslim majority state, Kashmir, has a full-blown secessionist movement that strikes fears of a fourth war with Pakistan.

The resolutions of the last few internal crises that rocked the Muslim community were seen by average Hindus as cynical pandering by the long-ruling Congress Party to the Muslim vote at the cost of eroding the secular Constitution. Militant Hindus now believe that they must gain control of the central government to combat Islamic politics that could divide India yet again. But the real tragedy is that these new Hindus, born in a colonialist age when Muslim separatism was invented, have twisted the old Hindu way of life to mirror that which they dread most: a militant, fundamentalist Islam, with its one unforgiving God and its belief in a theocratic state.

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