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POLITICS in the Indian sub-continent have always been unpredictable. But the gruesome events of the past few days have acquired a frenzy which even by the standards of the sub-continent is unique.

That a prime minister can stand up and say, as V. P. Singh did this week, `I will be the happiest to step down to save the country from communal flames,’ marks a true cataclysm. More than 70 Hindu fanatics have now died in total in the rioting over the disputed mosque in Ayodhya, a northern town near the border with Nepal.

But this row over the mosque they say is the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram is but a catalyst for the most virulent and widespread unrest.

Both India and Pakistan face a crisis of national identity and India, in particular, is going through a crisis of faith that threatens to transform the country for the worse.

For 40 years India has built one of the few thriving Third World democracies. Elections are held and governments do change. The foundation of this democracy is that the state is secular and remains neutral between the various and often bitterly divided religions. So while 83 per cent of the population is Hindu, India’s Muslim and other minorities’ are not suppressed. Muslims have held high positions, two were former presidents.

But now the Hindus, who have always been proud of their tolerance are threatening to tear the secular state apart.

Caught up in the greatest revival the religion has seen since the turn of the century, many of them want India to become a Hindu state, and remove all constitutional references to secularism.

To an extent, there have always been Hindus who have had little time for secularism and see it as an appeasement of minorities. Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a fanatical Hindu Brahmin who felt he was soft on Muslims.

But in the past, such naked Hindu chauvinism has never been fashionable and the Hindu party never expanded beyond its limited base. Now, it is quite common to parade oneself as a Hindu at posh dinner tables in Bombay and Delhi, the great Hindu religious myths are screened nightly on television, and the Hindu party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), commands a significant range of votes.

The party has been so successful in whipping up fears about the survival of the religion that it has made the dominant Hindu majority act and feel like a beleaguered minority. To an extent these fears are a reaction to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. The Hindus have watched with a mixture of horror and fascination as the Islamic wave from Iran and Pakistan has lapped India’s Muslim minority.

For many Hindus this carries echoes of the Middle Ages when militant Islam swept into India, forcibly converting many and destroying hundreds of temples; the Muslims could not totally absorb the Hindus but the wounds they inflicted on the Hindu psyche never healed and have now been reopened.

Now, almost every sign of Muslim militancy is seen as a dagger aimed at the Hindus. When fears about the Muslim reaction made the Indian government ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses within weeks of the book’s issue, many Hindus saw it as appeasement.

That conviction was strengthened when about the same time the Muslims prevented a change in the law which allowed Indian Muslims to have the right to marry four wives, a right Hindus don’t have.

If this is what secularism means, argued the militant Hindus, then is it worth it?

But the problem has been that, unlike Christianity or Islam, Hinduism is not a revealed religion. There is no equivalent of the Bible or the Koran that the fundamentalists can insist be followed. Hinduism, the last of the great pagan religions, is an amorphous collection of beliefs with great stress on personal behaviour and great variants in practice. In the past, the sheer divergence of Hinduism has prevented the rise of fundamentalism, but lately the Hindu militants have found the ideal symbol around which they can unite.

Hinduism offers a supermarket of gods to choose from. But one god Ram, is universally popular and idealised. His reign is defined as the Hindu Eden. The militants claim he was born in Ayodhya and have wanted for some time to construct a temple on the site where he is alleged to have been born which is where the Muslim mosque is and so the epicenter of the current deadly shock waves.

The battle over the temple is seen as the test of militant Hinduism, the right of Hindus to practise their religion and worship their gods where and how they see fit.

The BJP has been so successful in whipping up feelings that it has caused a political crisis which could lead to the downfall of the government. But whoever is in power, they cannot flout the Hindu feelings generated, yet giving in to it means alienating Muslims and virtually sanctioning civil war.

The events in Pakistan, with the success of Benazir Bhutto’s opponents, are likely to fuel Hindu militancy there too. In Hindu eyes nothing unites the political groups in Pakistan except a common hatred of Hindus and India.

The election in Pakistan witnessed allegations against Benazir Bhutto that she regularly dined with Indian agents and it can only hasten the process of making the present cold war between the two countries much more of a naked Hindu-Muslim duel, reminiscent of the wars that ravaged the sub-continent in the Middle Ages. They ushered in an era of chaos and confusion and that is very like the outcome of present events.

© Mihir Bose

      

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