Jewish World Review August 5, 2003 / 7 Menachem-Av, 5763

Daniel Sneider

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Religious tensions test ‘world's largest democracy’ | NEW DELHI, India Indians are rightfully proud to call their country the world's largest democracy. But it is a democracy that is seriously undermined by the scourge of religious extremism.

Tensions between India's Hindu majority and its significant Muslim minority burst into the open last year in the western state of Gujarat, where rioting claimed the lives of at least 2,000 people.

That ugliness has been compounded by the failure of the state and national governments to deliver justice for the victims of violence. Even worse, political parties have eagerly played upon religious and communal tensions in the wake of the riots to gain support.

India is heading into a series of elections, culminating next year in the election of a new national parliament. Leaders need to demonstrate - to their own people and to the outside world - that they remain committed to democratic freedom and to protecting the rights of all citizens.

India deserves credit for what it has achieved in this regard. With 600 million eligible voters in a population of 1.1 billion, as many as 400 million go to the polls for a national election. In a nation with a diversity of language, ethnicity and religion that rivals all of Europe, most people remain committed to solving their problems via the ballot box.

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India also offers a vibrant example of Muslim democratic participation. With 140 million Muslims, it has one of the world's largest Muslim populations. Indian Muslims are well organized politically and ready to assert their rights - yet so far, Islamist ideology has not gained much traction here.

But that delicate balance has been challenged by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has risen to power by asserting India's character as a Hindu nation. The politics of Hindu identity have fueled tensions with India's Muslim minority and raised serious questions for Muslims about their future status.

Indians are deeply concerned about these pressures on their democracy. Some raise the specter of "Hindu fascism," of the seizure of power by anti-Muslim extremists who would destroy India's secular character.

That danger seems overdrawn. But the concerns that prompt such fears are real.

The BJP became a major force over the past two decades by playing on the belief that India's minorities have been given unfair advantages. It took over the government five years ago, though in coalition with other parties that don't share its ideology, and it gained stature by projecting the image of a strong, proud India. That began with the decision to test nuclear weapons in 1998.

But the longer the BJP is in power, the more it is forced to moderate its Hindu revivalism to broaden its appeal. The party's situation resembles the dance that goes on between the Republicans and the Christian right in the United States. Like the GOP, the BJP can only win national elections if it moves to the center. But it also needs to keep its hard-core supporters happy.

And the BJP has to compete with the Congress party, which ruled India for most of its post-independence life. As the only party with a national sweep, the Congress is committed, in rhetoric at least, to the ideal of a secular state.

"We are protected by democracy from any kind of fascism, both Hindu and Muslim fascism," says M.J. Akbar, a prominent Indian Muslim writer.

The outbreak of ugly Hindu-Muslim violence last year in Gujarat has disturbed even those who remain confident in the underlying health of India's democracy.

The crisis began with a Muslim mob attacking a train on which Hindu nationalists were traveling, killing at least 58 people. In the days that followed, Muslim homes, businesses and mosques were attacked, with the encouragement of local officials from the BJP-controlled state government.

The aftermath of these events has not been encouraging. In the widely publicized Best Bakery trial, rioters accused of butchering 11 members of one Muslim family and three bakery workers got off when key witnesses were pressured by a local BJP politician to recant their testimony.

In a report issued in July, Human Rights Watch said the failure of state and national governments to bring the perpetrators of communal violence to justice "is appalling."

The BJP has embraced anti-Muslim feelings, riding them to victory in Gujarat last winter. Attempts to play upon Hindu anger in other states, however, have failed to yield a similar result.

The coming elections will test whether India revitalizes its democracy by protecting its diversity or allows political leaders to play further upon social divisions. The India that aspires to world leadership has to choose the first path.

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Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Comment by clicking here.


07/28/03: India: America's new partner

© 2003, San Jose Mercury News Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.