from The New York Times/opinion


Hinduism's Political Resurgence

NEW DELHI -- A few weeks ago I was in Ayodhya, a North Indian pilgrimage town. In 1992 a crowd of Hindu men demolished a 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya. They claimed it had been built by the Mogul emperor Babur over the birthplace of Lord Rama. India changed fast after that moment of Hindu nationalist rage. The politicians who had led the crowd to the mosque that morning and later watched their followers erect Hindu idols over the rubble and who for most of the 50 years since independence had been on the political sidelines now hold top positions in the Indian government.

Since the 1992 destruction, an enthusiasm for the free market has also overtaken India, but the new middle- class affluence hasn't reached Ayodhya. Down its monkey-infested alleyways, the richest people are still Hindu abbots. One whom I met in Ayodhya was Ramchandra Paramhans, who helped initiate, in 1950, the legal battle for the temple and who in the early 1980's entered into an opportunistic alliance with Hindu nationalist organizations then attempting to attract Hindu voters through an explicitly anti- Muslim program.

Mr. Paramhans described to me, as he fed cows in his vast straw-littered compound, how he had upbraided India's home minister, L. K. Advani, on the phone that morning for having neglected the temple issue. In his white dreadlocks and long beard, he seemed like a Hindu version of the self-important mullahs I had met in Pakistan. But senior bureaucrats really had traveled, a few weeks before, to his compound to mollify him after he threatened to bring down the government. And a few days after my visit to Ayodhya, Mr. Paramhans showed up in New Delhi at the head of a heavily publicized procession of abbots to deliver personally a blunt ultimatum to Prime Minister Behari Vajpayee.

I couldn't help but recall my meeting early last year with some prominent Islamic clerics and politicians at an old madrasa near Peshawar, Pakistan. The madrasa had become notorious after some of its alumni became the leaders of the Taliban. Its teachers were keen to impress upon me the apolitical nature of their work. I suspected they were dissembling, but I was more struck by their defensiveness. It was as though they could sense what has been confirmed since by the fundamentalists' failure to stir up trouble for Pervez Musharraf: that public opinion overwhelmingly opposes the fanatical ideologies that have undermined Pakistan in every way. It is this strong anti-extremist sentiment that General Musharraf now relies on much more than American support in his crackdown on militant groups and his more discreet confrontations with the ideologues given high places by the previous military ruler, Mohammad Zia ul- Haq.

While General Musharraf strives toward a secular polity, the ruling politicians of India head in the opposite direction. Hindu nationalists have long exalted Hindutva, or Hindu-ness, over the secular identities proposed for India by Gandhi and Nehru. So now the federal minister for education, Murli Manohar Joshi, promotes a new Indian history that highlights the depredations of Muslim invaders (as they are called) and celebrates Hindu bravery. Mr. Joshi has also allocated funds for such "Hindu sciences" as astrology. This sectarian-minded education is objected to by many of India's distinguished historians especially those who had stressed India's pluralist traditions in their now discarded textbooks. Mr. Joshi recently denounced these historians as "academic terrorists" who were more difficult to fight than the usual kind of terrorist.

This may be bluster; and perhaps India's largest-circulation news magazine, India Today, describes an isolated mood in a recent cover story on the "return of the militant Hindu." But that mood does exist. Fed by a patriotic media and film industry and reflected in bellicose posturing against Pakistan, it nearly dominates public life now; its urban middle-class constituency hopes that nationalism may provide a measure of security against the economic and political crises that, in the early 90's, had looked so threatening. And nationalist leaders continue to strengthen their hold over the heavily centralized Indian state as their constituents continue to gain from a globalized economy.

An antiterrorist ordinance introduced by the government before the recent attacks on the parliaments in Kashmir and Delhi would have required up to three years' imprisonment for a journalist who failed to assist government authorities. It has been challenged by human rights groups and political parties concerned about the possibility of its misuse against minorities. In any case, the ordinance is unlikely to curtail the activities of Hindu extremist outfits affiliated with the government like Shiv Sena, which claimed some credit for demolishing the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in December 1992 and was indicted by a judicial commission for inciting the pogrom against Muslims in Bombay in 1993.

What was once quickly identified as unreasonable and aberrant Hindu majoritarianism enjoys a growing influence and legitimacy as the ruling ideology of the Indian government. Oddly, the illiberal tendencies a military dictator seeks to expel, with popular support, from Pakistan seem to be finding a hospitable home in democratic India.

February 25, 2002

Pankaj Mishra is author of ``The Romantics,'' a novel.

source: The New York Times

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