Epic war

It is clear that there is a campaign of terror, not necessarily coordinated, underway against selected minorities in India. This has serious implications for the country´s democratic polity, one which has taken a definitive turn towards the presumptuous right ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power two years ago.

A few days before his death in an accident, the late Bishop of Delhi Alan Basil de Lastic had described the attacks and hate campaign as the "most serious challenge facing the [Christian] community since Independence". A crisis indeed, not only for that one beleaguered community but also for India´s secular and pluralistic traditions. A few weeks later, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray had the gall to say that India would burn if the Maharashtra government went ahead with his prosecution for alleged acts of incitement in the Bombay riots that followed the demolition of Babri Masjid. The statements, contrasted, reflect the heightened insecurity of the minority communities, most particularly Muslims and Christians.

Both civil society and the State, with its constitutional authority, have failed to adequately address the rapidly growing intolerance expressed in neo-fascist aggression. The Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief K.S. Sudarshan issued a warning earlier in the year of "an epic war between Hindus and anti-Hindu forces". The one-sided battle seems to have begun, and alarmingly, there have been far too few calls for restraint. Instead, we have a studied silence and, if at all, attempts at deliberate obfuscation of the issues. Some say that the incidents of terror are essentially retaliations for religious conversions carried out with "inducement and enticement". Some of the incidents are being written off as nothing more than "cases of robbery and assault with no religious motive".

There are two points to be made, relating to the constitutional role of the state and the out-of-control nationalistic jingoism. Some within the BJF seem to believe that the state would do better to withdraw from its role as the guarantor of rights of minorities, seen as pampered, appeased. Meanwhile, the neo-fascist rhetoric of nationalism treats the minorities as the enemies within, as subversive and antinational. It was in this vein, for example, that the ´state convenor´ of the Bajrang Dal for Uttar Pradesh announced in late July that his group would begin to keep watch on all Muslims in the state, and track the travels and phone calls they made overseas, to deter "anti-national" activities.

Readings of the Indian national press clearly indicate the trend. Step by step, the minorities are being made to feel as if they are pushed against the wall. What started off as a series of conflicts between the Hindus and the Muslims, was to culminate in the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition, marking for the Sangh Parivar and its adherents, the demolition of a symbol that had for long been hyped as the foundation stone of Islamic rule and therefore a monument to the invaders´ attempted destruction of Hindu culture. Neither can more recent events be entirely divorced from the increasing antiMuslim rhetoric in India —nuclear fulfillment, Kargil, and the recent Kashmiri demand for autonomy. The increasing hostility towards religious minorities cannot be divorced from the right´s idea of ´nation´, territorial sovereignty and the position of all minorities therein.

The expanse of India thus seems ripe and ready for Subcontinent-wide hate crimes (and one can only hope fervently that this is not true). Any and all disgruntled elements can be expected to seize the opportunity, if the State continues to make excuses for them, to give vent to simmering bigoted animosities. The animosity against the relative affluence of Kerala´s minority community (over 70 percent of Kerala´s expatriate workforce is Muslim and Christian), resentment against alleged accelerated conversion of tribals, and the ill will against minority institutions of learning, are all symptomatic of this trend.

The secular and liberal forces in Indian society have been taken aback by the aggressive posturing of the right. They have not seized the initiative to counterattack in the forum of ideas. The campaign of the Sangh Parivar terming all centrist forces as "pseudo secularists" has had its desired impact, and the answer is a defensiveness which is completely unacceptable. Because its defence was not strong enough, the public began to doubt the secular and liberal principles which till just a few years ago had been the unquestioned platform of the modernising pan-Indian society. The fanatics stood vindicated, the people bore the guilt.

The squeeze on the Muslims continues (even though, incongruously, their presence makes India the second largest Islamic country in the world, after Indonesia). Strident pronounce¬ments that are at times unbelievable for their rabid intolerance continue, but in the meantime, the religious zealots have turned their attention on the Christians. Many on the right-wing bandwagon do not even know that Christianity came to India in 52 AD, that its earliest converts were caste Hindus, and that this community of Syrian Christians is one of the world´s oldest living Christian communities outside the Levant. Christian missions that were set up in the last two centuries also delivered health care and education where the state delivery mechanisms had failed or were conspicuous in their absence.

Christians in India are truly a minority: a population of 22 million (or 2.3 percent of the total Indian population), largely concentrated in a few states (the South, the North East and the Chhotanagpur plateau region account for over 85 percent of India´s Christians). Their fertility rates is, together with the Jains, the lowest in India (2.6 percent) compared to the national average of 3.6. Clearly, not the growing threat that the RSS and Bajrang Dal make the Christians out to be, and hardly enough to explain the hateful aggression against a community that is marginal both in the social and political context.

It is not only the Muslims and Christians who are feeling the threat. Sikhs are protesting the growing saffronisation of Punjab and have reacted strongly to the Sangh view that the Sikhs are just the ´militant´ wing of Hinduism. There have been differences with Buddhists as well, over certain shrines, and it rankles the Buddhists when the Hindu right asserts in its much-vaunted insensitivity to others that the Buddha is "just" a reincarnation of Vishnu. Meanwhile, the VHP plans to ´free´ religious sites in Mathura and Benaras still stand. In this atmosphere of intolerance, with the failure of civil society obvious to all, will the proposed constitutional review tamper with the guarantees that minorities have through the Indian Constitution? The meek may inherit the earth, but the going is tough.

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