In the gathering twilight of a sweltering New Delhi day, several hundred earnest young men were sweating and straining in the cause of Hindu nationalism. As instructors barked out orders, they practised military drills and martial arts in a dusty school yard on the outskirts of the Indian capital. At the end of the session, they formed ranks in front of a saffron-colored flag and solemnly saluted by crossing their right arms over their chests. With their makeshift uniforms of khaki shorts and red sashes, the members of the Hindu revivalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) movement appeared hardly more theatening than a troop of boy scouts. But for many Indians, they represent something far more sinister: the cutting edge of a wave of Hindu nationalism that threatens to strain the country’s religious tensions to the breaking point.
Those tensions will be further tested next week as Indians complete the voting in their 10th national election, delayed because of the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. After seven days of official mourning for Gandhi, killed by a terrorist’s bomb at an election rally in Sriperumbudur on May 21, India’s politicians resumed campaigning last week. And senior members of Gandhi’s severely shaken Congress party abandoned attempts to persuade their murdered leader’s widow, Sonia, to replace him and continue the Gandhi family’s political dynasty. Instead, after several days of confused manoeuvring, they chose an experienced but uncharismatic party veteran, P. V. Narasimha Rao, as the provisional president of India’s oldest and once-mightiest political organization. The choice of Rao, who is 69 and in frail health, was a sign of the party’s deep divisions in the wake of Gandhi’s murder. “He is a stopgap,” said Chandra Bhambhri, a political scientist at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “They must pretend to unite for the election, but once it is over the real struggle for power inside the Congress will begin.”
The party’s acute disarray contrasted sharply with the self-confidence of the Hindu revivalist forces, which are its main rival in the election. Exit polls showed that the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu group that takes many of its ideas and leaders from the activist RSS movement, fared well in the
first round of voting on the day before Gandhi’s death. Before his murder, which Indian investigators said was the work of Tamil terrorists, the Congress party had campaigned on the platform of restoring stability to India in the face of mounting religious and regional con-
flicts. But with the Congress party rudderless and divided, the BJP quickly thrust itself forward as the new party of strong government. “Rajiv was their only strong point,” BJP vicepresident Atal Vajpayee told Maclean ’s. “Their claim to stability sounds very hollow now.” Congress party leaders struck back with a calculated appeal to voters’ sympathy for their slain leader. Party workers carried urns containing ashes from Gandhi’s cremation to various parts of the country and used them as the focal points of public processions that served as both tributes to Gandhi and election rallies for the Congress.
Despite the BjP’s early strength, most analysts predict that it will fall well short of a majority in India’s parliament after voting on June 12 and 15. But the party, with its emotive
appeal to the country’s Hindu majority to assert itself, has already reshaped India’s political landscape. Its leader, 63-year-old Lal Kishen Advani, toured the country telling Hindus that they have become second-class citizens in a country where they form 83 per cent of the 850-million population. Special legal treatment for minorities, mainly India’s 110 million Moslems, should be ended, he said. “Hindus,” he added, “have been defensive for too long.” Advani also seized on Hindu activists’ longstanding demands for the destruction of a mosque built four centuries ago on a site that devout Hindus believe is the birthplace of their god Lord Ram—and for building a new temple to Ram in its place. Conflict over the site, at Ayodhya in northern India, has resulted in violent clashes between Moslems and Hindus,
and dozens of deaths. Advani’s rhetoric frightens many Moslems, who accuse the BJP and its ideological allies of betraying Hinduism’s tradition of tolerance. “They are turning it into a religion of violence,” said Mohammed Afzal, a Moslem member of India’s upper house of parliament, the Rajya Sabha. “If this country disintegrates, the BJP will be responsible.” The BjP’s rise has been dramatic: from two seats in parliament in 1984 to 88 in 1989—and predictions of as many as 160 seats this time. But impressive as that increase may be, it is only the political face of a much wider movement of Hindu nationalism that has spread through much of India in the past several years. Most of the BjP’s senior leaders, including Advani and Vajpayee, are longtime members of the RSS, the 66-year-old Hindu organization
whose name translates as “National Social Service Volunteers.” The RSS is a disciplined group whose ranks have always included extremists: one of its followers, Nathuram Godse, assassinated spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister and Rajiv Gandhi’s grandfather, once called the organization the Indian version of fascism. Its leaders, however, insist that they seek only for Hindus to enjoy full rights in their own country.
In a darkened room off a shady courtyard in New Delhi’s old section last week, away from
the chaos and dust of the streets, the group’s general secretary outlined its goals. H. V. Seshadri, a slight, bespectacled man in his 60s with a gentle manner and soft voice, did not remotely resemble a stereotypical fascist. Hinduism, he explained, “is not a religion, but a way of life and a culture shared by all Indians.” The call by the RSS and the BJP that India should be a Hindu rashtra, or nation, would not exclude Indian Moslems, Sikhs or Christians, he said, because all those groups are merely different sects of Hinduism. “Everyone in this part of the world is a Hindu by culture,” Seshadri said. “And we say that all Hindus should be treated equally in law, regardless of religion.”
To the Hindu activists, that would mean doing away with constitutional guarantees granted to Indian Moslems after India became independent in 1947. They include special autonomy granted to Jammu and Kashmir, the predominantly Moslem northern state now
racked by secessionist conflict; a separate legal code for Moslems governing such matters as marriage and family law; and the right of Moslems to dispense religious education in their own government-funded schools. The Hindu activists also want to ban the slaughter of cows, which they consider sacred, throughout India. At present, it is permitted in only two states, but RSS members maintain that cattle are taken there from other states to be killed. “It was a fundamental mistake to give special rights to minorities at independence,” said Seshadri. “It only creates a sense of separat-
ism. We say: Equality for all, special rights for none.”
The BjP’s leaders have made a determined effort to moderate their rhetoric and present their party as a reasonable alternative to the discredited Congress. Their policies, however, strike deep chords of prejudice among many Indian Hindus. A commonly heard argument is that Indian Moslems are more loyal to Islamic Pakistan than to India—and even celebrate with fireworks when Pakistan’s cricket team beats the Indian side. And although India tries to control its birthrate by promoting family planning, Moslem men are allowed four wives under their religous code and have a higherthan-average birthrate. Said Vajpayee, the BJP vice-president: “The Moslems have to join the national mainstream. We don’t believe in appeasing minorities.”
Not surprisingly, India’s Moslems regard the rise of the Hindu party and the groups behind it with open alarm. Equally appalled is
much of India’s intellectual establishment, which generally supports Nehru’s ideal of India as a secular, liberal state in which religion is treated as a private matter. Said political scientist Bhambhri: “If democracy is to survive in India, with all our differences, it must be pluralistic and secular. There is no other way.” Still, other analysts note that as the BjP’s support has grown, the party’s leaders have moderated their message to appeal to a wider constituency.
The result, they say, is that a BjP-dominated government would likely not be the type of
extremist force so feared by Moslems. The party already holds power in three of India’s states, where it has a generally good record in office, and has presented a well-considered economic platform along with its nationalist ideals. “The realities of power are already making them more realistic and pragmatic,” noted Bashiruddin Ahmed of New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research, who is himself a Moslem. But for Ahmed and others, the fear is that the nationalist passions stirred by the BJP in its quest for power may not be easily contained. Said Ahmed last week: “The leaders may be reasonable, but the extremists behind them will not vanish. They are riding a tiger— and who knows if they will be able to control it?” That, coupled with an election in which no party is expected to win an outright majority, appeared to make the parties’ declared goal of political stability a distant dream.
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