Indian Hindus and Muslims Square Off Again




The ugly face of sectarian strife between Hindus and Muslims is frowning again in India and it's affecting New Delhi's relations with neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh. Ironically the nation freed from British colonialism through the passive resistance and non-violent tactics of Mahatma Gandhi, one of the greatest figures of the century, is far from fulfilling his priciples.

Television news has transported American viewers to the scene with graphic coverage of Hindu mob attacks and destruction of a centuries-old Muslim mosque at Ayodhya in northern India. The initial onslaught was followed by news footage of clashing Hindus and Muslims elsewhere in India; hundreds of people dead; the destruction of Hindu temples and Muslim mosques and the torching of houses and business buildings. Similar carnage, but largely confined to property damage, was reported in Muslim Pakistan and Bangladesh, next door.

The antipathies of sects and ethnic groups in India are fed by a unique blend of arcane cultures, castes, theologies and superstitions, basically incomprehensible to Americans. Westerners generally have a misleading, over-sentimental concept of India, which can tend to lighten the darker shadows of this old civilization. Their image is shaped by films such as "Gandhi," romantic writers, tourist brochures of sari-draped, sinuous women, saffron-clad monks, snake charmers and even elephants and Bengal tigers. But what really lies beneath the skin of this mysterious, colorful, joyful, baffling, often violent society?

For a journalist like myself, who has lived and worked in India, these latest events are not so much surprising as tragic. After all, such maniacal actions have been going on there for centuries. But they foster disappointment that Indian leaders continue to manipulate religious sentiments for political gain. And influential Hindu priests were active in liturgies at the scene. Like other radicals, they wanted the 430-year-old Muslim mosque destroyed because tradition says it is the site of the birth of Ram, a prime Hindu deity.

Sectarian violence, the so-called "communal riots," are virtually a daily occurrence somewhere in India, although on a lesser scale. The mere tossing of a sandal can precipitate vicious encounters between Hindus and Muslims wielding guns, swords, Molotov cocktails, acid bulbs and other weapons of death and maiming. To the dedicated Muslim, the destruction of an historical mosque like that at Ayodhya is a sacrilege and provocation enough to spark a "jihad," or holy war. Those of the Islamic faith will be seething for a long time over what they consider an abomination by members of the Hindu majority.

The government in New Delhi, and the top political leaders, displayed ineptness and lack of courage at a time when firm action could have prevented severe bloodletting. After the fact, New Delhi has jailed some Hindu fundamentalist leaders and banned their extremist organizations. This begs the question: Why wasn't similar political action initiated in the first place? Was it a failure of intelligence, lack of political will, or concern about the massive Hindu vote? What about military action to head off the temple assault? India has one of the largest armies in the world, well armed, with a reputation for courage and efficiency. Sadly, the government failed to deploy troops, although thousands of soldiers with plenty of firepower were in the region.

To make matters worse, the Indian economy and the nations workers have suffered a severe jolt. Production schedules have been disrupted by fighting, strikes and curfews. Only overseas investors can supply the necessary capital, technology and know how to kick-start a lagging economy. But now international investors, even though interested in tapping into the potentially lucrative Indian market, will be hesitant because of the new tear in the Indian social fabric, and the lack of stability.

Mahatma Gandhi, India's George Washington, eschewed sectarianism and its bloody results. He repeatedly risked his life in personal visits to pockets of Hindu-Muslim tension to sooth tempers and never lost faith in his code of non-violence. Unfortunately, the Mahatma, the "Great Soul," was himself the victim of a Hindu Brahmin fanatic and was gunned down in New Delhi in 1948 while blessing his assassin. The gunman accused Gandhi of selling out to the Muslims. Unfortunately, 44 years later, the stigma remains and the sons of "Mother India" have struck another blow that has their matriarch reeling and in pain.