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
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
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
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.