Since September 11, world attention has focused on the dangers of Islamic extremism. Unfortunately, threats to human rights are tied to only one religion. The disturbing political trends in India—fueled by Hindu extremists and their allies in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Indian government—have largely been ignored. A country once personified by Mahatma Gandhi is fast becoming known for religious hatred and violence.
India has developed friendlier relations with the United States and Israel: Ariel Sharon made a state visit in September. It is a strong ally in the war on terrorism, and strategically close to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The government has also loosened the previously heavily regulated economy to produce one of the highest growth rates in the world. The Bombay stock market rose 50 percent in 2003.
And despite terrorism—especially in Kashmir—India remains the world’s largest democracy.
But the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is linked to Hindu extremist groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which mount hate campaigns and sometimes-violent attacks against religious minorities and demand that Hinduism dominate society and politics. The RSS was founded by admirers of fascism and Nazism, produced Gandhi’s murderers and is now perhaps the world’s largest paramilitary organization, with millions of members.
The BJP functions as Hindu nationalism’s political wing. Prime Minister Vajpayee publicly praises the RSS and, in August, shared a podium and sang songs with RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan. Other top officials, including Home Affairs Minister Advani, are RSS associates.
The main target of the “Hindutva” or “Hinduization” campaign are the Muslim and Christian communities. Some 2,000 Muslims were massacred in the state of Gujarat in 2002, after Muslim mobs were reported to have set fire to a train carrying Hindu nationalists, killing 58 persons.
Attacks against Christians have also escalated. They gained international attention in 1999, when Australian Graham Staines, who had worked with lepers for more than 30 years, was, along with his two young sons, burned alive by a Hindu extremist mob. Priests are murdered, nuns raped, churches ransacked and cemeteries desecrated, with more than 100 such incidents reported annually, provoking Pope John Paul II this summer to make a rare public denunciation of this religious oppression. In Orissa last month, Hindu militants burned down one church, broke into another, raped a nun, demonstrated near the district governor’s house and burned Bibles.
While condemning violence, BJP officials often excuse or provoke it, arguing that incidents are isolated, the work of foreigners, or have no relation to radical Hindu organizations, while, after the Gujarat massacres, the state’s chief minister, and BJP member, Narendra Modi, asked supporters to “teach a lesson” to the Muslim community.
The BJP’s extremist allies are even more threatening. The VHP international president described the Gujarat carnage as a “successful experiment” that could be repeated all over India, and its general-secretary declared that the “VHP will take the Gujarat experiment to every nook and corner of the country.”
The BJP has also been weak in convicting the perpetrators of violence. Gujarat authorities largely stood aside during the massacres, and some took part in the riots. Charges against 21 defendants for torching a Muslim bakery along with its inhabitants were dismissed after the main witness, a 19-year-old girl, said she couldn’t identify the attackers; she later told the press that she changed her story because “local Hindu politicians repeatedly threatened her family and prosecutors made no effort to meet with her before the trial, and were not serious about gaining convictions.” In September, India’s Supreme Court chief justice declared publicly that he had “no faith left in the prosecution and the [BJP] Gujarat government.” Meanwhile, the state BJP used the massacre’s aftermath as a springboard to election victory later in the year.
To expand its support and hold its political coalition together, the national BJP moderates its stance, but then it courts extremists to appeal to its base. Meanwhile, it is Hinduizing the school curriculum, undercutting minority rights and supporting laws forbidding lower castes to change their religion to escape their low status under Hinduism.
India continues to have proud democratic institutions, but the growth of often-violent Hindu nationalism threatens its tolerant traditions and pluralistic democracy. If religious extremism continues to grow, it will, as we have learned elsewhere, drag India’s democracy, economy and foreign policy down with it. We cannot afford to be silent against that threat, even when the country is an important partner and ally of the United States in the war against terrorism.