While Americans have been focused on the war on terror, Iraq, and the future of democracy in the Middle East, democracy has been under siege in another part of the world. India -- the most populous of all democracies, and a country whose Constitution protects human rights even more comprehensively than our own -- has been in crisis. Until the spring of 2004, its parliamentary government was increasingly controlled by right-wing Hindu extremists who condone and in some cases actively support violence against minorities, especially the Muslim minority. Many seek a fundamental change in India's pluralistic democracy. Despite their recent electoral loss, these political groups and the social organizations allied with them remain extremely powerful. The political future is unclear.
What has been happening in India is a serious threat to the future of democracy in the world. The fact that it has yet to make it onto the radar screen of most Americans is evidence of the way in which terrorism and the war on Iraq have distracted Americans from events and issues of fundamental significance. If we really want to understand the impact of religious nationalism on democratic values, India currently provides a deeply troubling example, and one without which any understanding of the more general phenomenon is dangerously incomplete. In order to understand the situation, in turn, we need to turn to a set of events that show more clearly than any others how far the ideals of respectful pluralism and the rule of law have been undermined by religious ideology. These events are a terrible instance of genocidal violence; but they are more than that. The deeper problem they reveal is that of violence aided and abetted by the highest levels of government and law enforcement, of a virtual announcement to minority citizens that they are unequal before the law and that their lives are not worth the protection of law enforcement.
The focal point of the recent controversy over religion and democracy in India is a set of religious riots that took place in the state of Gujarat in Western India in February/March 2002. The precipitating event was an incident near the station of Godhra, in which one car of a train of Hindu pilgrims erupted into flames, killing fifty-eight men, women, and children, almost all Hindus. The fire was immediately blamed on local Muslims living near the tracks. (As we shall see, forensic reconstruction has cast grave doubt on this allegation.)
In the days that followed, wave upon wave of violence swept through the state. The attackers were Hindus, many of them highly politicized, shouting Hindu-right slogans, such as "Hail Ram" (a religious invocation wrenched from its original devotional and peaceful meaning) and "Hail Hanuman" (a monkey god portrayed by the right as aggressive), along with "Kill, Destroy!" "Slaughter!" There is copious evidence that the violent retaliation was planned by Hindu extremist organizations before the precipitating event. No one was spared: young children were burned along with their families, women were raped, mutilated, and then set on fire. Over the course of several weeks, approximately two thousand Muslims were killed. Approximately half of the dead were women, many of whom were raped and tortured before being killed and burned. Children were killed with their parents; fetuses were ripped from the bellies of pregnant women to be tossed into the fire.
Most alarming was the total breakdown in the rule of law -- not only at the local level but also at that of state and national government. Police were ordered not to stop the violence. Some egged it on. Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, rationalized and even encouraged the murders. Meanwhile, the national government showed a culpable indifference, suggesting that religious riots were inevitable wherever Muslims live alongside Hindus, and that troublemaking Muslims must have been to blame. Leading politicians conveyed the message that government would treat the nation's citizens unequally: some would receive the full protection of the law, and others would not. Prosecutions resulting from the riots have faced related problems: the bias of local judges, the intimidation and bribery of witnesses.
Gujarat provides a vivid example of the bad things that can occur when a leading political party bases its appeal on a religious nationalism wedded to ideas of ethnic homogeneity and purity. We need to understand this example in order to begin forming an adequate conception of the problem of religious nationalism in today’s world. But Gujarat also shows us something else: the resilience of pluralistic democracy, the ability of well-informed voters to turn against religious nationalism and to rally behind the values of pluralism and equality. In May 2004, the voters of India went to the polls in large numbers. Contrary to all expectations and all polls, they gave the Hindu right a resounding defeat. Because even exit polls, taken in cities and towns, did not predict the result, it is clear that impoverished rural voters played a major role in giving India a new government.
Some of the issues that led to the rejection of the right were economic rather than religious. The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, the political wing of the Hindu right) had used the campaign slogan "India Shining," emphasizing economic gains through foreign investment in the cities. But the rural poor had seen few benefits from globalization, and their lives were not particularly shining. Many rural areas have no safe water supply, no reliable electricity, no public transportation, and no schools. (The literacy rate is around 60 percent for the nation as a whole; this average conceals large rural/urban and regional differences, and also differences by sex, since the female literacy rate is no higher than 50 percent.) Voters living in such inadequate conditions reacted angrily to the claim that India was doing splendidly, a claim that excluded them and denigrated their struggles.
The state of the economy, however, was not the only major electoral issue. Prominent as well was a widespread popular rejection of religious extremism. The Congress Party, which won, had drawn attention to religious tensions throughout the campaign, and had strongly repudiated the BJP’s idea of India as a nation for Hindus first and foremost. Both party leader Sonia Gandhi and the new prime minister, economist Manmohan Singh, insisted throughout the campaign that India is a nation built upon equal respect for all religious groups and all citizens. In his first speech as prime minister Singh drew attention to this issue: "I do not want to begin my career by accusing the previous government," he said. "But divisive forces were allowed a free play, which I believe is extremely injurious to orderly development . . . We as a nation must have a firm determination that these things should never happen." Singh, a Sikh, is India’s first prime minister to come from a religious minority.
Over the next few days, I want to blog about this story –- a story of democracy’s near-collapse into religious terror and of democracy’s survival (at least for the time being) -- a story that has important lessons to offer to all nations struggling with problems of religious extremism. The posts are all drawn from a book manuscript I am now finishing up. When I began to write that book, the story seemed almost unrelievedly grim. As my posts here will reveal, however, now it is a different story: of what can go right as well as what can go wrong, of what preserves democracy as well as what threatens it. From this story we Americans can learn a good deal about democracy and its future as we try to act responsibly in a dangerous world.