The Threats to Secular India

Narasimha Rao
Narasimha Rao; drawing by David Levine

When, some months ago, “The Idea of India” was agreed on as the title of my Nehru Lecture at Cambridge,1 I had not imagined that the subject would be as topical as it, alas, has become since the terrible events of recent months. The idea of a secular India, tolerant of different religions (and of people who believe in none), which had been taken for granted since independence, has been severely damaged by extremist Hindu political groups.

The present round of events began on December 6 with the destruction of a sixteenth-century mosque—the Babri Masjid—in the northern city of Ayodhya, by politically organized mobs of activist Hindus, who want to build a temple to Rama on that very spot. That outrageous event has been followed by communal violence and riots across the country, in which around two thousand people or more have perished—both Hindus and Muslims, but Muslim victims have far outnumbered Hindus. Some of the worst incidents have taken place in Bombay. In what is usually thought to be the premier city of India, a relatively small but thoroughly organized group of extremist Hindus went repeatedly on the rampage; the police frequently failed to protect Muslims under attack, and were often far more violent in dispersing Muslim mobs than Hindu ones.

It took quite some time for the nationwide condemnation that followed those events to move the government of India to take a tougher stand on law and order, and even now the determination of the government is far from clear. But on February 25 it did manage to prevent a huge and dangerous Hindu political demonstration in New Delhi, which could have easily brought communal riots to the nation’s capital. Stopping the demonstration unfortunately involved suspending the civil right of free assembly. But in view of the highly provocative nature of the planned demonstration (for which Hindu activists had converged from across the country), and in view of the fact that the confrontation was managed by the police with no loss of life, the Indian government has not had to face much criticism for these violations of civil rights, except, of course, from the Hindu parties themselves.

The extremist Hindu political movement that spearheaded the present turmoil has gone on to demand an official end to Indian secularism, to be replaced by the recognition of India as a Hindu state. This proposal, if accepted, would involve a dramatic alteration of one of the basic principles of the Indian constitution, and a radical departure from the idea of India—a pluralist, tolerant, and secular India—which was central to the Indian nationalist movement and which was reflected in the legal and political structure of independent India. It is that idea and the challenges it faces that I want to discuss. I shall argue that these challenges include quite distinct components, making it inappropriate to analyze the emergence of Hindu extremism as…

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