An intense challenge to Indian secularity

BY MANISH RAIJI

Published March 13, 2002

The strongest sort of government is a democratic, secular one - it's the only kind that can really impress upon all of its citizens the validity of its actions. I once wrote about the ridiculousness of calling upon a higher power, which the entire population does not believe in, to justify policy. For Americans, the push and pull of secularity versus religiosity seems dim; besides some silly "God Bless America" slogans and our faith-based president, it seems clear that America is a secular state. Though the Christian majority certainly tries to use "God" as a good explanation for legislation, we are by and large sheltered from religious intrusion in our lives.

Paul Wong
Manish Raiji
Nothing Catchy

This struggle exists elsewhere. Save for a few exceptions, the Middle East is theocratic. The Vatican is a Christian state; Israel is a Jewish one. Many of the problems facing Middle Eastern states today stem from their adamant ties to Islam; Vatican City will never be an inclusive society and Israel, once it solves the host of issues it faces now, will have to face up to the obvious contradictions of being Jewish and democratic.

Others have faced this struggle by simply eliminating religion. The Soviet Union and China spring to mind as states that took anti-religiosity to an extreme - refusing not only to be influenced by religion, but refusing to allow its own citizens to practice their religion freely.

There is a state that is facing the secular/theocratic struggle today. It is the birthplace of four major world religions; its history has been marred by religious strife and its conquerors have often had vile contempt for one religion, in the name of another.

That state is India.

India, since its inception in 1947, has prided itself for being a secular democracy - a status that forces Indians to hold themselves to a high standard of governance. Yet religion in India, more so than perhaps anywhere else in the worlds, cannot simply be ignored - Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism sprung from it. To many, India is considered a holy land. There is nothing secular about holiness.

One of the greatest epics in Hindu mythology is that of Rama - the perceived incarnation of God on earth, whose kingdom's capitol was Ayodhya. In 1526, the first of the Moghul emperors, Babar, set up his kingdom and built a mosque in Ayodhya - the Babri Masjid.

Of all the religious tensions in recent Indian history, the Hindu-Muslim one has been the most vitriolic, the most violent and the most devastating. Starting from its birth as an independent state, the partition of India and Pakistan proved an impetus to a level of bloodshed that shocked rational people on both sides of the still-disputed border. India pledged to itself to rise above religious strife - to practice a form of government that led with democratic values, not religious ones.

This government secularity has been India's one and only saving grace throughout its short life. There have been setbacks; Indira Gandhi's 1984 attack on extremist Sikh terrorists operating from the Golden Temple in Amritsar - one of the holiest sites in Sikhism - led to her eventual assassination by two of her own Sikh bodyguards. The lessons of Indira Gandhi are sadly being forgotten in India today.

In 1989, amidst a rising current of Hindu nationalism in India, members of the Bhartiya Janarta Party (the party now at the helm of Indian politics) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (a right-wing Hindu nationalist group) arrived in Ayodhya under the auspices of the Ram Janambhoomi (Ram's Birthplace) movement to lay down the first stone in what they pledged would be a reclamation of the holy city.

At the time, the army stood watching, taking precaution to ensure that the mosque was not torn down, as had been planned. Three years later, that precaution was not taken; the Babri Masjid was razed by fanatic Hindu nationalists - with the army watching in smiling acceptance.

The Indian Supreme Court had pledged to deal with the legal issue of Ayodhya - does Indian secularity mean a negation of valid religious/cultural beliefs? The Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was paramount to having a church in Mecca, a temple in the Vatican - Hindus have a valid reason to demand that their ties to Ayodhya be respected.

But this demand should have been settled through the courts. Hindus had a claim to the city; though it would have been difficult for the courts to settle the issue without stepping on some toes, provisions could have been made to respectfully move the Babri Masjid to another site. This would have preserved a historical Indian monument (with its own importance to a religious minority) while reclaiming the holy city for Hindus. The 1992 razing of the Babri Masjid did nothing more than incite some of the most violent riots the country has seen. Until now.

Against the backdrop of 800 dead Indian Hindus and Muslims, the Indian government faces one of the fiercest challenges to its secularity. There is no rebuilding the Babri Masjid and even if a genuine legal process allows for the building of a Hindu temple in Ayodhya, there needs to be a sea change in Indian politics - a concerted effort by moderate Hindus to usurp the right-wing fringe and reclaim Indian secularity. If such a change fails to occur, India risks becoming like the very neighbors it so strongly criticizes.

Manish Raiji can be reached at mraiji@umich.edu.