Pious Carnage

The Rise of Hindu Fundamentalism in India

Recent reports from postelection Kenya, particularly of the burning of a church packed with Kikuyu women and children, sent a shudder around the world. Unfortunately, India seems to be moving along a similar path.

Crimes here resulting from intolerance, particularly religious intolerance, have been on the rise over the past five years, including Christmas Eve attacks on seven Catholic churches in the eastern coast state of Orissa. Scenes of cruelty and violence are now so common they don’t even make the headlines. No group can consider itself safe: Muslims are the most vulnerable, but lower-caste people, the poor, Christians, and other minorities are all frequent targets.

Some observers believe that intolerance is integral to the Hindu caste system, which engenders both intercaste violence as well as fierce opposition to other religions like Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Others believe that communal violence was actively encouraged by the British Raj as part of its divide-and-rule approach during the colonial period, culminating in the carnage of the partition riots in 1947. The violence unleashed at that time has remained deep in the national psyche. Whatever the theory, the political imperative of the violence seems to be a given. There is always some section of society—usually a ruling elite—that stands to gain from it. Furthermore, any prolonged violence implies the involvement of the government. Without administrative support, no mob would riot for more than a few hours.

This was certainly the case in 2002 when anti-Muslim riots swept the state of Gujarat on the Arabian Sea. In three days, more than twenty-five hundred Muslims died after an explosion on a train killed fifty-eight Hindu pilgrims. Most objective accounts blame the explosion on a faulty stove operated by the pilgrims themselves. But Hindu militants lost no time in accusing Muslim extremists of deliberately causing the blast.

Last November, an exposé by the Indian magazine Tehelka reported that police, politicians, and high-ranking government officials in Gujarat explicitly told Hindu activists that they had three days to even the score. The brutality of the attacks, combined with a complete lack of shame on the part of those involved, is appalling. It seems impossible that human beings could speak so casually, even boastfully, about such unspeakable acts.

Tehelka alleged that Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, was the mastermind behind these events. (Modi was denied a U.S. visa in 2005. The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act prohibits anyone who was “responsible for, or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom” from entering the country.) Still, in December, Modi won reelection in a stunning victory that brought his party back into power with 117 seats in the 182-member assembly.

Gujarat is a complicated state. It is wealthy and rapidly industrializing under Modi’s leadership, and its probusiness stance has been welcomed throughout the developed world. It is also strongly influenced by the extremely conservative views of its nonresident expatriates. Many have settled abroad, done well financially, and continue to long for the orthodox, rigid life they believe should still exist for Hindus. They invest heavily in their home towns, visit frequently, and play pivotal roles in nurturing Hindutva, literally Hindu-ness. They have been instrumental in strengthening the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu fundamentalist group that professes to be cultural, not political. Its effort has been to create a feeling of Hindu pride by fostering negative perceptions of other religions and by reviving interest in Hindu culture. For example, it has promoted certain religious practices like fasts, pilgrimages, and other festivals.

Harmless, and even delightful in themselves, some of these practices have grown almost to the point of frenzy and now serve as a dividing line: you are in or out depending on whether you participate. Observances by other religions are sometimes seen as acts of defiance. This Christmas I wondered whether installing our outdoor decorations might be inviting trouble. Then, at Mass, I heard my own priest’s sermon in which he sounded like a Catholic version of an RSS man—pompously thundering about his pride in Jesus.

Who benefits from the violence and general sense of unease that now prevail in many parts of India? Is this a form of distraction, designed to keep our minds off issues like poverty, injustice, corruption, and environmental degradation? It seems so. Religious hatreds are easy to inflate and exploit. There is plenty of free-floating unhappiness just waiting to be channeled, and Hindu fundamentalists are brilliant at creating issues where none exists. Take the RSS-sponsored anti–Valentine’s Day protests when card shops and florists are ransacked and young couples are molested. Or take the vicious attacks on any gallery that exhibits paintings by M. F. Husain, India’s best-known painter (a Muslim). Or the destruction of a cricket field in Mumbai because the match was to be between India and Pakistan.

These are the issues that grab the headlines and people’s attention. Politicians who know how to manipulate such events can use them to win elections. The important issues facing the nation are less and less in the picture. They require analysis and hard choices. It is much easier to fill people’s minds with the idea that Hinduism is under attack.

Published in the 2008-01-31 issue: 

Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.

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