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India Faces Militant Hindu Revival, Separatism - 2002-02-21

In addition to Islamic extremism, India faces a host of pressures, including a militant Hindu revival, and separatist activity in some states.

In 1992, militant Hindus destroyed a 16th century mosque in the city of Ayodhya. Since then, they have been trying to build a Hindu temple on the ruins over the opposition of India's Muslims. The controversy helped bring the BJP party to power as the leader of India's current coalition government.

Hindu fundamentalism is a serious challenge to Indian democracy, says Ravi Nair, executive director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center in New Delhi.

"Hindu fundamentalism today is quite certainly on the rise. It is not just in its political manifestations but in a whole range of other manifestations at the cultural level, at the historical reality check level and a whole range of other issues. And it feeds into the siege mentality," he said.

This fundamentalism, says Mr. Nair, tends to view any outsider as an enemy. India thus draws narrowly inward.

But only so far, responds Inder Malhotra, a former editor of the Times of India and now a newspaper columnist.

"Hindu society is not monolithic. It has no book. It has no pope. It has no one doctrine. There are 33,000 various gods which are worshipped. At no stage did the Hindu fundamentalists on their own get even a bare majority in the Indian parliament or a government in most of the states. In fact, today they rule only two states, and they might be losing power in one," he said.

Brahma Chellaney of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi says India's democracy manages to contain movements that threaten it. The fervor does not spread beyond certain limits.

"What we have in India is a new awakening, a desire by the younger generations in India for a more assertive national policy because we have had a series of weak governments in this country, and there is a popular feeling that it is time for India to come of age, that India should not be boxing below its class," he said.

Boxing is an apt description of the current mood in India, says Mr. Nair. There are fears the various pressures could tear the nation apart.

"Deep down in the Indian establishment's psyche is the problem of holding India together as a nation state, as a republic, is something that has dogged India since independence. Much of the periphery of India, not just Kashmir, but the whole northeast of India, is something that has come to haunt the Indian establishment, and they believe the only way to keep it under control is the iron fist," Mr. Nair said.

Mr. Nair thinks India has a better chance of holding together by relaxing its fist. That means allowing a degree of decentralization and devolution of power from the center.

"Our states do not have the power that a county sheriff in the United States has. He or she in the Indian state government is a glorified errand boy of the central administration. So we want genuine decentralization, genuine federalism. That will take away the underpinnings of any secessionist or separatist movement," Mr. Nair said.

While India's economy is growing, it does not keep up with the fast rising population. Forty percent live in poverty. Life expectancy is 54 years.

Mr. Malhotra says the government is too immobile to cope.

"We have a government which is unable to rule. We have got a major opposition party, the Congress, which is unable to oppose because its leadership is ineffectual. The two coalition system is breaking down, and therefore the economic reforms are being completely obstructed and unconscionably delayed," he said. But Mr. Malhotra believes a silent majority is beginning to speak up. Thanks to democracy, he adds, every issue is settled in India by vote - ballot, not bullet. That is the positive part.