A judicial verdict in India on Thursday was most unwelcome.
The high court of India’s most populous state decided to divide up a controversial piece of land into three parts. This ruling reawakens a dispute that’s been ongoing—sometimes dormant, sometimes not—for centuries. And it is a horrible reminder of large-scale riots that have been triggered by the controversy, most recently in 2002.
The issue is a deeply felt one for me, since my parents live barely fifty miles from the epicenter and have often had to cope with the fallout.
The place is Ayodhya, a pilgrimage town in Northern India. The litigation involves a mosque that is said to have been built in the medieval era on the spot where Lord Ram, among the most revered of Hindu gods, is believed to have been born. The site has become a religious flashpoint since Hindu nationalists decided to politicize the issue in the late 1980s.
The first spasm of large-scale bloodletting came in 1992, when Hindu extremists, aided by a likeminded state administration and a pusillanimous federal government, tore down the mosque structure, triggering riots that killed more than a thousand people, most notably in Bombay (since renamed Mumbai).
The next big convulsion came in 2002 in the state of Gujarat, where in response to a fire (suspected to be arson) that killed fifty-eight Hindus traveling there from the site of the dispute, the government allowed the unleashing of a pogrom that took the lives of hundreds, mostly Muslims. (The Bush Administration stayed silent about the massacres in deference to an ally.)
I have been to the disputed site a couple of times. The first time I visited was in 1987, during my freshman year in college, before the edifice was torn down. The thing that struck me the most about the spot, apart from the security, was the spectacle of a Hindu priest performing rituals before a set of idols of Lord Ram and his consort, the goddess Sita, under what was clearly a mosque-type structure.
My second visit was in 1994, after the demolition. On this occasion, security was even tighter. I was showing the place to a German friend. We were searched a number of times and had to walk through a maze-like barricade to get to the idols, kept at a distance under a canopy.
The reason for so much discord emanating from this place? Even those Hindus and Muslims who are not particularly religious see the matter as a test of strength. Hindus perceive the issue in terms of whether they can assert their rights before a secular state many see as biased in favor of religious minorities; Muslims view it through the prism of whether the secular state can guarantee them protection.
The dispute rebuts two propositions widely held in the United States.
First, that religious extremism comes only in the Muslim variety. But here, most of the violence has been unleashed by Hindu radicals, aided and abetted by allied governments.
Second, many analysts contend that economic liberalization, said to be accompanied by rising prosperity, leads to reduced religious tensions. In fact, that's the line taken by the New York Times and the BBC in their reports on the judicial verdict. They both assert that an entrepreneurial India is too busy making money to get riled up over such things.
But even in the case of India itself, this assertion of a link between the free market and religious tolerance is unfounded. Both Mumbai and Gujarat are among the most business-oriented places in India, and yet this hasn’t stopped them from being hotbeds of religious extremism.
Fortunately, as of yet there hasn’t been any new outbreak of violence. Let’s hope it stays this way. India can’t afford another bout of atavism.
If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "Governor George W. Bush’s Successor Even Worse."
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