India Confronts Its Own Intolerance
By KANWAL REKHI and HENRY S. ROWEN, May 23, 2002 12:01 a.m. ET
As India and Pakistan teeter once again on the brink of war, the Indian government — which holds the moral high ground on the matter of terrorism on its soil — is being rattled by internal violence, most of it among Indians. The severity and significance of this violence have not yet adequately been conveyed in much of the international media. The Indian government’s response has begun to raise questions about the character of the world’s largest democracy.
For a country that remains largely secular in its public life, India has recently experienced an extreme outburst of religious violence. In one instance, on Feb. 27, a group of Muslims in the state of Gujarat attacked a train carrying Hindus from a place of long-simmering tension over Hindu plans to build a temple on the site of an ancient mosque. The deaths of 62 innocent people brought immediate retaliation by Hindus, which resulted in more than 1,000 Muslim deaths. The past several weeks have seen at least 25 more murders of Muslims.
Making the problem worse, a refugee problem is building up in Ahmedabad, the capital city of Gujarat, as Muslims from rural areas and city-dwellers whose homes have been burned pour into refugee camps. These are filthy, makeshift places that have no running water or electricity, and that now house about 100,000 people.
Those who know something about the history of communal violence in the subcontinent might see these catastrophes as fitting a long-established pattern. But what’s happening now is not just more of the same. During the weeks after riots began in Ahmedabad, the government has conspicuously failed to enforce the law.
This is not because of general poverty or a constitutional inability of the state to protect its citizens. The state government seems to be implicitly supporting the rioters and shrugging off the plight of the refugees. If anything, the local government’s attitude has shifted from lack of interest in its minority citizens before the riots to active hostility afterward. The atmosphere is such that a state minister in Ahmedabad asked the government to move the victims’ camp because it makes his Hindu constituents feel insecure.
The state’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, says the situation is under control and that the people of Gujarat have reacted calmly to a grave provocation. But the police chief in Ahmedabad said his policemen favor rioters who are Hindus. The view is further supported by Harsh Mander, a senior officer of the elite Indian Administrative Service, who described the Gujarat riots as a state-sponsored pogrom. There is little violence elsewhere in the country.
How can civic order be restored when the state government has no interest in doing so? The Indian constitution allows the central government to dismiss a state government if it is failing in its duties and in the past New Delhi has taken over. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose Bharatiya Janata Party also rules in Gujarat, hasn’t done this. Would he have failed to act — as he has done in the past in Bihar and some other states — if the Gujarat ruling party wasn’t BJP?
Perhaps he fears that removing Mr. Modi, whose roots are in the BJP’s powerful sister organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps) — a militant body for the promotion of Hinduism in India — will lead to the selection of someone worse or even to his own dismissal.
Neither Mr. Vajpayee, nor his interior minister, Lal Krishan Advani, flatly condemned attacks against minorities beyond pro forma platitudes about violence not being tolerated. At a party congress in Goa, Mr. Vajpayee actually condemned Muslims, saying, “In Indonesia, Malaysia, wherever Muslims are living, they do not want to live in harmony.” Unlike President Bush, who after Sept. 11 went to a mosque and severely condemned any effort to threaten law and order, neither Mr. Vajpayee nor Mr. Advani has visited a mosque, and neither visited Gujarat during the initial phase of the riots. (Both visited later, when things were calmer).
There are several things the government must do to regain control. First, it must remove the BJP ministry in Gujarat, suspend the assembly and replace it with central rule until order is returned. Second, it must replace the biased police force with an army ordered to enforce the law impartially. As Mr. Mander of the Indian Administrative Service has written, “no riots can continue beyond a few hours without the active connivance of the police.” Third, the government must distance itself from groups that organize and finance riots.
Many overseas Indian Hindus finance religious groups in India in the belief that the funds will be used to build temples, and educate and feed the poor of their faith. Many would be appalled to know that some recipients of their money are out to destroy minorities (Christians as well as Muslims) and their places of worship. Mr. Vajpayee could deal a severe blow to such covert causes by simply labeling them as terrorists.
India has many problems that it must tackle within the framework of its democracy. It has struggled with them for over five decades — with little success until 1991, when economic reforms brought new vitality to the country. Now the handling of the Gujarat riots has shaken the faith of large segments of the population in India’s future as a polity that cares for all its citizens.
India is being provoked by Pakistani-based terrorists, but its failure to protect innocent Muslims at home weakens the government both domestically and internationally. The prime minister’s statement in Goa is a deplorable effort to persuade his party that India’s future should not include its 140 million Muslims. Whatever actions the government takes against Pakistan will be weakened by domestic divisiveness.
Until India comes to understand the imperatives of evenhanded treatment for its citizens, the people of other democratic nations will be unable to accord the world’s largest democracy the respect that many of us would like to see it deserve.
Mr. Rekhi is global chairman of The Indus Entrepreneurs, an organization of South Asian businesspeople. Mr. Rowen is a professor emeritus at Stanford and senior fellow of the Hoover Institution.