India's Second Great Mutiny?

For all its long history, India is a young country, with perhaps 70% of its population under 30 years of age. The number of those with memories of the bloody 1947 partition that produced India and Pakistan as independent states is declining, and for the young generation, Pakistan is no longer a part of the great nation that was lost, but a hostile neighbor that supports violent, fundamentalist jihad. Sadly, distrust of Pakistan increasingly touches India's Muslim community, more than 100 million strong, but still only 12% of the Indian population.

Despite partition, India's mood in the first decades of independence was one of idealism and hope. Most Muslims saw Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, as the true inheritor of Mahatma Gandhi's vision of India as a tolerant, multi-national state. In turn, several of Nehru's Muslim associates were respected nationally across the religious divide. Muslims trusted Nehru implicitly, and his Indian National Congress Party had a near monopoly on Muslim votes.

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This support persisted despite difficult conditions for the Muslim minority, including blatant discrimination in employment and in the distribution of government largesse. More ominously, Muslims were often considered a Fifth Column within India, plotting to divide the country further. Such suspicions frequently boiled over into religious riots, in which Muslims bore over 90% of the casualties. No one has ever been punished for these killings.

By the 1980s, the Congress Party's dominance of Indian politics was ending. From the Muslim point of view, no major political party took up the cause of Indian pluralism with the conviction that guided Nehru. Other parties moved in to take their share of Muslim votes while the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, (BJP) the current ruling party, began creating and consolidating a growing bloc of anti-Muslim voters.

The BJP has always evoked instinctive fear among Muslims. It exploited the multiple failures of the Congress Party in launching its quest for power, building vicious diatribes against Muslims and Christians into their campaign rhetoric. The BJP and its allies sought retribution for what they portrayed as the historical sins of the Muslims, and turned an insignificant 16 th century mosque at Ayodhya into the symbol of this mission.

The BJP's real target was Indian society tradition of tolerance and pluralism, which it attacked for allegedly representing the appeasement of religious minorities. Constitutional law was defied and horrendous communal violence against religious minorities became frequent. Finally, the Ayodhya mosque was demolished in December 1992 during a mass gathering organized by the BJP. The current Deputy Prime Minister, Lal Kishan Advani, was present when the structure was brought down.

The destruction of the mosque was seen as the most serious rupture between Hindus and Muslims since India became independent in 1947. The Indian state began to be perceived as openly discriminatory. Muslims became suspicious of other Indian political parties, none of which seemed able to stand up to the BJP. The Muslim community closed in on itself. Muslim professionals, fearing for their safety, began to move into ghettos.

Muslim charitable organizations, often funded by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, began to move into areas of social life where the state had failed dismally, particularly education. As a result, thousands of Muslim boys were enrolled in school for the first time. Unfortunately, they were educated in religious seminaries espousing a deeply intolerant, fundamentalist brand of Islam.

With discrimination soon cutting across class lines, increasing numbers of Indian Muslims began to look for links with Muslim communities elsewhere in the world. They willingly bought the "Great Satan" theory of Ayatollah Khomeini, whose face was spread on posters across Muslim India in the 1980s. In the 1990s, Saddam Hussein replaced this poster boy.

The Taliban's rise in Afghanistan also had a strong impact. The jihadi movement that gripped Pakistan crossed into the neighboring Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, where the two countries have repeatedly fought for control, even, recently, threatening an exchange of nuclear weapons.

As the only state in India with a Muslim majority, Jammu and Kashmir has a special status under India's Constitution. However, the BJP has campaigned to rescind that status, a campaign that gathered supporters in reaction to Pakistan's activities. Today, Kashmir is seen as a front against terrorism, and Indian Muslims are seen as sympathizers with terrorists--although the overwhelming majority of the jihadis' victims inside Kashmir have been Muslim.

Secular, liberal Indians are alarmed at the rise of both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism as domestic policies in South Asia become entangled with America's global anti-terrorist objectives. Their only hope is to ensure that Indian Muslims do not lose faith in the democratic process. If that happens, India's admirable pluralist traditions, to which Muslims have made significant contributions, would be lost forever. A deepening religious conflict across all of South Asia would inevitably follow.