WASHINGTON (ABP) — A group of India experts speaking on Capitol Hill March 31 had a message for American policy-makers: Supporting religious freedom on the Asian subcontinent is ultimately in the United States' best interest.
India has been beset by sectarian violence — most notably between majority Hindus and minority Muslims — since 1998. That was the year the Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist party, ascended to power in India's elections. Several Indian states have since elected governments dominated by the party.
India's smaller Christian minority also has experienced persecution at the hands of militant Hindus — most notably in the 1999 murder of Australian Baptist missionary Graham Staines and his two children, who were burned to death in their car by a mob.
As India enters a new round of national elections, the Washington-based Policy Institute for Religion and State and the University of Leicester, England, sponsored the seminar for journalists, lawmakers and congressional staffers.
Richard Bonney, a history professor and founder of the Centre for the History of Religious and Political Pluralism at the university, said that, left unchecked, the repeated attacks could instigate an extremist movement among India's Muslim minority. Of Muslims in Asian countries, Bonney said, “India's have been the least radicalized — yet.”
Referring to significant sectarian violence across the Indian state of Gujarat two years ago — in which hundreds of Muslims were killed by Hindu mobs in response to an apparent Muslim-led attack against Hindu worshipers — Bonney said, “Clearly, many Muslims have been alienated by the events of 2002 and the lack of redress for the victims.”
Many human-rights organizations have said officials of BJP and affiliated political groups were complicit in the attacks and repeatedly failed to act to stop mob violence or prosecute the offenders. The atrocities reportedly included hundreds of murders and rapes, and at least one incident in which Hindu militants allegedly cut a pregnant woman's fetus out of her womb and killed it in front of her before murdering the mother.
India's Constitution provides for a secular state that ensures religious freedom for all. It is also the world's largest democracy, with more than half a billion citizens expected to cast votes in the national elections. However, Bonney said, “Democracy has to be rather more than simply the casting of votes.”
“The world said the same thing in 1933,” he said, referring to the German elections that elevated Adolf Hitler to power. “There is danger in the failure to see trends.”
He said U.S. interest in India should be as strong now, as the country moves into elections, as it was two years ago, when India and neighboring Pakistan came to the brink of nuclear war. However, Bonney said, Western policymakers have shown little interest in Indian electoral politics since the nuclear conflict subsided.
Ram Puniyani, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology and a leading Indian advocate of religious freedom, said the irony is that India's secular democracy, with constitutionally protected religious freedom, was the legacy of the nation's Hindu founder, Mahatma Gandhi.
“In a religious society like India, Mahatma Gandhi is one who said that religious belief and democracy can co-exist,” Puniyani said.