Religious Unrest in India

  • Share
  • Read Later
While India's image makers may want the world to believe that business is the country's new religion, for many here there are older faiths — and faith-driven feuds — that matter more. At least five people were killed Friday in the southern city of Hyderabad, when a bomb exploded in a mosque crowded with worshipers attending Friday prayers. Police say they found and defused two other bombs close by. So far, no one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The timing of the bombing may be linked to the sentencing Friday of 100 people convicted of playing a role in a series of deadly blasts in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), in 1993. Those attacks, which killed 257 people, were carried out by the Muslim-dominated Mumbai underworld to avenge earlier religious riots that had left 2,000 people dead. But the authors and motive of Friday's mosque bombing could remain a mystery. Months after last year's bomb attacks that killed more than 35 people near a mosque in the western state of Maharashtra, there are still no suspects beyond vague police suggestions.

Elsewhere, across the north of the country, rival Sikh groups clashed for the fourth straight day after the leader of one sect dressed, for a newspaper advertisement, in a fashion similar to the much adored 17th century Sikh figure Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh guru. Enraged Sikhs from other sects attacked properties belonging to the Dera Sacha Sauda, whose leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh had committed the perceived religious insult. The clashes have killed two people and injured at least 30, and the national government has sent in troops to stop further unrest. "The sect chief has committed a grave offense by trying to imitate Guru Gobind Singh," said Sikh writer Kharak Singh. "He must issue an unconditional apology. A stubborn attitude will precipitate matters."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who happened to be opening a conference on interfaith harmony Friday, said that there is no place for religious intolerance in India. "Any political formation trying to incite people in the name of religion, whatever religion, is in fact betraying both religion and our constitution," the Prime Minister said. All nations, "big and small will have to come to terms with their growing internal diversity. No modern and open society can be a monolith."

So why the recurring religious unrest in India? Moderate Muslim activist J.S. Bandukwala says that "to a great extent" India has resolved the question of religious identity which had split the country for decades. "But in such a huge population it's so easy for someone to plant a bomb and cause chaos," he says. "I don't think there's anything police can do to stop this sort of thing."

Bandukwala, a physics professor in Gujarat, a western state torn by bloody communal riots in 2002, has long campaigned against religious extremism and for moderation and debate. While he sees progress, in part because of the rising middle class in India, Bandukwala says "on religious issues people get very quickly built up in this part of the world. If anybody wants to create a problem they just have to insult an iconic figure or plant a bomb and you see the results." In some ways, he says, "it's remarkable that India has evolved into a mature democracy after just 60 years."

Not just a mature democracy but a vibrant, fast-growing economy. The world has come to know a new India over the past few years, a place of outsourcing and hi-tech start-ups, of software engineers and steel barons. We expect such places to be shiny and secular and scientific, focused on technological breakthroughs and making money. We don't expect religious riots and communal clashes and bombings. In India, full of paradoxes and wonderful, frustrating inconsistencies, you have both: hi-tech business parks and age-old religious grudges; software savvy alongside sectarian brutality. Resolving those contradictions may well decide India's future.