[This article is taken from the Journal of Democracy Vol. 4, No. 4 October 1993, pp. 54-68. It is reprinted here by permission of The Johns Hopkins University Press, Copyrights 1993. You are welcome to have a link to this cite. However, please do not post this article independently. Thank you.]

The Challenge of Ethnic Conflict


--Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr.

Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr. is the Temple Professor of the Humanities in Government and Asian Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. His numerous publications include India Under Pressure (1984) and With Stanley A. Kochanek) India: Government and Politics in a Developing Nation (5th ed., 1993).

India came to independence in 1947 amidst the trauma of partition. The nationalist movement, led by Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, aimed to gather what was then British India plus the 562 princely states under British paramountcy into a secular and democratic state. But Mohammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, feared that his coreligionists, who made up almost a quarter of the subcontinent's population, would find themselves a permanent and embattled minority in a Hindu-dominated land. For Jinnah, India was "two nations," Hindu and Muslim, and he was determined that Muslims should secure protection in an Islamic state of Pakistan, made up of the Muslim-majority areas of India. In the violence that accompanied partition, some half a million people were killed, while upwards of 11 million Hindus and Muslims crossed the newly created borders as refugees. But even all this bloodshed and suffering did not settle matters, for the creation of Pakistan left nearly half of the subcontinent's Muslims in India.

Muslims today are India's largest religious minority, accounting for 11 percent of the total population. Among other religious groups, the Sikhs, some of whom in 1947 had sought an independent Sikhistan, are concentrated in the northern state of Punjab and number less than 2 percent of India's population. Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Parsees, and Jews add further richness to India's religious diversity, but their comparatively small numbers only accentuate the overwhelming proportion of Hindus, with some 83 percent of the population.

The Hindus, although they share a common religious tradition, are themselves divided into a myriad of sects and are socially segmented by thousands of castes and subcastes, hierarchically ranked according to tradition and regionally organized. The geographic regions of India are linguistically and culturally distinct. There are more than a dozen major languages, grouped into those of Dravidian South India and Indo-European (or Aryan) North India; Hindi, an Indo-European language spoken by 30 percent of all Indians, is recognized by the Constitution of 1950 as the official language (along with English). In addition to the many Indo-European and Dravidian languages and dialects, there are various tribal languages spoken by peoples across India, most notably in southern Bihar and in the seven states of the Northeast.

In confronting this staggering diversity, the framers of India's Constitution sought to shape an overarching Indian identity even as they acknowledged the reality of pluralism by guaranteeing fundamental rights, in some cases through specific provisions for the protection of minorities. These include freedom of religion (Articles 25-28); the right of any section of citizens to use and conserve their "distinct language, script or culture" (Article 29); and the right of "all minorities, whether based on religion or language," to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice (Article 30). With respect to caste, the Constitution declared the practice of "untouchability" unlawful (Article 17). To provide compensatory justice and open up opportunity, a certain percentage of admissions to colleges and universities and places in government employment were "reserved" for so-called Scheduled Castes (untouchables) and Scheduled (aboriginal) Tribes (Article 335). Similarly, to ensure adequate political representation, Scheduled Castes and Tribes were allotted reserved seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, and in state legislatures in proportion to their numbers (Article 330). These reservations were to have ended in 1960, but they have been extended by constitutional amendment at ten-year intervals.

Federalism and the Party System

Despite enormous pressures, India has been remarkably successful in accommodating cultural diversity and managing ethnic conflict through democratic institutions. This success has in large part been the product of that diversity itself, for at the national level--what Indians call "the center"--no single ethnic group can dominate. Each of the 25 states in India's federal system reflects a dominant ethnolinguistic group, but these groups are in turn divided by caste, sect, religion, and a host of socioeconomic cleavages. Federalism provides a venue, however flawed, for expressions of cultural distinctiveness, but it also serves to compartmentalize friction. The cultural conflicts of one state rarely spill over into another, and the center can thus more effectively manage and contain them.

Even as India reflects a multitude of cross-cutting identities, however, religion has the potential to shape a national majority. Political appeals on the basis of pan-Hindu identity, facilitated by modern mass communications, have begun to forge an increasingly self-conscious religious community capable of transcending its own heterogeneity. The expression of this communal awareness as Hindu nationalism poses a fundamental challenge to India as a secular state.

India's party system, like its constitutional framework, has served to sustain democratic politics and national unity, providing access to political participation for newly mobilized groups. For 41 of the 46 years since 1947, India has been governed at the center by the Indian National Congress, the party that led India to independence. For the first two decades after independence, the main arena of political competition at both national and state levels was within the Congress party, but with increasing frequency since the mid-1960's, regional parties have successfully challenged Congress's hold on various states. Then in 1977, opposition parties for the first time defeated Congress at the center.

Today there are three major forces at the center, represented by parties that at least claim to be "national" in character. The Congress, under Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, rules as a minority government sustained by its alliances with an array of minor and regional parties. The Congress draws its support widely from across the country, from all classes and groups, but a critical margin of support has traditionally come from religious minorities, notably Muslims, and from untouchables. The leading opposition party is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party of Hindu nationalism. From its base in the Hindispeaking heartland of North India, it has dramatically expanded its support by direct appeals to pan-Hindu religious sentiment. Though its strength is still concentrated in the north, the BJP has made inroads, especially among the urban middle classes, into other parts of India. 1 The third force at the center is made up of various Janata Dal (People's Party) factions that draw support principally from the rural peasant classes, mainly in North India, and the Left Front, led by the Communist Party (Marxist), the ruling party of West Bengal.

The Congress remains the only genuinely all-lndia party, for the other claimants for power at the center have bases of support that are largely confined to particular regions. Any party or coalition that wishes to rule at the national level, however, must represent a range of cultural identities. Even the BJP, in seeking to forge a Hindu nation, must cast its net broadly--though in doing so, it excludes Muslims and other minorities unwilling to subordinate their distinctive identities.

At the state level, national parties compete with those that are wholly regional in their base of support, and in a number of states, regional parties--identified with particular ethnic, linguistic, or religious groups--are the major political forces. In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, for instance, Tamil nationalist parties have ruled since 1967; in Andhra Pradesh, the Telugu Desam party is the major rival to the Congress; in the Punjab, it is the Sikh party, known as the Akali Dal; and in the Northeast, ethnically based regional parties compete with Congress in various states. Ethnically or religiously based parties serve as vehicles of regional identity within a united India, but can also threaten cultural minorities by wielding nativist appeals to local "sons of the soil" whose interests are supposedly being endangered by migrants from other parts of India or indigenous religious and linguistic minorities. Such appeals dramatically expose the tensions that lie just under the multicultural surface of Indian democracy.

Liberal democracy stands or falls according to its ability to elicit a dual commitment to both majority rule and minority rights. The legitimacy of a majority at any given time depends on the maintenance of an open marketplace of ideas, free and periodic elections through which the majority can be challenged, and guarantees of basic human rights for all. But how and in what form are minority rights to be protected? Liberal democracy is classically expressed in terms of individual rights, and the Preamble to the Indian Constitution embodies a commitment to justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity for the individual. Yet minority interests are typically expressed in terms of group identity, and political demands may call for the protection or promotion of language, religion, and culture, or of the "group" more generally, in ways that conflict not only with "the will of the majority," but with constitutional guarantees of individual rights and equal protection. This tension, and the problems it causes, can be seen in India in the contexts of: (1) ethnolinguistic regionalism and separatism; (2) caste-based reservations; and (3) secularism and Hindu-Muslim communal relations.2

Regionalism and Separatism

With independence, the old princely states were integrated into the Indian union, but the newly created federal states were linguistically and culturally heterogeneous. Long before independence, the Congress party had organized its provincial branches along linguistic lines, and demands for the reorganization of states on a linguistic basis brought the issue before the Constituent Assembly. Nehru and the Congress leadership feared that linguistic states would have a "subnational bias" that would retard national integration and unleash "fissiparous tendencies." Moreover, they argued, most states, however their boundaries might be drawn, would still have linguistic minorities. But the democratic logic behind the call for linguistic states--the notion that state administration and judicial processes should be conducted in the language of the local majority--was compelling. Political pressure for the reorganization of states ultimately proved irresistible. Beginning in 1953 with the creation of Andhra Pradesh as a Telugu-speaking state, and then in 1956, with a more general reorganization on a linguistic basis, the principle of language as the basis for state boundaries was broadly accepted.

The federal reorganization of 1956, however, did not quell demands for the creation of new states. In 1960, following widespread agitation and violence, the state of Bombay was bifurcated to form the linguistic states of Maharashtra and Gujarat; in 1966, the Sikhs secured a Punjab state; and in the following years, several tribal states were carved out of the Northeast. In 1987, India's twenty-fifth state was created as the former Portuguese colonial enclave of Goa was elevated to statehood. The pressures continue today. In the late 1980s, Nepalis in West Bengal's Darjeeling district raised the demand for a separate "Gurkhaland" state within India. After two years of violence, in which more than 300 people were killed, the Gurkha National Liberation Front accepted a proposal for what would be, in effect, an autonomous region within the state of West Bengal; lately, however, it has renewed its demand for a separate Gurkha state. The Bodo tribals of Assam have pursued a violent struggle--thus far unsuccessfully--for the creation of a separate Bodoland. More formidable is the demand by tribals in mineral-rich southern Bihar and the contiguous districts of neighboring states for a Jharkhand state. This demand has been voiced with varying intensity since 1947, but in 1992 it reemerged with new militancy, as strikes and bombings were directed to an economic blockade of the region.

The organization of states on a linguistic basis provides the framework for expanded political participation. It permits people more effective access to government--but with the drawback that their use of this access may all too often reflect the parochialism of language and region. The creation of linguistic states has reinforced regionalism and stimulated demands for increased state autonomy. India's Constitution guarantees freedom of movement with only a few qualifications, yet almost every state outside the Hindi heartland of central India has spawned a militant nativist movement directed against outsiders. The fundamental issue has been employment for local people, and many state governments, either officially or unofficially, have supported the protection of jobs for the "sons of the soil." Among the most virulent is the Shiv Sena, a regional party in Maharashtra. Exploiting local grievances and economic frustration, the Shiv Sena, under the banner "Maharashtra for the Maharashtrians," has directed both verbal and physical attacks at South Indian immigrants and Muslims.

In the Northeast, the issue for the Assamese is not only jobs, but the preservation of the Assamese language and culture in the face of a demographic shift that threatens to make the Assamese a minority in their own state. Bengalis have been migrating into Assam for more than a century, but since 1971, the influx of "foreigners" (Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh) has deepened ethnic insecurity and served as the catalyst for a movement that engulfed Assam in violence. In a six-yearlong agitation (1980-86), more than five thousand people were killed in ethnic conflict. In 1986, the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi reached a settlement with the movement leaders. By the terms of the accord, the central government promised--in addition to commitments for the deportation of illegal immigrants and enhanced economic development--to provide "legislative and administrative safeguards to protect the cultural, social, and linguistic identity and heritage" of the Assamese people.

Assam's agony did not end with the accord, which is still largely unfulfilled; like other states in the ethnically turbulent Northeast, it continues to suffer from violent convulsions. In the tribal states of Nagaland and Mizoram, India has fought against insurgency movements since 1947, and among the tribal peoples of the Northeast more generally, the aspiration for independence from India has been met by a renewed Indian determination to secure the territorial integrity of the union.

India is a federal system with a strong central government. The Constitution also lists state and concurrent powers, but provides the center with a capacity to intervene in state affairs and even to dismiss elected state governments and impose its own authority through "President's Rule." Under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1966-77; 198084), centralization of power increased dramatically, both within government and in the structure and operation of the ruling Congress party. The results were an increasing, almost pathological, imbalance in the relationship between the center and the states and growing demands for autonomy voiced by non-Hindi states. In Tamil Nadu, for example, anger at the status of Hindi as the national language was the catalyst for the rise to power of ethnoregional parties; similar discontent was seen in Andhra, resulting in the victory of the Telugu Desam party; and in West Bengal, where the Communist Party (Marxist) functions as a regional party. Most notable, however, is the Punjab, where in 1982 the Sikh-dominated Akali Dal pushed demands for greater state autonomy and Sikh militants launched a campaign of terrorism for an independent nation of Khalistan.

Punjab and Kashmir

No "ethnic" conflict in India has been more traumatic than the one involving the Punjab, "homeland" of the Sikhs, who make up some 55 to 60 percent of the local population. At least twenty thousand people have died in political violence there since 1981. The state has been under President's Rule for long periods marked by draconian methods of keeping order.3 This has nurtured mutual distrust between Hindus and Sikhs, and official actions like the army's June 1984 incursion into Amritsar's Golden Temple, the major Sikh shrine, alienated most Sikhs from the government, if not from India itself. It was in revenge for the violation of the temple that two Sikh members of her own bodyguard murdered Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in October 1984. While tensions originally developed over nonsectarian demands behind which all Punjabis, Hindu and Sikh, could rally, the Akali Dal set these issues in the context of various demands for the protection of Sikh religious interests that excluded Hindus and to which the central government, affirming its commitment to secularism, would not yield. For the militants challenging the Akali Dal for Sikh leadership, this refusal proved that the Sikh religion could be protected only by an independent, theocratic Sikh state. For the Akalis, the issue was political power; for the militants, it was (or so they claimed) Sikh identity itself and the fear of absorption into the Hindu majority.

Aggrieved though they were, most Sikhs in the Punjab opposed the idea of Khalistan, and by the late 1980s, the original political and religious goals of many terrorist gangs had been displaced by the routinization of extortion, robbery, and murder as a way of life. The people, sickened by both terrorism and police repression, were ready for a return of the political process. After 56 months of direct rule from New Delhi, state-assembly elections were held in February 1992. Under terrorist threat and Akali Dal boycott, a low voter turnout brought a Sikh-led Congress government to power. Initially enjoying little credibility, the government won increasing popular confidence, and in the village-council elections of January 1993, with terrorists quiescent, 82 percent of the electorate turned out. With the restoration of self-government and the continued police campaign against the militants, the Punjab crisis eased--though the specter of terrorism remains to haunt any return to normalcy.

In the far-northern state of Kashmir, India faces an even more serious problem. India and Pakistan have fought two wars over what was once the princedom of Jammu and Kashmir, which remains the principal source of antagonism between the two nations. For India, the state--now divided by a "line of control"--is fully a part of the Indian union; with its 65-percent Muslim population, it stands as a symbolic rebuttal to the "two nation" theory that underlay the founding of Pakistan. Moreover, India asserts that Kashmir's inclusion in India serves as a guarantor of the secular state. Pakistan, on the other hand, continues to insist that the people of Kashmir be allowed to decide by plebiscite whether to be a part of India or Pakistan--a demand that rests on the assumption that the decision would be for Pakistan. The largest number of the state's Muslims, however, would likely choose an independent Kashmir, and this has been the goal of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), albeit with comparatively little popular support before 1988.

Hindus predominate in Jammu, and Tibetan Buddhists in the sparsely populated region of Ladakh; it is only in Kashmir proper that Muslims form a majority, but at 4 million they account for but a small portion of India's more than 100 million Muslims. Under the National Conference, as the regional Muslim party of Jammu and Kashmir is called, the state had been comparatively quiet, but in the late 1980s more and more Kashmiri Muslims--increasingly alienated by fraudulent elections, widespread corruption, and the failure of the center to help their state develop economically--responded to the nationalist call for the liberation of Kashmir from "Hindu India." In 1988, the JKLF and an assortment of separatist and fundamentalist groups initiated a wave of strikes, bombings, and assassinations. Imposing President's Rule, the center responded with what Pakistan, Kashmiri Muslims, and Indian human rights advocates decried as an indiscriminate use of force, further alienating the people of Kashmir.

The principal groups involved in the Kashmir insurgency are the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which supports an independent and secular Kashmir, and the Islamic fundamentalist Hezb-ulMujahideen, which is closely linked to Pakistan's Jammiat-i-lslami party and the presumed recipient of Pakistani largess. The sources of the separatist movement are internal to Kashmir and owe their origin to years of maladministration at home and political interference from New Delhi, but the agitation has had support from within Pakistan. Some 250,000 troops of the Indian Army and paramilitary forces are deployed in Kashmir, but their inability to suppress the uprising underscores the limits of force when, as here, it is unaccompanied by a political process that effectively engages at least those few prepared to enter into dialogue. But with Kashmiri moderates so often targeted for assassination, and with a death toll of 12,000 and rising in all political violence since 1989, prospects for a settlement are dim.

India's federal system once acted to compartmentalize social unrest, with political crises often containable within a single state or region. But the centralization of power also centralized problems, bringing to the desk of the prime minister issues once resolved at the state level. The balance must be restored through a devolution of power to the states, indeed, perhaps to an increased number of states and possibly "autonomous regions" within states. But this Evolution must be accompanied by the constitutional guarantee of civil rights and liberties to ensure that all persons receive the equal protection of the law. Among the many measures proposed for redressing the balance between the center and the states, the most compelling include an end to the arbitrary dismissal of state governments and imposition of President's Rule; a more equitable sharing of revenues; and a respect by the center for spheres of public policy that are properly state concerns.4

Caste Reservations

Hindu society in India is divided by caste and subcaste in a complex hierarchy that stretches down from Brahmins to untouchables. The 1950 Constitution abolished untouchability and specified that no citizen be subject to any disability or restriction with regard to places of public use or accommodation on the basis of caste. Political representation was guaranteed for Scheduled Castes (untouchables) and Tribes through the proportionate reservation of seats in elected legislative bodies, from Parliament to village councils. But despite these various provisions and the extended protections of the Untouchability (Offenses) Act, untouchables--who today number more than 130 million--continue to suffer discrimination and deprivation. To address this situation and to overcome the cumulative results of past discrimination, the government instituted a program of "compensatory discrimination"--an Indian version of affirmative action--that reserved 22.5 percent of all central government jobs for members of Scheduled Castes and Tribes. Comparable reservations were provided for state-level employment, and reservations were extended to college and university admissions.

The system has been controversial, and many higher-caste Hindus, particularly Brahmins, who have been denied government employment or entrance into universities, feel that they have been victims of reverse discrimination. Far more controversial, however, has been the extension of reservations to "Other Backward Classes"--specific castes chosen because of their low levels of social and educational advancement. Predominantly rural, they account for a substantial portion of India's population and in many states command significant political power. In response to that power, a number of states have extended reservations in university admissions and government employment to them.

In 1980, the Backward Classes Commission, chaired by B.P. Mandal--a former chief minister of Bihar state and himself a member of a backward caste--recommended the reservation of 27 percent of all central government jobs for the backward classes in addition to the 22.5 percent already reserved for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. The 3,743 castes and subcastes identified as beneficiaries make up 52 percent of the Indian population. The report gathered dust for a decade, but in 1990, then-Prime Minister V.P. Singh announced that his Janata Dal government would implement the Mandal recommendations. The decision brought widespread criticism from the press and strong opposition from higher castes, especially students. In New Delhi and other cities in the north of India, violent protests (including self-immolations) and shootings by police raised the specter of "caste war."

Singh declared the reservations a matter of social justice, but to his political opponents, it was seen as a cynical political move to shore up his threatened base of support among the backward peasant castes. Given the numbers involved, however, no political party could oppose the reservations outright, although the left argued for reservations based on income and educational criteria rather than upon caste. Implementation was stayed by the Supreme Court, pending a ruling on the constitutionality of the measure. Returned to power in 1991, the Congress party under Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao sought to mollify opposition to the reservations by adding a 10-percent reservation for the poor of the higher castes. In November 1992, the Supreme Court upheld the reservation for backward castes, with the provision that it be need-based, but struck down the additional 10 percent as constitutionally impermissible. The complexities of the court decision effectively preclude implementation of the reservation, but the controversy has sharpened caste enmities.

Rather than leading India toward a "casteless" society, the policy of reservation has reinforced caste identities. Reservations for untouchables may indeed be compelling because it is precisely their caste identity that has been the source of stigma and discrimination, but in using caste rather than individual need as the criterion for benefits, their identity as untouchables is officially sanctioned. Moreover, the dilemma is manifest in that all untouchables do not benefit equally. Reservations go disproportionately to the more "advanced" among the untouchables, while those most in need remain effectively excluded.

The "backward" castes share with the untouchables a comparatively low level of educational and social advancement, but their position is not the result of discrimination based on caste, nor do they suffer the stigma and disabilities associated with untouchability. And for all their "backwardness" as a group, they command considerable political power and, as peasants, many among them enjoy increasing prosperity. It is thus very hard to justify reservations for the backward castes: the appropriate response is to individual need and merit, not group identity.

Hindu-Muslim Conflict

India may be an officially secular state, but Indian society is defined by religious identities and riven by communal mistrust and hatreds. In India, the term "communal" refers principally to Hindu-Muslim conflict, and with memories of partition still bitterly nurtured, Hindu-Muslim tensions are sustained by jealousy and fear. Each year several hundred incidents of communal violence and rioting are officially reported, and their number and intensity have grown in recent years. In December 1992, following the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya by Hindu fanatics, rioting across the country left some 1,200 persons dead. In January 1993, Bombay witnessed a nine-day anti-Muslim pogrom that left more than six hundred people dead.

Since the early 1980s, the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in India has spurred a heightened Hindu consciousness and led Hindu nationalists to project India's 83-percent Hindu majority as threatened. Hindu nationalism has its roots in the late nineteenth century and is today represented by an increasingly formidable range of organizations and parties--the powerful paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), its revivalist affiliate Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the leading opposition political party with ambitions to take control of the central government. With visions of a revitalized Hindu India, they portray India's secularism as no more than a pretext for the "pampering" of religious minorities.

Secularism in India does not erect a "wall of separation" between church and state, but rather seeks to recognize and foster all religious communities. The Constitution guarantees freedom of worship and the right of each religious group to establish and administer its own schools and to maintain its distinct traditions. But in India, as in the United States, the form and degree of state accommodation of religious practice have been matters of controversy. At issue is the appropriate democratic balance between majority preference and minority protection.

In the wake of partition and the heightened insecurity of India's remaining Muslim population, the Congress government under Nehru permitted Muslims to retain their personal law (governing such matters as marriage, divorce, and inheritance) while amalgamating other Indians under a uniform civil code. For Hindu nationalists, who would recognize no exceptions, this smacked of a "pseudosecularism" that privileged Muslims over Hindus. The issue was dramatically confronted in the 1985 Shah Bano case. The Supreme Court had ruled in favor of a 73-year-old woman, Shah Bano, divorced after 43 years of marriage by her husband in the traditional Muslim manner, and awarded her a monthly maintenance from her husband, where Muslim personal law would have required none. Muslim clerics, with the cry of "Islam in danger," rallied Muslims to the cause and warned that imposition of a uniform civil code would deny them the right to follow the injunctions of their faith.

In an attempt to stem the loss of Muslim support from the Congress party, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (initially favorable to the judgment) announced support for the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill that would remove Muslim divorce from provisions of law and, in effect, scuttle the Supreme Court decision. Though welcomed by traditional Muslims, the bill came under immediate attack by progressive Muslims, women, secularists, and Hindu chauvinists. Hindus are not disadvantaged by the application of Muslim personal law, although Muslim women may surely enjoy fewer rights than their Hindu sisters. But this was not a human rights issue for Hindu nationalists, to whom the government's response to the Shah Bano case simply demonstrated the appeasement of minorities they had long denounced. In pandering to Muslims, Hindu nationalists declared, the Congress party had sold out the Hindus and their birthright as rulers of India.

Hindu nationalists project a mythic Hindu majority that denies the diversity that makes Hinduism--and India--what it is. They have invented a muscular Hinduism that would, through the state, impose a conformity as oppressive to the individual Hindu as to the recalcitrant minority. Religion, for the Hindu nationalists, is the vehicle by which they seek to achieve political power and restore Ram-rajya, the ideal rule of the mythic age of Lord Ram. The conceptual catalyst is Hindutva ("Hinduness") a term that embodies the notion that all Indians--including Muslims--are part of a Hindu nation and that Ram and the gods and heroes of Hindu mythology are part of their patrimony. Those unwilling to accept Hindutva are thus not just apostates but traitors.

The god Ram is the potent symbol that Hindu nationalists have chosen to weld Hindus, disparate in their profusion of sects and traditions, into a self-conscious community. The city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh is the presumed birthplace of Lord Ram, and devotees assert that in the sixteenth century the Mogul emperor Babur destroyed the temple marking the birthplace and in its place constructed a mosque, the Babri Masjid. In 1989, efforts by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other Hindu revivalist groups to demolish the Babri Masjid and "to recapture injured Hindu pride" through the construction of a new temple of Ram precipitated what was up to that time probably the most serious Hindu-Muslim rioting since partition in 1947. In 1990, to galvanize Hindu sentiment behind the BJP, party president L.K. Advani launched his rath yatra (chariot pilgrimage), a 10,000-kilometer journey in a van fashioned to look like a mythological chariot across the heart of North India to Ayodhya to launch the construction of the new temple. Prime Minister V.P. Singh, invoking the principles of secularism, warned that the mosque would be protected "at all costs." As Advani and other BJP leaders approached Ayodhya, they were arrested. The BJP, in turn, withdrew its parliamentary support from the minority Singh government, and after an unprecedented 346-to-142 vote of no-confidence on November 5, the prime minister submitted his resignation.

In the fall of 1992, the VHP and BJP vowed that on December 6, they would begin building a new temple at the sacred site. More than 200,000 Hindu militants converged on Ayodhya and at the appointed hour stormed through the police barricades and demolished the Muslim shrine. The police and paramilitary guarding the mosque offered little resistance. In face of the action and subsequent rioting, the Congress government of P.V. Narasimha Rao seemed paralyzed; when the prime minister finally did act, he dismissed the BJP government of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, and imposed President's Rule. A week later, the governments of the remaining three BJP-ruled states were dismissed. Advani and other Hindu-nationalist leaders were arrested and charged with inciting the militants. The central government also announced two-year bans on three Hindu communal organizations--the RSS, VHP, and the fascistic Bajrang Dal--as well as two Muslim fundamentalist groups. The president of the VHP vowed that any government efforts to impede the construction of the new Ram temple would result in "a confrontation of unimaginable magnitude."

As Hindu-Muslim antipathies intensify, India's secularism finds itself increasingly challenged at every level of society, from the drawing rooms of New Delhi intellectuals and the rising urban "consumer" middle class to the ranks of saffron-clad VHP militants and the armed thugs of the Bajrang Dal and the Shiv Sena. The challenge is to India as a secular state and to its capacity to secure democracy, justice, and equality in a multicultural society.

Majority Rule and Minority Rights

India's experience enables us to draw some conclusions about the democratic management of ethnic and religious conflict:

* Democratic conflict management requires a substantive distribution of power between the center and the periphery and among the various groups within the country. A balance must be maintained between steps taken to check tendencies toward the over centralization of political power and steps taken to contain the centrifugal forces that can rip apart a multicultural state.

* There is also a tension between the liberal emphasis on individual rights and the assertion of group rights and identity, and the democratic polity must find its way toward balance here as well.

* Historically, problems of ethnic and religious conflict in India have eased when political and group leaders have sought to deal with them through accommodation, bargaining, and the political process, and particularly when the center has sought accommodation with minority groups. Problems tend to get worse when the center intervenes directly to impose an outcome on a group or region asserting its independent interests and identity. Force alone has been unable to overcome separatist tendencies; if it is to be successfully applied, it must be accompanied by political dialogue and accommodation.

In every democracy, there is necessarily a tension between majority rule and minority rights, yet the two are by the same token inextricably bound together. Indeed, democracy is sustained because there is no single, monolithic, and permanent majority, but rather a shifting series of ruling coalitions made up of minorities. The minorities may reflect the cross-cutting social cleavages and overlapping memberships that characterize the idealized model of democratic pluralism, or else may form a mosaic of distinct groups that define their identity in terms of one or more attributes like religion, language, or caste. In either event, there must be an underlying political culture of mutual respect and trust or, at a minimum, a basic agreement on the rules of the political game among the various groups themselves. Lacking such a consensus, one group, or perhaps a coalition, may seek power and domination over others; if the center cannot hold, the society may find itself torn apart by war and secession.

In India, in a political culture of mutual distrust and increasing violence, the dangers are legion. India's democracy is challenged by communalism, excessive caste consciousness, and separatism. But in the state response to these challenges, India confronts yet another dilemma--weakening the very values of individual liberty that are at the core of its democratic commitment. In its attempts to quell endemic unrest and the challenge of terrorism, India has enacted a plethora of laws that have become instruments of repression; police and paramilitary abuses seem to get worse while all sorts of other violations of human rights are reported with numbing frequency. But for all the challenges, pressures, and dilemmas to which India is exposed by virtue of its plight as a multicultural state, Indian democracy, sustained through ten elections, still shows remarkable strength and resilience.


1. The growth of the BJP is reflected in its increase in seats in the Lok Sabha, India's lower house of Parliament--from 2 seats won in 1984 (7.4 percent of the vote) to 85 seats (11.4 percent) in 1989, and, contesting twice as many seats as in earlier elections, 119 seats (21 percent) in t991.

2. For an extended discussion of these issue areas, with extensive bibliographic references, see Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr. and Stanley A. Kochanek, India: Government and Politics in a Developing Nation, 5th ed. (Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993), especially ch. 4, "The Challenge of Federalism," 125-66, and ch. 5, "Arenas of Conflict: Groups in Indian Politics," 167-215.

3. Provisions for designated "disturbed areas X permit arrest and detention without trial for as long as two years; secret trials by special tribunals; and wide powers of censorship. For a discussion of the array of such laws, see ibid., 209-12.

4. The 1988 Sarkaria Commission Report on Center-State Relations made a number of recommendations that would enhance "cooperative federalism," but its measured proposals have been largely ignored.