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Does India need more religious tolerance?

India is known as one of the most diverse countries in the world, in terms of its weather, its wealth and its people. With a population of over 1 billion, India is one of the most heavily populated countries in the world. The 2001 census indicated that all major religions are represented, with the majority following Hinduism: Hindu 80.5%, Muslim 13.4%, Christian 2.3%, Sikh 1.9%, other 1.8%, unspecified 0.1%. Despite its mix of different religious groups and traditions, Indians have generally enjoyed a healthy, tolerant society. But recently cracks have begun to appear in the tolerance of the population, with religion one of the divisive factors – and the authorities are turning a blind eye.

India has a secularist constitution. It does not have a state religion but promotes religious tolerance in its constitution. All the laws of the country are required to be compatible with this constitution, and the system of government. However, all societies are constantly in the process of change.

Owing partly to the continued hostilities between India and Pakistan on the basis of religion since the foundation of these two countries in 1947, secularism is severely challenged in India. The division between the two religions has never healed. The air of suspicion continues in India. Hindus consider that India was bifurcated due to the adamant attitude of Muslim leadership. Even after 60 years of existence, the fissures are still evident, rather growing. With growth of terrorism in the country, the air of suspicion is still increasing.

The Congress party blames its main rival, the BJP, for deepening Muslim alienation from the Indian state and for the flow of Muslim youth to extremist outfits. It has a point. The destruction of the Babri Masjid by the BJP and its fraternal outfits in 1993 and the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 have provided a boost to Islamic extremism in India. The word "Ayodhya'' in Sanskrit means "a place where there will be no fight at all''. It is an irony that this very place has now become a controversial one, threatening to bring about the opposite of "Ayodhya'' in the whole of this country!

But the Congress is no less guilty. In 1984, mobs led by Congress leaders massacred nearly 3000 Sikhs in Delhi. The Congress Party has always been committed to secularism but its vote base has become increasingly dependent on that of minorities - Dalits, Muslims, Scheduled castes, Christians etc. - who feel increasingly oppressed by the aggressive fascistic stance of the caste Hindu majority. The caste Hindu majority feel justified in this stance as they feel that in the attempt to build secularism in India, the needs of the majority have been left out over the more than half century since Independence in 1947.

There have been similar violent riots between Hindus and Christians after tensions rose to the surface after simmering for a long time. Violent mobs set fire to places of worship in Orissa and even blocked the road to prevent police reaching the troubled areas. People blame some of this on the aggressive evangelising of (Christian) missionaries from outside the region. A fresh spurt in attack on churches was seen in Karnataka after BJP was voted to power. Recently Human Rights Watch urged the Indian government to take urgent action to end the communal violence between Christians and Hindus: "For several years, extremist Hindu groups have been conducting an anti-Christian campaign that has grown violent at times, while government officials have looked the other way."

What ensures that secularism remains the only viable rational option is that India is a multi-faith, multilingual country. Abandonment of secularism can only lead to more conflict and suffering for its people. Ending this violence is the responsibility of all the religious leaders and the government and they all need to work towards a peaceful solution. While the religions have long had an intolerant attitude toward each other, they now need to return to their religious teachings and methods of reconciliation, otherwise their country will crumble. The survival of secularism in India depends on how successfully we set up systems of cooperation within ourselves.

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Maria Alby