Leading Article: India's secularism at risk

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The Independent Online
INDIA is a secular state in which a great many very religious people live: the vast majority Hindu but with a minority of more than 100 million Muslims sprinkled across the country. Intercommunal violence has been frequent and bloody. Politicians who appeal to the emotions of either camp know what they are doing. Yet the political rewards for feeding latent passions have been temptingly high. To the Hindu militants of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), a 16th-century Muslim mosque at Ayodhya allegedly built on the birthplace of a Hindu god seemed to hold the key to power in New Delhi. In the 1989 election a promise by its leader, Lal Krishna Advani, to raise a Hindu temple on the site helped to project the BJP from obscurity to 86 seats in parliament.

That campaign, cynically continued even though it had caused the deaths of more than 2,000 people, culminated in Sunday's destruction of the mosque by a huge crowd of fanatics. The inevitable aftermath has been a dreadful and rising toll of dead and injured in communal riots across the country. No one can tell whether the present weak leadership of the ruling Congress (I) party will be able to contain the violence.

The BJP wants to convert India into a Hindu state. Yet it is secularism that has saved the world's largest democracy from self-destruction since independence and partition in 1947. The other two pillars of the post-independence era were non-alignment and a planned economy. Both of these have become victims of history. The old bipolar world of the Cold War vanished with the expiry of Soviet-style Communism, depriving non-alignment of all logic. Equally, state- planned economies have been shown to be unable to deliver the goods.

The present government, indecisive though it has been on crucial issues such as the future of Kashmir, has done good work in lifting many of the licences and permits that were strangling business and industry in a web of bureaucracy and corruption. In that respect, India seemed to be attempting to come to terms, however belatedly, with the modern world and with foreign competition. Nothing is more certain to set back that process than a prolonged outbreak of communal violence. Its effect can only be to shatter the confidence of businessmen and investors, poison the collective memory with further hatred, and drive the best educated abroad.

The tragedy of India is that a combination of social and political factors, notably the caste system and outmoded economic theories, have held back a naturally entrepreneurial and resilient people. Like the Chinese, the Indians often show their true potential only when abroad. Yet even in Communist China, where free enterprise has been unleashed in the countryside and in special enterprise zones over the past decade, economic growth has been significantly faster.

India's history of conquest, invasion and - in the Mogul era - of forcible conversion to Islam has left a more complex legacy. Yet while Pakistan succumbed regularly to military dictatorship, India defied the odds and remained a democracy. Its problems were out in the open, not suppressed as in the former Soviet Union. It would be tragic if, as in countries emerging from the long Communist night, the demons of the past were now to destroy that achievement.