In World’s Largest Democracy, Tolerance Is a Weak Pillar

By SOMINI SENGUPTA, Published: New York Times, October 28, 2008

NEW DELHI — With national elections only months away, India is reeling from a rash of spiteful religious and ethnic clashes, prompting many in this country to ask why their vibrant, pluralistic democracy tends to encourage, rather than avert, the cruelty of neighbor against neighbor.

Tensions are growing in several corners of the country. The latest dispute was set off in Mumbai last week, when an upstart nativist party claiming to represent Marathas, the dominant ethnic group in the state, pounced on Indians who had come from elsewhere to apply for jobs at Indian Railways.

The party, which calls itself Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (roughly, the Army for the Reconstruction of Maharashtra) and has in recent months attacked northern migrants to Mumbai, wants those jobs to be set aside for local residents. On Oct. 21, the police arrested the party leader, Raj Thackeray, on a charge of inciting riots, after which his supporters went on a rampage across the city and its suburbs. Much of Mumbai was shut down.

A day later, a local court released Mr. Thackeray on bail, setting off a rampage in the northern state of Bihar, the source of the migrants attacked by Mr. Thackeray’s disciples. Protesters blocked trains, wrecked railroad stations and stranded passengers there and in several other parts of northern India.

Meanwhile, violence between Hindus and Muslims erupted elsewhere in Mr. Thackeray’s Maharashtra State, and spread south to the state of Andhra Pradesh, where a Muslim family of six was burned to death in their home in mid-October.

Clashes between Hindus and Christians continued to sweep through eastern Orissa State. In northeastern Assam State, indigenous Bodos fought with Bengali-speaking Muslims, leaving more than 50 people dead.

All the while, Indian cities remained skittish after a spate of terrorist attacks blamed largely on Islamic militants. Other factors include the longstanding Kashmir insurgency in the north and Maoist guerrillas across central India.

The Hindustan Times recently carried a map of India, splattered with red stains to mark current trouble spots. Many more would have to be added in the two weeks since the map was published. In mid-October, speaking to the wishfully named National Integration Council, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the rash of violence “an assault on our composite culture.”

He added, “An atmosphere of hatred and violence is being artificially generated.”

How can the world’s largest democracy fail to prevent such a fury of intolerance?

Ashis Nandy, a political psychologist and social critic, said that India was a democracy in a far more limited sense than many Indians cared to recognize. In spite of its lively and largely transparent elections, he said, some of the other basic pillars of democracy, including tolerance and respect for the rule of law, were fragile at best.

Perhaps, he went on to suggest, India was gradually becoming less democratic, as a variety of small, factionalized political parties vied to mobilize their caste and ethnic constituencies. National elections are expected to be held next spring, and five state elections are scheduled for November.

“Some amount of virulent, strident rhetoric, as well as violence, is becoming a deepening part of the democratic culture,” Mr. Nandy said. He described it as an inevitable danger of all large, pluralistic democracies. After all, he said, the Ku Klux Klan survives in the United States. And look at the increasingly aggressive campaign messages in the American presidential race, Mr. Nandy said.

Amartya Sen, the Indian-born Nobel Prize-winning economist who argued convincingly for the ability of democracies to prevent famine, acknowledged that those same states, including India, were far less effective at preventing sectarian strife.

In the case of hunger, a lively public debate can quickly generate enough political capital to prevent famine. Stopping demagogues from fanning hostility is another matter, he said. Just having a democratically elected government, he said, is insufficient.

“The role of democracy in preventing community-based violence depends on the ability of universalist political processes to subdue the poisonous fanaticism of divisive communal thinking,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “Much will depend on the vigor of democratic politics, not just the existence of democratic institutions.”

Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said India’s leaders had become so focused on wooing votes for the next elections that they were losing sight of how to protect citizens, regardless of which caste or community they belonged to. “Religion is important,” he said. “Caste is important. Of course it’s important, but so long as it does not offend the basic principle of citizenship. In India, we have forgotten it.”

The unrest has cast a pall over October, a holy month for Hindus and Muslims alike.

As Tuesday’s observance of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights and gift-giving approached in recent days, markets and temples were guarded by a phalanx of police officers and metal detectors. Islam’s holiest festival, Id al-Fitr, passed somberly earlier this month, after a spate of terrorist attacks across India for which Islamic militants were largely blamed. Then, in mid-October, closed-circuit cameras kept a watchful eye over Ramlila, the epic play of good and evil re-enacted every year from the pages of Hindu mythology.

One of the most celebrated Ramlila pageants happens each year in the 15th-century walled city of Delhi, on lawns pressed hard against the Mughal era Red Fort. This year, attendance was visibly lighter and the organizers, for the first time, had arranged for a live Webcast of the play for those who were nervous about coming to a crowded fairground.

Unfolding over 10 days, Ramlila pits the clever demon Ravana — so smart that he has 10 heads — against the virtuous Ram. This evening, even Ram, played by a  rofessional model named Honey Sawhney, 20, had to walk through a metal detector at the gates of the fairground.

Vivek Gautam, known as Vicky, this evening’s Ravana, sat on a chair with his legs splayed, his hirsute and heavy girth pouring over a shimmering black nylon dhoti at his waist. He ruminated over the troubles of the times, saying it was in keeping with what Hindu legend called the Kalayuga, or the dark age.

“It is just the start of the Kalayuga,” he warned. “Once it reaches its climax you cannot imagine what it will be like. There will be no friendships, no relationships, not even between fathers and sons, only crime.”

Ravana’s cellphone trilled. As for the strife now erupting across his country, he said cryptically, “Our own people are betraying us.

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