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The Color of Intolerance

Will Hindu nationalists gain power in India's election?

12:00 AM, May 15, 2009 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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India's constitution explicitly rejects Hindutva ideology. It describes the nation as a "socialist secular democratic republic" and offers clear provisions for religious freedom. Article 25, for example, protects "the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion." The country's penal code criminalizes "deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs." Nevertheless, the laws are being ignored by national and local officials. Human rights advocates increasingly complain of police complicity in BJP states, where Hindutva sympathies have taken hold.

It would be a mistake, these observers say, to regard the latest violence as the product of "ethnic tensions" or inherent animosity between Hindus and Christians. Prominent Hindus committed to a multi-faith society are vocal critics of the violence--and often themselves threatened with reprisals. Rather, it results from a campaign of sectarian bigotry, inflamed by anti-conversion laws and assisted by government complicity. Thus the election results in India--a nation in which half of its 714 million registered voters went to the polls--are not merely about rival political parties. They involve competing moral visions: a liberal democracy that upholds pluralism and equal rights, or a thuggish religious nationalism that punishes nonconformity and tramples fundamental freedoms.

On a recent trip to the Kandhamal district in Orissa, David Griffiths met two victims of the Hindutva version of Indian society. They were widows, both with young children, whose husbands had been murdered by extremists. One was buried alive and the other beaten to death with iron rods and axes. They had lived under the shadow of the saffron flag. "All they ever wanted," he told me, "was to live in peace."

Joseph Loconte is a senior research fellow at The King's College in New York City and is a contributor to the forthcoming book, Christianity and Human Rights: Christians and the Struggle for Global Justice.