India Struggles to Find Ethnic and Religious Tolerance

October 29, 2008

Author: Staff Writer

Source: International Herald Tribune

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 Thackeray on bail, setting off a rampage in the northern state of Bihar, the source of the migrants attacked by 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 Thackeray's home state, Maharashtra, 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 attributed largely to 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."