India's recent election provides it with a critical opportunity to reassess its national identity and pull back from the Hindu nationalism that has sharpened religious divisions between the nation's roughly 820 million Hindus and 140 million Muslims.
By returning the secular Congress Party to power, voters rejected the idea of their country as an exclusionary state, one that marginalizes individuals of a particular creed or ethnicity. Voters instead gave the Congress Party a chance to strengthen a vision for India as a mosaic of different religions and ethnicities.
Voters also gave India — already a model of democracy for the developing world — a chance to serve as a model of religious tolerance to nations torn by religious strife by doing more to separate national identity from religious identity.
For more than a half century, India has been governed under a secular constitution, and relations between Hindus and Muslims within the country have remained largely peaceful — even while India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan have waged wars against each other.
But India took a turn away from secularism when a government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, took power in 1998. Hindu nationalists who believe that India should embrace an identity firmly anchored in the Hindu religion formed a significant support base for the BJP. The more radical among the Hindu nationalists promoted the destruction of mosques, as well as violence against Muslims and Christians.
Two years ago the rising tensions led to large-scale violence that marred India's record as a secular democracy. A group of Muslims set fire to a train of Hindus in the state of Gujarat, leading to riots in which more than 2,000 Muslims were killed. In subsequent months, the BJP-led government of Gujarat failed to bring justice to the perpetrators of the carnage.
The situation deteriorated as disenchanted Muslims began to take justice into their own hands, conducting massive terrorist attacks in Mumbai last August that killed more than 50 people and left more than 150 injured in retaliation for the violence in Gujarat. The escalating violence was a disturbing warning that Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism could grow inside India, threatening national stability.
The election of the Congress Party to replace the BJP in leading India will enable the new prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to ease tensions between Hindus and Muslims and turn away from the ugly religious violence that occurred on the watch of the BJP.
Singh, who is a Sikh and India's first non-Hindu to become prime minister, clearly signaled his desire to improve relations among all Indian groups when he said May 20 that "communal harmony must be strengthened at any cost." He added that "if the effort to divide the country on the lines of caste and religion continues then the country's unity is in danger."
The Congress Party can begin unifying the country by fairly implementing the secular laws set forth in the Indian Constitution that protect the lives and rights of minorities. Bringing individuals charged with violence against both Muslims and Hindus to trial is key, as the rule of law is the basis for stability in any country.
The new government also can ensure that school textbooks present history in a balanced way. The textbook changes and other actions by the Hindu nationalists helped polarize Indian society and fanned religious divisions that pitted Indian against Indian.
In addition, the Congress Party can put a greater priority on improving and expanding primary and secondary schools that educate Muslim and Hindu children together, giving the children the opportunity to grow up with a greater understanding of those from a different religion. Lack of adequate funding for public schools has prompted many Muslim parents to enroll their children in Muslim religious schools, reducing the number of Muslim youngsters in public schools.
Today India stands at a crossroads as a country with incredible economic and intellectual potential. It will be an increasingly influential player in Asia's future and as such will need to define its identity carefully.
Religious chauvinism weakens the ties that bind the people of the world's second most populous country into a single nation. A flexible democratic system where people of all religions enjoy the full rights of citizenship and respect for their heritage provides the strong political definition of identity that can help bring Indians from many diverse backgrounds closer together.
Lal is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune on May 27, 2004. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.