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U.S. Policy Should Acknowledge Hindu Nationalism
By Sarita Sarvate

Sarita Sarvate is a writer for India Currents and other publications, and a contributing editor to Pacific News Service, from which this piece originated.

March 6, 2002


LONG MARGINALIZED, Hindu nationalism is becoming mainstream in India.

The recent burning of an Indian train headed for Ayodhya, the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram, has once more flared Hindu sentiments in the subcontinent.

During a recent visit, I found liberals and intellectuals, jet-setters and slum dwellers, men and women, Brahmins and untouchables expressing this Hindu pride.

I think it is history's revenge for a land that was subjugated by foreigners for more than a thousand years.

It was Mahmud of Ghazni from Afghanistan who first came roaring through the Khyber Pass around 1000 A.D. to destroy the magnificent Hindu temple at Somnath. These early Muslim rulers of India were soon followed by other dynasties, all with connections to Afghanistan.

Because of its polytheistic, pacifist and non- proselytizing nature, Hinduism became vulnerable to the coming of Islam. Muslims ruled India until the 1600s, when the British took over.

Hindutva, or the Hindu fundamentalist movement, originally began in the back alleys of my hometown of Nagpur in 1925, in the wake of India's struggle for freedom from British rule. Through the recitation of stories of native heroes like Shivaji, who had successfully fought guerrilla warfare against the Mughal despot Aurangzeb, the movement strove to incite nationalistic pride in a people who had lost their identity.

The 1947 partition of the country at independence from Britain created deeper wounds in the Hindu psyche. Later, America's support for military dictatorships in Pakistan and the simultaneous marginalizing of India, the world's largest democracy, kept the Hindutva movement alive.

Now, the war on terrorism has opened these 1,000-year-old wounds once again. Indians, who were hoping for strong American rhetoric against Taliban-incited terrorism in Kashmir in the wake of Sept. 11, were sorely disappointed. Many Hindus today believe that U.S. concern for victims of terrorism is limited only to its citizens, and does not extend to innocent Indians.

Most Indians I spoke to clearly believe that Kashmir - a majority-Muslim region between India and Pakistan - belongs to India.

This nationalistic pride was revealed to me when a Bengali friend - who hails from a cosmopolitan and Westernized family and whom I had always looked up to during my formative years for guidance on American literature, art, music and pop culture - told me about a recent pilgrimage she had undertaken to the holy city of Varanasi. As she was bathing in the waters of the Ganges, she said, what struck her was not the spectacle of hundreds of little Hindu temples dotting the river bank, but the shadow of the enormous mosque built by Aurangzeb still towering over the holy site.

In that instance, I realized that what Hindus need today from the international community is an acknowledgment of the legitimacy of Hindu nationalism in a historical context. Such understanding is essential for any agreement on Kashmir that will pass muster with Indians.

Indeed, more than 50 years after independence from Britain, many Indians invoke memories of past invasions so that future generations will not be too pacifistic.

"You can turn the other cheek for only so long," a female friend commented during my visit. "Sometimes you have to show the world that you are proud."

Educated women seem to be on the forefront of the Hindu nationalistic movement today. Many now join peasants in their annual trek to the Kumbh Mela and other spiritual gatherings.

Unless future American foreign policy takes Hindu nationalism into account, violence in the subcontinent may well escalate, and might lead to a military, even a nuclear, conflict.

Standing in the visa line at the Indian Consulate in San Francisco recently, I noticed the large picture of the Taj Mahal covering an entire wall. "Isn't it ironic," I said to a friend, "that the one icon most people identify with India happens to be a Muslim tomb?"

"I wish they would use a picture of the Minakshi Temple instead," she replied. The temple is Hindu.

And then we both fell silent, surprised by our own non-secular sentiments.

But such sentiments are not uncommon among Indian immigrants, many of whom believe that America needs to take a more favorable stance with regard to India, the world's largest democracy, vis-a-vis Pakistan, a military dictatorship harboring Taliban terrorists.




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