Sunday, May 4, 2014

Hindu-Muslim Tension is Not Disappearing in India

As India's month-long election season comes to a close, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Prime Minsterial candidate, Narendra Modi, will assume a significantly larger role in Indian politics. Several weeks ago, I talked about the elections and about Modi, who I personally see as a good catalyst for change in a country that has in recent years suffered from severe infrastructural problems, a lagging economy, and myriad other issues. Once seen as a cornerstone of the BRIC nations and a rising power in the global arena, India certainly needs a forward-thinking leader who will focus more on these problems while also weeding out political corruption that has hindered improvements in the past. Modi could absolutely be that leader.

The election season has brought to light other unpleasantries, though, and raised questions about India's future that have been pushed out of view by these more glaring problems - most notably its immigrant population and the unrest that stems from it. In the past week, there have been at least 31 deaths due to sectarian violence that has almost directly been caused by the elections. Over the weekend, nine more deaths were reported in the northeastern region of Assam. The unifying factor in these deaths is that the majority of the victims are Muslim, a pattern that may not bode well for Modi.

India is an incredibly fractured country, comprised of 28 different states, seven union territories, and where there are currently 22 different official languages (and many, many others that are spoken in various regions). However, just about 80% of the 1.2 billion citizens practice the hindu religion, somewhat of a uniting quality. And the issue of Hindu-Muslim tensions has existed since the establishment of the country itself.

Narendra Modi has come out in support of sending illegal immigrants back to their respective countries, suggesting that illegals from Bangladesh should "have their bags packed" should he be elected. This is not something unique to India - here in the U.S. lawmakers have grappled with immigration policy for decades. And on the surface it does seem reasonable. Further, given the fact that many of the immigrants coming west from Pakistan and east from Bangladesh are Muslim, perhaps cracking down in illegal immigration will help stanch the hostility towards Muslims who are legal Indian citizens.

Slightly outdated Gallop poll observing upward trend in opinion about increase in Hindu-Muslim tension

However, Modi has an interesting history when it comes towards the issue. He was the head of the state of Gujarat, a northwestern state bordering Pakistan, in 2002, when over 1,000 people were killed in an ethnic cleansing of Muslims that took place in the region. Since then, he has been widely criticized for his handling of the situation, in which very little seems to have been done on the part of the government. That legacy follows him to this very day, as he approaches election, and could seriously hinder his ability to adequately address what is not just an issue in Gujarat, but all over India.

I am still very supportive of Modi, and, to a greater extent, the progressive BJP party on whose slate he is running. However, it is apparent that there is no perfect answer to India's problems. Ameliorating economic malaise and hampering political corruption works so long as it does not take the center stage and leave other equally important issues on the back burner. Modi - and the BJP - must work hard to ensure that equality and tolerance are pervasive throughout the culture if they expect to see any other aspect more forward-thinking agenda become reality.

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