The Asian Wall Street Journal Europe on March 20, 2001.

The BJP vs. History

By Salil Tripathi. Mr. Tripathi, a London-based writer, was formerly economics correspondent for The Far Eastern Economic Review in Singapore.
Among the loudest critics of the Taliban after they destroyed with military precision the centuries-old Buddhas of Bamiyan was neighboring India. Recalling the syncretic Gandhara, or Indo-Greek tradition, Indian leaders offered to move the sculptures physically to India, if that were humanly possible.
This gesture would have been more meaningful if the Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which leads India's ruling coalition, had a clear record of celebrating the nation's own cultural diversity. But neither the BJP nor its coalition partner Shiv Sena, a powerful force in the commercial capital of Bombay, have shown tolerance and appreciation for traditions other than their own on their own home turf.

In fact, Taliban officials were quick to point out that the BJP led the 1992 assault on Babri Masjid, a disused and controversial 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya. India's current home minister, L.K. Advani, then in opposition, was seen on TV smiling benignly while gangs of Hindu nationalists stormed and destroyed the mosque. That vandalism unleashed a wave of terror that left thousands dead in its wake.

With Brahminical sophistry, BJP leaders insisted such comparisons to the Taliban were odious. Babar, the founder of the Moghul dynasty, had built the Ayodhya mosque and he was an invader, so retribution was inevitable, they argued, whereas the Bamiyan Buddhas were built by Afghans during their pre-Islamic past. Indians were right, the Afghans wrong, a senior cabinet minister said. It was this same kind of intolerance for alternate viewpoints that was partly responsible for Buddhism's disappearance from India centuries ago.

One of the great successes of the BJP has been its ability to repackage itself as a reasonable, right-of-center party. The moderate appeal of avuncular Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who established a rapport with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, together with international recognition of India's strength in high-tech industries and strategic importance as a nuclear power, have helped the government appear modern and ready to assume responsibility as a world power.

But the BJP derives its philosophy from the ideologues of India's Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh -- National Voluntary Organization--which has a very different agenda. The ultra-nationalist group yearns for Ram Rajya, or the reign of the mythical Lord Rama, whose social code is in tune with pre-historic times, not the 21st century. The RSS calls this Hinduttva -- a purer, simpler narrow nationalist Hindu India. It rails against modernity and Westernization, resents foreign influence, and targets any manifestations of that influence, from investment to films.

While the Shiv Sena has no direct links with the RSS, it appeared to hijack the RSS agenda last
month when its Hindu activists went on a rampage in Bombay, opposing the celebration of Valentine's Day. The party took a dim view of young people in love expressing their affection with chocolates, greeting cards and flowers, terming such practices "alien."

The war against Western culture is also being waged by Sushma Swaraj, the schoolmarmish minister of information and broadcasting. Earlier this month, Ms. Swaraj threatened to ban Fashion TV, a French cable channel which telecasts fashion shows to an international audience of 550 million, 90 million of whom are Indian. Fashion TV soared to popularity on the subcontinent partly because India's own fashion industry is taking off, but it got a big boost from the country's astonishing streak of successes in the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants.

Ms. Swaraj described some of the haute couture FTV fashion shows featuring scantily clad models as "contrary to Indian sensibilities." Perhaps she is too busy to see Hindi films from Bollywood in which some women wearing tight, handkerchief-sized dresses gyrate to pulsating music, leaving little to the imagination. In fact, many of the FTV models wear more clothes than the women adorning the erotic Hindu sculptures of Khajuraho. Not to mention the naked sadhus, or ascetic men, at the recently-concluded Kumbh Mela, a massive, month-long Hindu festival gathering. Interestingly, when a Western tourist at the Kumbh Mela decided to take off her clothes and smear her body with ash, a la the sadhus, she was immediately arrested while the sadhus remained free.

That's because India has preserved Victorian-era decency laws that prohibit female nudity. When the Taliban, or the clergy that rules Iran, issues edicts forcing women to cover up from head to toe, they are often ridiculed, and rightly so. But the BJP's leaders have escaped such criticism.

To be sure, the BJP is not the Taliban. Women are not denied access to education in India, women's rights are guaranteed under the constitution and there are no state-sanctioned cruel punishments for women under Indian laws. But by pursuing this obsolete agenda, which views foreign influences as alien and somehow dangerous to Indian culture, the ideologues of the BJP resemble the Taliban theocrats more than they realize. The late Morarji Desai, India's prime minister from 1977-79, astutely observed that Hinduttva is an inherently flawed concept, for it seeks to replace the polytheistic, tolerant, syncretic society that absorbs foreign influences with one that is fundamentalist and hostile to the outside world.

In practice, the BJP's game plan goes beyond opposing fashion shows. The Shiv Sena-BJP alliance in Maharashtra State opposed, cancelled and eventually renegotiated the Enron power project in the mid-1990s. A Hindu nationalist ally of the RSS led the protests against the first McDonald's restaurants in India. And it was the BJP that coined the election slogans, "India is a nation, not a market," and "We want computer chips, not potato chips."

Some in the BJP still seem to be fighting the East India Company, the original evil multinational. The party's leaders in Uttar Pradesh, for example, have banned beauty pageants and tried to stop women from wearing jeans. At the root of this nationalism is the perception that Hindus are seen as weak-kneed, as a community always taken for granted. Modern, secular influences are bad because they have enfeebled India, including those leading to Partition in 1947. To use historian A.L. Basham's phrase, these atavistic ideologues hanker for the wonder that was India, a wonder ruined by foreign invasions -- first Islamic, then Western through colonization and now globalization.

To regain the glory, the advocates of Hinduttva argue, India must assert itself by revealing its power, befitting an ancient civilization with a billion people. Unfortunately, the strength they reveal is of the muscular variety that has few admirers in the post-Cold War world. Possessing the bomb, destroying a disputed mosque, or banning a beauty contest reveal swagger not strength.

Hindu nationalists fail to realize that India is held in international esteem because of its syncretic culture, its tolerant ethos, its rich diversities and its Gandhian idealism. For centuries, India has conquered foreign influences by absorbing them, transforming them into something so quintessentially Indian as to be scarcely recognizable as anything else. By trying to define the country in narrow and exclusive terms, the BJP and its partners are on the wrong side of the march of history.

-- From The Asian Wall Street Journal