Modern India is much like a newly minted land mass; cooling on the surface while bubbling with volcanic activity underneath. Red-hot economic growth masks the nation’s underlying socio-political problems.
The utter economic desperation of Indian pastoralists has provided verdant soil for Marxist Leninist ideas to flourish in rural hamlets. Maoist guerillas recruit these tribal villagers in their crusade to replace the Indian Democratic Republic with a socialist state by means of armed insurrection. The urban-centered Indian press has chosen to downplay this story, preferring instead to focus on the country’s recent industrial boom. Manmohan Singh, India’s Prime Minister, stands apart from the Indian Establishment in his assessment of the matter. He calls the Maoist guerilla activity “the biggest internal security threat” the country faces.
The Maoist activists, known as “Naxolites,” have found a receptive audience in the Indian pastorals, known as “Tribals,” for two major reasons. The Tribal population of eighty million is the most disadvantaged segment of Indian society. Twenty-three percent of them are illiterate. Another fifty percent lives below the poverty line. In addition, the Indian Government, acting solely in its own interests, has expropriated Tribal land rich in minerals and other natural resources. The politically powerless Tribal people have nowhere to turn, except to the Naxolites, who press them into bands of roving militias, hunted and killed by government forces.
The Tribal people are not alone in their economic and political plight. A relatively thin veneer of privileged middle and upper class citizens covers a population of more than eight hundred and fifty million people who exist on two dollars a day or less. India’s corrupt and overly bureaucratic government cannot begin to cope with the nation’s staggering poverty. The outdated Indian caste system makes it more difficult for the poor to improve their lives. The predicament of India’s massive underclass is a persistent disease that constantly threatens the future well-being of the country’s entire society.
Another flashpoint of tension within India’s borders is the struggle with Pakistan for control of the Kasmir territory. After India won its independence from British rule, the country’s princely states enjoyed the freedom of choice to join either India or Pakistan. The Maharaja of Kashmir chose to join India because he was a Hindu. This decision was a bitter pill to swallow for the majority of the Kashmiri people who are Muslims. The agreement to annex Kashmir included a provision for a plebiscite to confirm the Maharaja’s decision. India never allowed the plebiscite to occur.
These seeds of conflict have erupted into three wars between India and Pakistan over control of this beautiful, northeastern territory. Tension has escalated even higher with the acquisition of nuclear weapons by both countries. In addition, militant Islamists in the territory are waging a bloody struggle for an independent state of Kashmir. With the separatist militants folded into the mix, the situation is as unstable as homemade nitroglycerin.
The conflict in Kashmir is indicative of a deeper, more serious problem; an innate hatred and distrust between Indian Hindus and their Muslim counterparts. This centuries old antagonism is rooted in religious intolerance. The rift began when Islamic fundamentalists invaded India in the sixth century. A noted scholar deemed this war as “probably the bloodiest in history.”
There is a basic incompatibility between the aggressive, xenophobic tenants of Islam, which proclaims Allah as the only God, and the polytheistic nature of Hinduism. Throughout the history of India’s independence movement, a series of political clashes between Muslims and Hindus echoed the animosity between the two groups. Even a great leader like Mahatma Gandhi failed to generate lasting cooperation between these factions. Splitting off Pakistan from India as a separate Muslim state has similarly failed to provide a solution. The hatred and distrust doggedly endures.
Undoubtedly, India faces major challenges in its quest for a peaceful and prosperous future. Surely, a more streamlined and efficient government would provide part of the answer. However, it is the people of India themselves who must learn to cooperate and share with one another to move forward into a brighter future.