Saffron nation rises

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 April, 2004, 12:00am

Politically driven Hindu nationalism emerged in the early 1900s as part of India's fight for independence from Britain. A concept of hindutva ('Hinduness') was galvanised to unite majority Hindus against foreign influences. The concept harks back to a largely mythical time before, as the more strident saffron nationalists see it, a pure, unified India was culturally pillaged by hundreds of years of Muslim rule. They argue India was, and again should be, a Hindu nation and others should accept that or leave.

The movement is now co-ordinated by a shadowy organisation called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The Bharatiya Janata Party is the more moderate face of Hindu nationalism, but even it talks of imposing a Hindu value system to replace that inherited from the west. India's population of just over one billion includes 200 million Muslims and large Christian, Sikh and Buddhist communities.

The BJP rode to prominence and then power in the 1990s by manipulating the inter-religious tensions that have plagued India. It campaigned for a temple to be built on a site occupied by a mosque in the holy city of Ayodhya. Many Hindus believe the spot to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram.

Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani was in Ayodhya in December 1992 when 100,000 Hindu zealots destroyed the mosque, unleashing days of communal killing and rape across the country, in which up to 3,000 mostly Muslim people died. He has since been cleared of any criminal role in the demolition, unlike several senior BJP colleagues.