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Waves of Islamic fervor cause ripples in India

The far-reaching waves of the Islamic revolution are beating against the gates of officially secular, but predominately Hindu India. This country has a Muslim minority so large that it makes India the world's second- largest Muslim-populated country -- after Indonesia. Neighboring Bangladesh runs it a close third.

So far, the impact of Islamic fervor on Indian communal tensions has been minimal. But the fact that India lives in such close quarters with Pakistan and Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran on the west, Soviet-run Afghanistan to the north, and Bangladesh to the east causes some jitters in Indian officialdom.

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With Muslim-Hindu tensions on the rise in recent years, India has been careful to say the right things about Islamic aspirations and needs. It has also gone out of its way to court the Arabs, stepping up diplomatic representation throughout the Arab world.

India has always been pro-Arab, but the Arab world is not necessarily pro-India. The Arab world's close ties with India's neighboring Muslim antagonist, Pakistan, are automatic.

Apart from oil and world diplomatic needs, India must necessarily stay on good terms with Islam. Though several million Muslims left India to take up residence in Pakistan, more than 80 million Muslims remain in India. In fact, there are more Muslims in India than in all of Pakistan. Islam has also had a profound impact on India, although the country is today 83 percent Hindu.

Three beautiful onion-domed mosques, all in a line, rise majestically above the low New Delhi skyline. further to one side, and situated in a park with rolling lawns, are the historic Lodi Tombs, memorials to earlier Muslim invaders from Afghanistan.

The signs of Muslim religion, culture, and former political domination are to be seen everywhere in India. In the case of the splendid Taj Mahal at Agra, religion, culture, and political control were all rolled up into one.

The grand memorial was built by the then (Islamic) Mogul Emperior Shahjahan as an immoprtal tribute to his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, and completed in 1648 at a cost even then of $13 million. The Mogul Empire, which suppressed Hinduism, was ended by the British two centuries after they first came to India in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. One Indian scholar suggested that the British empire did, in fact, help save Hindu culture even though Hindus believe the British favored the Muslims over them as part of their divide- and-rule policy.

The departure of the British in 1947 resulted in the division of Indian into the virtually exclusive Muslim Pakistan and the predominately Hindu India.

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A Christian Indian, well informed on political currents, doubts that events in Iran have had an effect on Hindu-Muslim tensions in India.

"But," she adds, "every Pakistan war has had [an effect], even though some of the Muslims served very well in the Indian armed forces. That doesn't wash, though, with the majority of people. There is a lack of understanding because there is no mixing."

According to this Indian, things have gotten worse in the last two or three years. "It's a real setback," she says.

Communal tensions -- code words for Muslim-Hindu riots -- if not increasing in number, have certainly gained in intensity in recent years.

In the past two years, the country has witnessed several bloody clashes. In the north Indian towns of Aligarh and Jamshedpur, about 150 people were killed in July of last year. More recently, there has been Muslim-Hindu fighting in Hyderabad. Christians have not been involved in any of these clashes.

Some of the blame for the ill will between Hindus and Muslims has been attached to the Rashtriya Swyamsewak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu national organization. Though professing to be purely cultural without political ambitions, the RSS has close ties with the Jana Sangh, a Hindu nationalist party. The Jana Sangh was one of the five political parties or groups that formed the Janata Alliance in 1977.

Hindus, in turn, have resented the way in which they feel the Muslims have allowed themselves to be courted as a voting bloc by polticians promising them special protections and privileges. The feeling that the Muslims were overplaying their hand as a minority group prompted some Hindus to ask, "Is it a crime now to be a Hindu?"

There is nonetheless a general conviction that Muslims are still, in many ways, worse off than Hindus. Part of this is historic. Those educated and wealthier Muslims with the necessary get-up-and-go up and left India at the time of Partition. Those Muslims who remained tended on the whole to be less enterprising and influential.

But any suggestion that Muslims are exploited or downtrodden in India meets a sharp rebuff from an Indian political commentator: "Tell me," he demands, "of another society which has dealt with so large a Muslim minority so successfully? We have not interfered with their social structure, their religious practices, yet we have helped gradually modernize them."


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