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Can the Center Hold in India?

THE bloody bombings of a stock exchange and apartment houses in Bombay and Calcutta in the past week increase the level of tension in India. Many groups may be responsible, including organized crime or international terrorists. But fortunately there has been no widespread violence between Hindus and Muslims, as in December and January.

This is little comfort for India since a fuse clearly continues to burn, however slowly. Social strains between the two groups are not new. But the context for these strains are today more volatile internally and externally - and it is not too much to say the secular, democratic ideals of the Nehru-established government in India are in crisis.

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Last month, for the first time in recent memory, the Indian government squashed a political rally in New Delhi by the nationalist Hindu party BJP; troops were used to block entrance to New Delhi of BJP supporters from around the country.

The BJP, which has jumped from obscurity to become the second largest party today, would like to make India a Hindu state. Nor are they the most extreme Hindu party.

Meanwhile, India's 110 million Muslims want more security to match their fledgling but notable economic progress. They no longer want to step-and-fetch in an endless series of essentially blue-collar jobs. The coalition between Muslims and the lower caste Hindus and outcasts - who want the same thing - is creating a social backlash among middle and upper Hindu classes. It also offers nationalists on both sides plenty of ammunition to create anger and hate.

An old question is raised: Can India survive as a modern, unified state? Is it possible for minorities to work out economic and social advancement and still maintain a strong ethnic and religious identity?

In the relative stability offered by the bipolar cold-war world, such questions might be more easily broached, or even not raised. Yet today nationalism is flaring around the globe like an angry solar wind, creating instability and chaos. It is past time in India for a majority to demand of their politicians a liberal, secular state - rather than indulging in seductive and popular nationalism.

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