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South Asia: When Old Hatreds Reach the Surface

November 19, 1989|Tad Szulc | Tad Szulc is a veteran foreign correspondent

NEW DELHI — South Asia is in the grip of more turmoil and terror than at any time since the end of World War II and the start of world decolonization. Pick your worst strife--ethnic, religious, social, political. All explode along the vast arch stretching from Afghanistan in the west to Cambodia in the east, with three full-fledged civil wars in progress and deepening instability within the entire Indian subcontinent.

A random glance at the front-page headlines of New Delhi newspapers this month: "A Monster Stalks Bhagalpur" (a new wave of Hindu-Muslim communal slaughter in the state of Bihar); "Top Terrorist Among Five Shot In Punjab" (continuing mass murders involving autonomy-craving Sikhs); "45 Killed As Rival Tamil Groups Clash" (the bloody unabating ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka); "Pak Violence" (political murders in Pakistan). On and on, day after day.

Then come stories about civil wars in Afghanistan and Cambodia, both directly affecting the security interests of every nation across this vast region; stories about the genocidal military dictatorship in Myanmar (formerly Burma); stories about the bitter dispute between huge India and tiny Nepal, and the complex and fragile relationship between India and China along their Himalayan frontiers. The third civil war is the ethnic bloodletting in Sri Lanka, where an Indian army peacekeeping force failed to keep it.

The resurgence of ethnic and religious fury, of murderous conflict, virtually everywhere in the area is the most disturbing phenomenon. Nearly a half-century after decolonization, old hatreds reawaken in now-independent nations, taking sinister form.

In India, general elections will be held this week. An estimated 490 million citizens (close to one-tenth of the globe's population) are eligible to vote in the world's largest democracy. Religious passions and ethnic pressures have been playing a pivotal role in the closing weeks of the campaign. Capturing Hindu and Muslim votes is the aim of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's Congress Party and of the opposition's "national front," following October street battles between believers. Body counts are still uncertain; whole villages were razed and burned.

Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi's grandfather, believed in a secular and independent Indian state; he thought religious tensions would give way to a happy Hindu-Muslim coexistence. Not so. Not now. Both political sides need the Muslim minority's votes to win a majority in Parliament and thereby form a government.

There are no fundamental differences between the prime minister and opponent Vishwanath Pratap Singh, who once served as Gandhi's finance minister. So the election may hinge on the ethnic and religious vote, including the untouchables at the bottom of the caste system.

Gandhi won the largest majority in Indian history in 1984 after his mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. The young Gandhi's popularity later dropped as a series of rising financial scandals involved the government and the ruling Congress Party. When Gandhi's return to office became less certain, religious and ethnic strife grew.

At home, Gandhi first had to contend with several sources of longstanding violence: the Sikhs in Punjab, who want their own nation, to be known as Khalistan; the Bodo tribesmen in the northern state of Assam, who demand autonomy and have unleashed a terrorist wave; the Gurkha Liberation Front, also demanding autonomy; the Naxalites and the Nagas in the north fighting for greater recognition, and tribesmen in Tripura on the northeast who demand the same--claiming they have been victims of 87 political murders in just over a year.

The eruptions of religious unrest happened more recently, perhaps the worst outbreak of such conflict between Hindus and Muslims since the bloodshed that followed partition into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan in 1947. At least 1,000 people were killed in the populous northeastern state of Bihar in late October and early this month.

The slaughter in the Bhagalpur district of Bihar, following a Hindu religious ceremony, shook the nation, especially after reports and photographs of villagers--members of both faiths--being murdered. The Hindus' holy Ganges, flowing past Bhagalpur, was a river of corpses.

In Jammu and Kashmir, claimed by Pakistan since 1947, the recent religious battles were between Muslims and Buddhists in the Ladakh area of the high Himalayas. Ladakh Buddhists claimed separate status in India, and this claim, too, has become an election issue. Bombs killed several Kashmirians early in November.

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