Changes ruled in Shah Bano’s favour, creating outrage

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Changes in the nature of India’s political process also have contributed to the rise of religious tensions. Analysts from a variety of perspectives have commented on the increasing willingness of India’s politicians to exploit religious and ethnic tensions for short-term political gain, regardless of their longer-term social consequences. Political scientist Rajni Kothari, for example, charges that there has been a general decline in the morality of Indian politicians. He alleges that politicians play a ‘numbers game,’ in which they appeal to chauvinistic caste and religious sentiments to win elections, despite the longer-term social tensions that their campaigns create.

The support of the Congress for Article 370 in the constitution, which provides a special status for the Muslim majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, and the measures taken to provide India’s Muslim community with distinctive rights have contributed to the popular resonance of the BJP’s charges that the Congress (I) stands for minority appeasement and ‘pseudo-secularism.’ The violence of religious militants in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir has also contributed to sentiment among the Hindu majority that religious minorities employ aggressive tactics to win special concessions from the government. The 1985, Shall Bano controversy put state-religion relations in the forefront of the political agenda.

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Shah Bano was a seventy-three-year-old Muslim woman from Madhya Pradesh who filed for alimony after being divorced according to Muslim law by her husband after forty-three years of marriage. The Supreme Court ruled in Shah Bano’s favour, creating outrage among sectors of the Muslim community who felt that the sharia (Islamic law), which does not provide for alimony, had been slighted. In apparent capitulation to this important political constituency, Rajiv Gandhi pushed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill, which removed Muslim divorce cases from India’s civil law and recognised the jurisdiction of sharia. The legislation, in turn, enraged large sectors of Hindus, whose personal conduct is judged under India’s secular civil code.

Shortly thereafter, in a ploy that Rajiv Gandhi may have misguidedly conceived to placate Hindu militants, the court ruled that the doors of the Babri Masjid should be opened to Hindu worshipers. The VHP was joined by the BJP in a campaign to reclaim the disputed birthplace of Ram. In 1989 the VHP launched a campaign encouraging Hindu devotees from across India each to bring a brick from their villages to Ayodhya. Outbreaks of violence between Hindus and Muslims spread as the campaign progressed, and the BJP successfully prevailed upon the VHP to withdraw the campaign before the 1989 elections. Tensions heated up again in the summer of 1990 when BJP leader Advani embarked on a 10,000-kilometer tour of the country in a Toyota van decorated to resemble the mythological chariot of Ram.

Advani’s arrest did not prevent clashes at Ayodhya between paramilitary forces and Hindu activists; the clashes sparked a wave of communal violence and left more than 300 dead. The Ramjanmabhumi Temple mobilization appeared to pay substantial dividends in terms of the BJP’s remarkable growth of support in North India in the 1991 elections, and the VHP and BJP kept the issue alive despite the fact that their actions put tremendous pressure on the newly elected BJP state government in Uttar Pradesh. Its July 1992 kar sew a (mass mobilization force work service) to build the temple ended peacefully only through last-minute negotiations with Prime Minister Rao; Rao had been promised by BJP leader L.K. Advani that the December 6, 1992, kar sewn would also be peaceful. Despite Advani’s promise, thousands of Hindu activists broke through a police cordon and destroyed the Babri Masjid.

This event and the subsequent riots throughout the country left no doubt that tensions between Hindus and Muslims had reached a high pitch. During the following week, riots spread throughout the countryside, killing some 1,700 people. Riots broke out again in Bombay from January 9 through January 11, killing 500 more people.

In March 1993, the Bombay Stock Exchange and other prominent places in the city were shaken, and some 200 people were killed by bombs that the central government alleges were placed by members of India’s criminal underworld at the behest of Pakistan’s intelligence service. The manipulation of India’s religious tensions by militants, criminals, and politicians highlighted the extent to which religious sentiments in India had become an object of exploitation. Religious tensions eased somewhat and incidents of communal violence declined during the remainder of 1993 and through 1994, but the persistence of the social conditions that gave birth to violence and the continued opportunism of India’s politicians suggest that the relative peace may be only an interlude.


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