While Americans have focused on President Bush’s “war on terror,” Iraq, and the Middle East, democracy has been under siege in another part of the world. India — the most populous of all democracies, and a country whose Constitution protects human rights even more comprehensively than our own — has been in crisis. Until the spring of 2004, its parliamentary government was increasingly controlled by right-wing Hindu extremists who condoned and in some cases actively supported violence against minority groups, especially Muslims.
What has been happening in India is a serious threat to the future of democracy in the world. The fact that it has yet to make it onto the radar screen of most Americans is evidence of the way in which terrorism and the war on Iraq have distracted us from events and issues of fundamental significance. If we really want to understand the impact of religious nationalism on democratic values, India currently provides a deeply troubling example, and one without which any understanding of the more general phenomenon is dangerously incomplete. It also provides an example of how democracy can survive the assault of religious extremism.