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India divided

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By: Swati Gauri Sharma

A powerful Hindu extremist party has held a firm grip on Maharashtra. But the people are starting to fight back.

ANTI-IMMIGRANT and anti-Muslim sentiment is spreading fast in Europe and the United States. In India, these sentiments aren’t new, and have long been a tactic used by Hindu extremists to retain power in the western state of Maharashtra. Their party, the Shiv Sena, also opposes the influence of Western culture, putting it at sword’s point not just with Muslims but with the growing cosmopolitan community in India as well. How this conflict plays out will be a test of India’s democracy.

Last month, the Shiv Sena, which means “God’s army” in Hindi, initiated aggressive protests and book burnings against a novel, Rohinton Mishtry’s “Such a Long Journey,” because the Sena claimed it made derogatory remarks about the party and its constituents. In a surprise response to the protests, the University of Mumbai has banned the book, which had been short-listed for the Booker Prize.

The Sena also recently protested against the two Pakistani participants of a popular reality show, “Big Boss,” which is India’s version of “Big Brother.” The protests resulted in many cable operators banning the channel that aired the show.

Now, the party has decided it would like to ban the burqa, a troubling issue for a secular country with at least 100 million Muslims.

Although the power of Shiv Sena and other Hindu fundamentalist groups throughout the country has dwindled over the years as India has prospered, the Sena always held on to their base by insisting on government jobs for natives of Maharashtra and denying them to immigrants from other parts of India.

Because of the Sena’s strong hold on Maharashtra and its largest city, Mumbai, the entertainment and financial hub of India, few have successfully spoken out against the party. But the country’s new urban and intellectual class became concerned that that the university and cable operators’ concessions to Sena pressure would institutionalize the party’s regressive and racist platform.

The secular community’s most recent successful push-back against the Hindu fundamentalists involved Shahrukh Khan, one of the most popular stars of the Mumbai-based film industry in India, known as Bollywood. Khan, a Muslim from North India, was demonized by the Sena for his comments supporting the inclusion of Pakistan’s cricket team in India’s Premier League and rejecting the party’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. In response to Khan’s statements, the Sena protested and threatened to use violence and political will to limit Khan’s latest Bollywood release, which was one of the most anticipated films of the year.

In previous such showdowns, Bollywood stars and filmmakers have often ended up apologizing to the Sena in fear of financial and social repercussions. But in a surprise move, Khan stood firmly against the party. Opposed by much of the film fraternity and the business community, the Sena lost this battle, and the film went on to be one of the largest box-office hits in Bollywood history.

In the wake of the devastating terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November of 2008, India showed the world that Hindus and Muslims can live peacefully together. Peace marches took the place of the communal violence that had been a usual aftermath to terrorist attacks. Today, while the Sena objects to Pakistani participants in the reality TV show, there are other musical shows dedicated to promoting peace between India and Pakistan by having Pakistani and Indian judges and contestants.

As other nations around the world are struggling with a growing vocal and often institutionalized intolerance of Muslims, Indians are beginning to stand up against religious extremists’ regressive campaigns. With luck, India’s economy will continue to flourish, and Hindu extremism will wane.