Since September 11, 2001, the world's attention has properly been focused on the violence of Islamic extremism, but there are also major violent trends in Hindu extremism that have largely been ignored in the United States. In India, this violence is supported by Hindu extremists and their allies in the Indian government, which is currently led by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
One reason for our lack of attention here is that India is not a religiously reactionary state like Saudi Arabia or Iran, and in fact faces its own threats from Islamist militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir, as well as Islamist terrorist attacks throughout the country, most notably the dramatic storming of the Indian parliament in 2001 and the deadly bombing in Bombay that killed fifty-two people in August 2003. India is a strong ally in the war on terrorism and continues to have strong democratic traditions and institutions. It has developed friendlier relations with America and Israel; Ariel Sharon made a state visit in September. The Indian government has also loosened the previously heavily regulated economy to produce one of the highest growth rates in the world, and the Bombay stock market rose 50 percent in 2003. Yet despite these strengths, there is much sectarian hatred in India and it is expressed in frequent, sometimes programmatic, violence.
In the past decade, extremist Hindus have increased their attacks on Christians, until there are now several hundred per year. But this did not make news in the U.S. until a foreigner was attacked. In 1999, Graham Staines, an Australian missionary who had worked with leprosy patients for three decades, was burned alive in Orissa along with his two young sons. The brutal violence visited on Muslims in Gujarat in February 2002 also brought the dangers of Hindu extremism to world attention. Between one and two thousand Muslims were massacred after Muslims reportedly set fire to a train carrying Hindu nationalists, killing several dozen people.
These attacks were not inchoate mob violence, triggered by real or rumored insult; rather, they involved careful planning by organized Hindu extremists with an explicit program and a developed religious-nationalist ideology. Like the ideology of al-Qaeda and other radical Islamists, this ideology began to take shape in the 1920s as a response to European colonialism. It rejected the usually secular outlook of other independence movements; in place of secularism, it synthesized a reactionary form of religion with elements of European millenarian political thought, especially fascism.
Until the nineteenth century, the word "Hindu" had no specific religious meaning and simply referred to the people who lived east of the Indus River, whatever their beliefs. (The Indian Supreme Court itself has held that "no precise meaning can be ascribed to the terms 'Hindu' and 'Hinduism.'") It was only when the census introduced by the British colonial authorities in 1871 included Hindu as a religious designation that many Indians began to think of themselves and their country as Hindu.
Twentieth-century agitation against the British led to the rise not only of the secular and socialist Congress movement but also of the rival Hindu nationalist movement collectively known as the Sangh Parivar ("family of organizations"). The Parivar proclaims an ideology of "Hindutva," aimed at ensuring the...