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Opinion: India's Religious Violence Doesn't Meet Its Founder's Vision

An employee checking flags at the Indian National Flag Production Center in the southern state of Karnataka.
Manjunath Kiran
AFP via Getty Images
An employee checking flags at the Indian National Flag Production Center in the southern state of Karnataka.

Years ago, I covered a protest by thousands of people in their underwear.

Civil servants in Calcutta, now called Kolkata, opposed a plan to replace the nylon kurta, that loose, long blouse worn by many Indian government workers, with kurtas made of cotton khadi cloth. Millions of government workers wearing home-spun khadi could help build India's village industries. It seemed such a right thing to do.

But many government workers bristled. Khadi might be cooler in India's wilting heat, but it wrinkles. Fastidious bureaucrats would have to take more of their own time at home to launder and press crinkled khadi kurtas.

So government workers marched to the center of the city--and shucked off their kurtas. They chanted in their underwear, "Hell, no, khadi cloth has got to go!"
An American has to admire India — the world's largest democracy — with a dazzling diversity of views and faiths, and citizens who are restive, rambunctious, witty, and vocal in scores of languages and thousands of political parties.

There have been religious rivalries and bloodshed in India for centuries. But for the first time since modern India was created in 1947, this multi-ethnic society of scores of faiths is now ruled by a religious-nationalist government, the Hindu-nationalist party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Citizenship Amendment Act that passed through parliament has alarmed many Indians because it gives other faiths a quick route to Indian citizenship — but not Muslims.

A federal law that makes Muslim migrants less welcome may seem to tell all of India's 200 million Muslim minority they are somehow less valued in the country they have built, defended and shared with all Indians. It does not echo what India's founding prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, told the nation when it was founded: "All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India..."

As President Trump visited Prime Minister Modi this week about 40 people, mostly Muslim, were killed in New Delhi, in clashes and even mob action. In these times when there seems to be such a strong call to populism in so many places, we might remember that a democracy doesn't just mean majority rule, but that all minorities are protected and respected. As Nehru also said, "Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world."

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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