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India Catholics see education system as agent for change.

Perhaps nowhere in the world are the perils of religious fundamentalism more apparent right now than in India. Sectarian violence killed thousands after Hindu militants recently destroyed a 16th-century mosque they said was on Hindu holy ground.

Under fire from all sides, the Congress Party government of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao may be forced into early elections that the fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party would stand an unexpected chance of winning.

That could be bad news for what remains of democratic India as well as for the rest of South Asia and beyond.

India is mother to many religions, a clamor of cultures, and more languages than even the Tower of Babel could contain. The republic that resulted after independence from Britain in 1947 is rickety at best, a fragile federation of states organized more or less linguistically.

It was the wisdom of those who drafted the 1949 constitution, taking their cue in part from the murderous Hindu-Muslim violence that followed independence, to establish India as a strongly secular and religiously tolerant state. There seemed to be no other way to keep such a diverse people together in anything like a unit of purpose.

Hindus are by far the majority, comprising about 83 percent of India's 883 million people, while Muslims make up something over 11 percent, Christians about 2.5 percent. But Hinduism is a loose-limbed religion with gods galore, and one of the secrets of its unique longevity is its tolerance and adaptability. Hindu fundamentalism is a contradiction in terms, an Indian holy man told NCR last year.

But not for the BJP and other fundamentalist groups. Fundamentalist politicians have incited normally tolerant Hindus with nationalistic and sectarian demagoguery, inflating fears of the Muslim birthrate, cultural erosion and foreign domination.

Much of this is cynical political maneuvering behind a religious mask, yet it seems to be paying off. Despite the contention of some India observers that the BJP is narrowly based among upper-caste Hindus, recent polls show that it is steadily gaining popular support.

Significantly, the BJP sloughs off India's booming population problem and pooh-poohs a nearly 50 percent illiteracy rate. Farmers do not have to know how to read or write, some BJP leaders say, and in saying it they give themselves away. What fundamentalists have to fear from general education is a heightened popular consciousness that will eventually see through the fallacies of fundamentalism and Hinduism's sometimes cruelly patriarchal society.

Under the BJP, even those who make it to school would be subjected to a view of the world closer to Hindu mythology than to historical reality. That was reflected in curriculum changes in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP state government stood by while the mosque in Ayodhya was destroyed in early December.

Here is where India's Catholic minority could wield much more influence than it currently allows itself. Catholic schools web the country. Usually, the majority of students are Hindu, with females often outnumbering the males, especially where admission is competitive.

But the church is timid, beginning with most of the Indian hierarchy. Almost no effort is made to raise social consciousness, for fear of persecution and repression. Many Indian Catholics regret this. They see the church's vast educational system as a potentially powerful agent for change, maybe the single best chance for women to break free from a sometimes deadly patriarchal system.

Right now the church in India has certain constitutional rights as a minority religion. If Catholics do not dare to risk those rights today, there is clearly no guarantee that fundamentalist government would respect them in the future. It is not enough to lay low and let Muslims take the sectarian heat. Vacillation and short-term political appeasements have not worked for the Rao government, or for earlier Congress Party regimes.

Granted, this seems like easy advice for foreigners to give. But we are talking about the second-most populous country and largest democracy in the world, so there is a lot at stake.

Indian Catholics have a chance to step forward - and they have the right to expect the direct and resolute support of the universal church - not to evangelize, but to educate for the long haul and maybe mediate for the short. They might even save their republic from ruin and the world from grief.
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Feb 12, 1993
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