MADRAS, India — A homicide is the murder of an individual. A genocide is the murder of an ethnicity. The purpose of a genocide is beyond doubt: cleansing society of what the powers that be consider undesirable. History’s most famous — or infamous — purge was carried out in Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler sent 6 million Jews to the gas chamber in the evil hope of ridding his nation of an “inferior race.” He believed in Aryan supremacy.

There have been many other brutal attempts at annihilation. In the closing years of the 1800s, Armenians carried out mass killings in eastern Turkey. This was followed by a tit-for-tat attempt at wiping out Armenians in Ottoman Turkey around 1915.

Cambodian dictator Pol Pot butchered nearly 2 million people between 1975 and 1979. The victims were thought to be ideologically “incompatible” (read: intellectuals) with the savage regime.

Ethnic cleansing can take many forms. We know what happened in former Yugoslavia, and are fully aware of what has been going on in Tibet, where a crude method to alter the demographic ratio continues. Earlier, China’s notorious relocation of the learned — “banishment” to a life of rural hardship — during Mao Zedong’s terrifying Cultural Revolution has been well documented.

But there are some cases of ethnic washing that are either not known or undertaken in a seemingly oblique manner. In India, there is understandable concern over the treatment of its 140 million Muslims, the largest number in one country after Indonesia. There has been — under the present Hindu nationalistic Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP — a systematic, but subtle kind of cleansing. The worst sufferers have been Muslims followed by Christians.

Besides the Australian Christian missionary and his two very young sons who were torched alive in the eastern Indian state of Orissa some years ago, there have been cases of nuns being assaulted, even raped, and churches being desecrated.

Muslims have had to face far greater wrath. The historic Bhabri Mosque was pulled down, stone by stone, by a fanatical Hindu mob in 1992. The carnage early last year in the western Indian state of Gujarat, where nearly 1,000 Muslims were killed and their property destroyed by Hindu rioters in a campaign clearly led by the state administration headed by the BJP, will remain as a terrible blot on India’s image.

In other incidents that have been both overt and covert, important Hindu leaders belonging to quasipolitical organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS (the BJP owes its origins to this body), and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have been “commanding” India’s Muslims to either fall into line with the wishes of the majority Hindu community or get out.

The BJP has also been guilty of trying to erase history and, in the process, reducing eminent, world class writers — such as D.D. Kosambi, Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib — to leftwing ideologues. Their work is not only recognized by leading European historians, but has also enriched India’s knowledge of its fascinating past.

Two examples illuminate how the research of Indian historians has been distorted only to suit the BJP’s line of thinking. Some school books have completely omitted even a cursory reference to Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination soon after India’s 1947 Independence. Why? Because the assassin was a staunch Hindu and RSS member.

What is more, some textbooks have tried to mess around with proven facts about the ancient Indus Valley civilization. The BJP has been claiming that another community was living on the Indian subcontinent long before the Aryans (foreigners) came in via the northern mountain passes to set up home in Harappa and Mohenjodaro, considered the cradles of the Indus civilization.

What alarms rationalists and moderates today is the tendency of the Westernized and upwardly mobile classes in India to buy the BJP’s arguments, to blindly believe the fallacious and pernicious theories peddled by rabid Hindu outfits. These groups of men and women uphold what they term Hindu majoritarianism. A case in point is the overwhelming victory for the BJP in the Gujarat Assembly elections following the mayhem of early last year.

Sadly, these hawkish Hindus are bent on defying the forces of history. They have utter disregard for the process of evolution that ultimately saw the emergence of the modern Indian society. Hindu and Muslim rulers may have fought over temples and mosques, but their conflicts were often political rather than religious. The places of worship were mere symbols of state power and authority — not instruments of individual or community faith and beliefs.

Thus, Akbar, one of the more renowned Mogul kings in India, felt proud of his Hindu advisers, and even founded a new religion that borrowed liberally from Hinduism. Ordinary Muslims and Hindus coexisted for centuries in this country with little rancor toward the other’s way of life. Together with Buddhists and Christians, they built the social and cultural landscape of India beginning as early as the 13th century.

Today, the BJP and its band of loyal followers are in a mood to negate all this by suggesting that religious minorities are but guests who reside in India at the will and pleasure of the majority Hindus. There is also an underlying move to delink Muslims and Christians from India’s national identity. If this is not ethnic cleansing, albeit at an intellectual and ideological level, then what is?

It is tragic that a nation of a billion people, set to achieve great economic prosperity through globalization and liberalization, ought to be pushing minorities to the margins of a society that the minorities also helped to create. Surely, this will cause greater discord and rifts ahead.

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