Miranda Kennedy

The Maharani of Muck

Perched elegantly on an exotic throw pillow in her seaside Bombay apartment, the Arabian Sea breeze gently ruffling her long black hair, Shobhaa De looks like one of the seductresses of her many novels: women who buy and sell their way through a world of extraordinary luxury and moral decay; women who sleep their way to the top; women who always win. That is, until you zoom in on her teenage daughters gabbing on the phone and, in a nearby room, blasting Bryan Adams out of the family computer. De loves putting this dichotomy of her life on display; it's her best defense against the thirty years of bad press she has endured for talking dirty and exposing the nasty side of India's rich and gorgeous. "I have a perfectly, boringly normal life," she laughs. "That disappoints some people."

Shobhaa De, perhaps better known here as the Maharani of Muck or the Princess of Porn, is India's most commercially successful English-language author. It's a crazy claim for a 56-year-old middle-class Indian woman -- one who describes herself as a "traditional" mother to six children -- to be able to make. But sex sells, even in one of the world's most socially conservative countries. Bucking all convention, for years De has dared to write lusty, shocking sex scenes, and from a female point of view. In a country where women rarely bare more than two inches of leg and hardly ever file for divorce, she writes about women who, like herself, flee marriages because they are bored. De is author of more than a dozen titles, all of which start with the letter "s" (Sultry Days, Starry Nights, Strange Obsession -- you get the point) and all of which depict a level of privilege that most of India's more than 1 billion impoverished masses cannot even imagine.

The India De knows and writes about is also a far cry from the India pictured by most writers, that of abject urban poverty or quaint village life. "My books put an unflinching gaze on upper-middle-class India," she says. "It wasn't done before, mainly because we didn't have writers out of that class." Although her readership represents but a tiny fraction of India's population -- only about 2 percent of India reads English -- De's books are consistently bestsellers, which means they sell between 20,000 and 30,000 copies. Those sales figures sound meager, but they make her Penguin India's star, and the publisher can't get enough of her. This year Penguin is repackaging her entire oeuvre in a sleeker format to position her better in the mass market. De's editor, Karthika Menon, is especially enthusiastic about her second novel, Starry Nights, which she calls "near classic in its freshness and vitality."

It is difficult to reconcile a weighty adjective like "classic" with a sloppy work like Starry Nights. Still, the book was groundbreaking when it was published over a decade ago. Starry Nights provided the first long-form, unflattering portrait of Bollywood, showing a world that "chews up and spits out women, especially," as De puts it. The Hindi film industry, far more than Hollywood, has been reluctant to expose its dirty underbelly, because it relies heavily on family-oriented films and the pristine image of virgin stars. De has made it one of her life's missions to blow a hole in those perceptions.

Starry Nights is probably De's lustiest book, featuring an Erica Jong-inspired sex scene between a faded starlet and a bearded stranger in the toilet of an airplane. Even beyond that, the book is a feminist work of sorts. The starlet is used and abused throughout, but in the final pages of the book, she and her sister and her young daughter decide to take over her father's film studio. The trio walks off into the sunset with self-respect and "an income to match" -- a favorite phrase of De's. She says financial independence is the most important value she tries to instill in her daughters, although she admits -- in classic De style -- that she couldn't live the life she is accustomed to without her millionaire second husband's earnings.

Nevertheless, De believes that her books (along with the columns she currently writes for the Times of India, the country's largest-circulation English-language newspaper) send a strong message to middle-class Indian women, who often face dowry harassment and abuse when they move into their husband's family home, despite the fast-changing social mores that economic reform has brought to India. "My books try to find ways that women can survive and cope in a world that's cruel to them," she insists. "But I tell stories in an entertaining format. I am not doing a Germaine Greer or Betty Friedan. It's not just get up and fight for your rights, it is more sly and subversive." It's true that De does often depict women as the winners, but any social message is ultimately confused by her books' relentless commercial drive.

The character Anjali in Socialite Evenings sums up De's brand of feminism when she says: "Men feel terribly threatened by self-sufficient women. They prefer girls like me -- dependent dolls -- You should try it -- see how much more you can get out of him that way." In De's 1997 self-help book for Indian women, Surviving Men: The Smart Woman's Guide to Staying on Top, she gives similar advice. She tells her readers to "thrive on stealth and secrecy" in a marriage; in order to "train a man to any level of competence," she suggests women use "a) food, b) sex, c) food and sex."

The idea that De's books are liberating for women makes most Indian feminists see red. "Please tell me she dare not call herself a feminist," seethes Ritu Dewan, head of the Center of Gender Economics at Bombay University. "Her women characters come out on top through sex or manipulation. It's just soft porn." Many educated women echo Dewan's disavowal of De. Roshan Shehani, who used to teach college-level popular-culture courses, says De only writes about the petty concerns of the elite. "There is this notion that Shobhaa is breaking barriers for women, but we try to counter that, because what she does is so limited."

Shobhaa De has a well-rehearsed rebuttal to the criticism that she writes only for the elite: "I don't have to go live in a slum to prove that my heart bleeds for anybody. There's no point in me writing for the poor because they are illiterate." De is well aware that, in addition to being the most popular English-language writer in India, she may be the most hated as well. She once boasted that she had received a record number of bad reviews -- 165 -- for one book. But she now says that writing forthrightly about sex, as she did in Starry Nights, was a childish rebellion against the strict protocol for women's behavior in India. "The bad press was just something that acted like a prod to see how far I could take it, and I really didn't give a damn."

These days, however, De apparently does give a damn about her reputation, and that's probably why the sex has all but disappeared from her more recent writing. Her latest book, Speedpost, is a compilation of rather sappy letters to her children. Shobhaa De is often compared to Jackie Collins, but she's more like Madonna -- a master at reinventing herself as a brand, and constantly using her sex appeal, money and connections as marketing tools. Though she says she hates the idea that her looks sell her books, she also tosses out lines like, "I don't believe you have to deny your strengths as a woman in order to be someone with a mind of your own."

Even De's harshest critics have to admit that she remains a compelling icon for women in today's fast-globalizing India. "Writing about somebody dropping a sari and having an orgasm doesn't mean you're striking big notes for women," says film critic Shubra Gupta. "But she is India's first and only glamorous female brand name, and that means something."

Miranda Kennedy is a journalist based in New Delhi. She reports frequently for NPR.

The Joy of Toxic Cola

Coca-Cola isn't keeping it real in India. Neither is its fierce rival, Pepsi. America's most beloved brands are facing a firestorm of criticism for dangerously high levels of pesticide residues in their locally-made sodas.

The well-respected research group, the Center for Science and Environment (CSE) in New Delhi, found traces of lindane, malathion, chlorpyrifos, and even the banned DDT in Indian-bottled Pepsi and Coca-Cola drinks. CSE says pesticide levels in the Indian samples are respectively 36 and 30 times higher than EU safety standards. And not surprisingly, when the same group tested bottles sold in the U.S., they were pesticide-free.

When the toxic-cola report hit the Indian papers, Hindu nationalist activists smashed Coke and Pepsi bottles in the streets and tore down advertising billboards. Members of Indian parliament immediately ordered a ban on the products in their canteen, and even threatened to revoke Coke and Pepsis licenses if the claims were verified. Universities across the country stopped supplying the sodas, while bottling plants were sealed off in some states.

Coke, like many other multinationals, has had a rocky relationship with the Indian government. In the late 1970s, the government kicked the company out of the country for refusing to locally manufacture its secret syrup. In 1993, Coke reentered the Indian market on the heels of its rival Pepsi with a vengeance. Of the 200 countries where the drink is sold worldwide, India now has the fastest growing market.

Today, the Atlanta-headquartered Coca-Cola and New York-based PepsiCo enjoy an absolute duopoly in the Indian soft drinks market. Together they own all the twelve brands of sodas tested by CSE. So it is no wonder that the two companies, despite their fierce rivalry, immediately closed ranks and threatened legal action against CSE. Nor was it surprising when the U.S. embassy in New Delhi spoke out in defense of the two American companies, describing them in the media as highly reputable and responsible firms.

To settle the controversy, the Indian government decided to expedite its own tests of the products, even as the companies panicked about falling sales. The verdict released last week was mixed, but not lethal for the U.S. multinationals. The Indian health minister told parliament that while the government also found pesticide residues in the soft drinks, the levels fell within national standards for packaged drinking water and were, therefore, safe to drink.

Both Pepsi and Coke immediately ramped up a public relations campaign aimed at wooing back the Indian public. They held a joint press conference, where the Indian CEOs of the local subsidiary posed for cameras clutching bottles of their respective brands. Pepsi placed ads in the national papers advising consumers, "refresh your faith and don't hold back your tastebuds." Soft drink vendors hung up posters proclaiming "Coca-Cola refreshes you with world-class and safe products in India."

Not quite. "The reason we found differences between U.S. and Indian products," explains Sunita Narain, head of CSE, "is because these industries are regulated in the U.S. but not in India. The companies may say we have global standards, but this is not true. There are no global standards." Most countries, including the U.S., do not have standards for soft drinks. While the companies test individual ingredients for toxics according to global standards, they follow local standards for the main ingredient of the bottled drinks: water.

In the U.S. and European Union, water used in soft drinks and bottled water is stringently monitored. Indian water standards, however, are shockingly low. The water is only required to be "potable," and the meaning of that word is not legally defined. Ground water processing is completely unregulated, and the two companies have not voluntarily set any standards for their products.

While Coke and Pepsi may have emerged relatively unscathed from the cola wars, the political battle is far from over. The health ministers announcement caused a furor in parliament, with MPs accusing the Hindu nationalist BJP government of being paid off by Coke and Pepsi. The presence of multinational companies remains a sensitive subject in India. And Coca-Cola's other practices are not likely to help its cause.

The largest Coca-Cola plant in India has also been accused of putting thousands of farmers out of work by draining the water that feeds their wells and poisoning the land with waste sludge. The plant in the southern state of Kerala, which uses 1 million liters of water a day, has been the target of protests from the local village council that is calling for its closure. Furthermore, the state's Pollution Control Board recently found cadmium at toxic levels in sludge samples from the plant. The plant has been distributing this sludge as "organic fertilizer" to local farmers. The pollution board asked Coke to stop emitting sludge from the factory, but the company continues to claim their waste makes a good "soil conditioner."

Environmental groups have long complained that giants like Coke and Pepsi callously disregard public well-being. Sunita Narain of CSE says she targeted the Indian government rather than Coca-Cola or Pepsi simply because any efforts to control and regulate multinationals have always failed. She hopes the government will discover their regulatory backbone and force multinationals to comply with tighter norms. But Ravi Agarwal, director of Toxics Link in Delhi, says the onus falls squarely on the companies, irrespective of local standards: "It is the governments responsibility to provide essential foods, but Coke and Pepsi are brands that go beyond food value. They are responsible for upholding their own international standards."

Apart from regulation, consumer boycotts are often the best check on corporate misconduct, but it isn't clear whether the bad publicity will affect sales. Kailash, whose small bakery in New Delhi is bright with blue Pepsi signs, says he is still feeling the effects. "Sales have gone down, way down," he sighs. He has stopped stocking glass bottles, the most popular way to buy cola in India. "If the doctor tells you, 'you are going to die,' you are scared," he says, "Then when the doctor tells you, now you are okay, do you just turn around and believe him?" Others like Gauri, an MBA student, have decided to take the leap of faith. As she flips open a can of Diet Coke in one of the capital's bustling markets, Gauri admits that she and her friends stopped drinking the sodas after the first report. "But Coke is a big company and it's been around for so long," she says. "I presume that the company would follow health standards, even in a country like India."

Sadly, however, for many, toxic pollution is just a fact of daily life. "We know there are pesticides in everything," shrugs 19-year-old Rahul. "There are pesticides in the soil. Through the soil we get fruit, we get the vegetables that we eat."

There may, however, well be a silver lining in this tale of corporate neglect. Prompted by an earlier study by CSE that fond unsafe pesticide levels in bottled water (including some owned by Coke and Pepsi), the government voted to adopt the European Union's standard for bottled water as of January 2004. Now, thanks to the toxic-soda controversy, the Indian government is moving toward setting enforceable water regulations. "We have to fix certain safety standards," admits Prasad Rao, the Indian health minister. "Today, water is not included in our Prevention of Food Adulteration act which guides food standards. We have to revise our norms for drinking water."

In other good news, Nepal and other neighboring South Asian countries have begun testing their locally-bottled Coke and Pepsi for toxics. And while many Indians have started drinking soda again, experts like Agarwal believe that the debacle is actually a defining moment for food safety and consumer awareness in this country.

Miranda Kennedy is a writer and radio journalist based in New Delhi.

Hindu Fascism Rising

Outside the state headquarters of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Indian state of Gujarat, the results of the nation's watershed elections were trickling in. Soon it became clear that the BJP would not just win, but sweep the elections. The party gained a two-thirds majority in the state assembly on December 15th, routing their primary opponent, the secular Congress party.

The streets of Ahmedabad, Gujarat's largest city, were filled with confetti and saffron flags. Jubilant Hindu men danced around mannequins of the victorious incumbent Chief Minister Narendra Modi, setting off firecrackers in the bright December sun. One BJP supporter roared, "Taliban lost! Al Queda lost! Islamic countries lost! And Hindus won to Mr Modi!"

The Victory of Hatred

The provocative and notorious Narendra Modi ran on a vitriolic election platform which demonized Indian Muslims and Pakistan - casting them as potential terrorists endangering the lives of all Hindus. "The party rode to power on the strength of Muslim blood and tears," says JK Bandukwala, a Muslim professor of physics who was nearly killed during riots last spring.

The elections followed the worst religious violence of India's recent history. Last February, after almost 60 Hindus were killed on a train in Gujarat, reprisal killings against Muslims ravaged the state for weeks. By the time the state finally took control, 2,000 people were dead. Dozens of human rights reports have indicted Modi's government for sponsoring the attacks against Muslims. "The state was quite explicitly involved in the violence," asserts Gurpreet Mahajan, a political science professor in Delhi, "and that means we must find new ways to compel the state to take responsibility for its citizens."

Since the riots, divisions between communities in Gujarat are so strong that in some localities, Muslims and Hindus stood in separate lines at voting booths. A recent opinion poll found that 58 percent of Gujaratis are unprepared to have a member of a different community as their neighbor. After casting their vote, Muslims retreated to their ghettoes or left their homes, fearing the repercussions of a BJP victory. In some parts of the state, BJP victory processions sparked riots between Hindus and Muslims, killing two and injuring dozens.

Across the street from the BJP headquarters on D-day, a group of Muslim men sat in silence outside their tobacco shop, watching the BJP's revelry. Confetti and firecracker smoke drifted toward them. Farooq Sheikh, in a skullcap and a Muslim beard, said grimly, "Why should we bother trying to hide? Now they have the mandate of the people and the police are with them. If the government wants to do violence against Muslims who will stop them."

Bridging the Divide

Despite the overwhelming odds, grassroot activists continue to work to bridge the religious abyss created by months of extremist rhetoric and widespread violence.

When the state government did little to help riot victims, Gujaratis began organizing relief efforts themselves. During the month of March, thousands of refugees flocked to the Gujarat town of Godhra, where women set up an ad-hoc relief camp. Many of the Muslim women had been widowed or molested, most had children to feed, and almost all had lost their livelihoods. The camps started offering women classes in literacy, sewing, and computers. The organizers say not only did the experience empower victimized women, but it allowed them to step into the public eye and speak up for their community's needs.

On the week of the election, hundreds of Hindu and Muslim women traveled more than ten hours from their villages to attend the conference. Most were from rural areas, illiterate and had traveled at great personal risk through a state plagued by violence.

Some testified to watching their daughters be humiliated, molested and burned to death. And all pledged to fight against sectarian violence and for the empowerment of women across religious lines. Conference organizer Bhavna Ramrakiani said it was important for women to publicly speak out against the violence because "when a woman suffers during violence, she suffers as a woman first. We wanted to create a bonding between women and ask them, what kind of governance do they want."

Resistance to the BJP has taken many forms. A week-long peace festival this month brought some of India's most famous singers and poets to Ahmedabad. The attendees included Ela Gandhi, granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi and member of the ANC parliament in South Africa, who was born in Gujarat.

The post-riot polarization in Gujarat, however, has been staggering. Many rural women and Dalits (the so-called untouchable caste of Hindus) found it difficult to break through communal lines when it came down to voting. The BJP's strong identity-based appeal subsumed caste, class and gender differences in the polling booth. In fact, the party did best in the areas of Gujarat where rioting took place last spring.

Sheba George, director of an Ahmedebad NGO, says Hindus and Muslims have become far more suspicious of each other that since the violence, to the point that Dalit women refuse to talk about their experiences and fears in front of a Muslim woman counselor. George says, "The priority now is to figure out ground-level protection for Muslims and other minorities. There may not be another massacre immediately because they feel they have taught Muslims a lesson. But there will be large-scale, acceptable discrimination."

Fascist Future For India?

Gujarat's election was widely seen as a test of the BJP's political future. Modi's tactics may well have saved the faltering party, which leads India's national coalition government, from a loss in the upcoming national elections. "The magic of Modi and militancy has worked for the BJP in Gujarat, and now they know they can repeat his success all over the country," predicts Yusuf Hakim, director of a Muslim hospital in Ahmedabad.

Like most Muslims, Hakim was shocked by the wide margin of the BJP victory. Gujarati Muslims, who make up about 10 percent of Gujarat's population, overwhelmingly voted for the Congress party. But even the Congress party, which historically has a strong secular identity, ran a campaign that catered to Hindus. They only fielded five Muslim candidates and avoided campaigning in Muslim areas. Yusuf Khan, principal correspondent for the Times of India in Ahmedabad, says the Muslim community voted for Congress only because they had no other choice. "The secular credentials of Congress are highly doubtful," he says. "During the riots, they were not vocal about the crimes against Muslims. We have to think of creating a third party force which will not remain silent on atrocities." The BJP victory is a warning bell for the future of Indian politics. Defeated Congress party leader Shankersinh Vaghela calls it "the death of humanity." The World Hindu Council and other rightwing organizations were quick to claim credit for Modi's win, and to promise a resurgence of nationalist Hindu ideology. India's Deputy Prime Minister L. K. Advani said the BJP's renewed mandate "has a lesson for the whole country."

The verdict has left India's Muslims and secular activists floundering. They are trying not to echo Vaghela's doomsday sentiments, but many compare Gujarat to 1933 Germany. Father Cedric Prakash runs a human rights center in Ahmedabad, which was very active in organizing against the BJP. One of the first things he did after Dec. 15 was buy a copy of Mein Kampf. "My first reaction was complete despondency and betrayal -- not of me, but of our country," Prakash says. "We can anticipate our society becoming even more polarized. There's going to be a lot of witch-hunting, not only of minorities but of secular activists." Flush with the BJP victory, the World Hindu Council's Togadia announced that secular activists had been issued a death sentence. Activists and scholars agree that this is not an empty threat and many talk of going underground.

With the BJP in power, most acknowledge there is no short-term solution to the spread of militant nationalism across India. But many find hope in India's secular constitution, and in Hinduism's long held traditions of plurality and openness. Ela Gandhi says India should look to South Africa for inspiration. "You have to persist, if you want to overcome," she says.

The Rise of the Hindu Right

The Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, stands before a crowd of thousands of supporters, doing what he does best: breathing fire against Muslims. He tells the cheering crowds that the nearly 2,000 Muslims who were killed in state-sponsored progroms earlier this year deserved to die. They "lost" their chance, he says, when they did not condemn an attack by unknown terrorists on a train that killed 58 Hindu activists in February. The Hindu crowd cheers with enthusiasm, tossing marigold garlands onto the stage.

Anti-Muslim vitriol is the primary theme of this week's bellwether elections in Gujarat, which have the entire nation on high alert. Modi has based his campaign on an anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan platform that emphasizes Hindu pride. His compatriot, Bal Thackeray, leader of the chauvinist Shiv Sena Party, recently went so far as to call for the formation of Hindu suicide squads "who can also create terror."

After one of Modi's recent election rallies, six were killed and dozens injured in religious riots.

The hardliner Modi may be the last hope for his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP leads India's coalition government, but Gujarat is one of only three states where it holds power. And with national elections just two years away, the Hindu right has gone on the offensive.

Reign of Terror

Gujarat is the most visible stomping ground of Hindu supremacist ideologues, but the extreme right is wreaking terror in the lives of lower caste and Muslim Indians across the nation.

Several weeks ago in the northern state of Haryana, five Dalit (the so-called untouchable caste) men were lynched by a mob of Hindu activists, as police and several senior local administrators looked on. They had allegedly killed a cow, one of Hinduism's most sacred icons. The state refused to act until a post-mortem was done ... on the cow. But although it revealed that the men were actually tanning a dead cow, the village rallied around the killers, preventing the police from arresting them for days. Government officials used the killings to raise the call for a constitutional ban on cow slaughter. "In this code of Hindutva [Hindu nationalist ideology], a dead cow is more valuable than five living Dalits," fumed Amit Segupta, an editor at the national daily Hindustan Times.

However, it is the 150 million Muslims, who constitute India's largest minority community, that are the number one target of the Hindu right. When Hindu activists were killed in a fire set on a train in February, Hindu leaders and government officials immediately blamed "Pakistani-trained Muslims," despite the lack of evidence to support their claims. On the night of the fire, Gujarat Chief minister Narendra Modi instructed senior police and civil administration officials not to control the "Hindu reaction" to the incident.

During the ensuing weeks, Hindu mobs attacked Muslim-owned homes and businesses, burned Muslim men alive, and gang-raped and killed Muslim women across the state. Ashok Singhal, international president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a vitriolic Hindu Right party, called the massacres "a successful experiment" that should repeated across the country.

In November, a distinguished tribunal led by former Indian high court judges released the results of their investigation which concluded that last spring's attacks were "an organized crime perpetuated by the state's chief minister and his government," helped by "public exhortations and celebrations of violence" by rightwing groups. But no action has been taken against any government or police official. The BJP has made the train attack its rallying cry. It is used as proof that Hindus need to be protected from allegedly Pakistani-trained Indian Muslims. Their campaign posters depict Modi standing beside a burning railway car.

Inside the Saffron Brotherhood

While a recent cover story in the Indian weekly "Outlook" dubbed them the "loony right," the right-wing groups now wield tremendous political and cultural power. Under the national leadership of the BJP, which came to power in 1999, many of their demands have wheedled their way into policy and mainstream ethos. Many describe the BJP as simply the "parliamentary wing" of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps), a founding party of the Hindu Right.

The RSS was established in 1925 for the express purpose of fostering Hindu nationalist pride. The party now has almost 50,000 branches across India. Its membership is almost exclusively Hindu men. Women are not allowed to join and members of other religions are understandably scarce. The group holds daily shakhas, military-style drills and lectures, in residential areas as a way to recruit recruits boys as young as 8. Most analysts describe the RSS as the breeding ground for a wider network of Hindu rightist groups, known collectively as the "Sangh parivar" or "family of organizations."

Although the RSS insists it is not a religious or political organization, it is firmly rooted in supremacist ideology. RSS founders drew their inspiration from the success of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, and its shakhas are consciously patterned after fascist training centers. D. R. Goyal, who was recruited as a high level RSS organizer in 1941 and authored "The RSS," the first insider account of the "saffron brotherhood," wrote, "The system that operates in RSS organizationally is that of following one leader: the fascist principle of die Fuerer." And their main goal is to terrorize all those of a different religion, be it Muslims or Christians.

Hindu Right Ascendant

India proudly touts itself as the largest, most culturally heterogeneous democracy in the world. But the pluralist secularism enshrined in the Indian Constitution is being steadily whittled away by the political resurgence of Hindu supremacists. According to the progressive writer Aijaz Ahmad, India is facing "a revolution of the far right", difficult to temper because it is "not a frontal seize of power, but a hurricane from below ... led by a well-disciplined counter-revolutionary elite."

The RSS counts among its members Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and dozens of other government officials. In fact, it helped form the ruling BJP in 1980. Under the BJP, the Hindu right has managed to infiltrate various Indian institutions, including the educational system.

Several months ago, thanks to a Indian Supreme Court ruling, the government-appointed education council won the right to re-write the national school syllabus. But when they began releasing textbooks in October, they were met with a firestorm of criticism for their shoddy facts and grammar, to say nothing of their blatant pro-Hindu bias. In one of the history books, a section on religions in India allots a mere three lines to Islam, following several pages devoted to Hinduism and Buddhism. The textbooks not only get dates and events wrong, but leave out significant events, such as the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by an RSS member.

But even while several state governments and private schools have refused to adopt the textbooks, the education council has rebuffed requests to retract them. The Gujarat state president of the BJP, Rajendrasinh Rana, says the textbooks simply emphasize "the common factors of pride in our country." On the day Parliament began debating the revisionist curriculum, almost 200,000 students rallied in Delhi in support of the "Indian-ization of education."

Hindustan Times Editor Amit Sengupta runs down the list of "institutions (the Hindu Right) have effectively destroyed and homogenized: the police, the bureaucracy, education, the health and family sector." He points out that there are increasing reports of people starving to death in states across India, but says "the removal of poverty is not a priority." The government has 60 million tons of buffer stocks of food grains, but admits that its public distribution system has broken down.

Pitfalls of Extremism

The BJP's singular focus on nationalism, say party critics, has eclipsed basic issues of governance. "The BJP has every element of a successful party: it has funds, it is organized," says high court lawyer Girish Patel. "Yet we have never seen such a non-performing government. When BJP wins the elections, then their defeat starts, because you cannot bank upon riots, then you have to govern." Sengupta compares today's India to the last days of the Roman empire. "There's an absolute sense of anarchy. There's a murky war going on within the party for power," he says. "The BJP has no trump card except sectarian violence."

However, if the BJP succeeds in the Gujarat elections, many believe it will give a green light for the right to push forward its extremist agenda. Syndicated columnist Praful Bidwai predicts that if Narendra Modi wins in Gujarat, he will run for prime minister in the 2004 national elections. With an extremist religious fringe plotting to take control of the nation, India is walking a thin line between democracy and fascism.

Freelance writer Miranda Kennedy reports from Gujarat. She is a former editor at Ms. magazine and a former producer for Amy Goodman's Democracy Now radio show.