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By Sonia Gandhi

Sonia Gandhi, the widow of the assassinated Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, is president of the Congress Party and leader of the opposition. Her comments are adapted from remarks on Nov. 29 at the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies, Oxford University.

-- There are more Muslims in India than in any other country save Indonesia. Similarly, there are more Hindus in India than in any other country. There are also more Christians in India than in any countries recognized as Christian. But India is not a Hindu country or a Muslim country or a Christian country. It belongs to all of them and the millions of followers of other religions as well.

One of the defining principles of contemporary India, therefore, is ''unity in diversity.'' But there is something more. India exemplifies a complex unity through diversity, a society in which the celebration of diversity strengthens the bonds of our modern nation. India's diversities are not just numerous. They are also alive and assertive.

It is India's multilayered parliamentary democracy that provides the framework within which all of our peoples' voices are heard and their aspirations pursued. Democracy has taken firm root in India and has proved its resilience time and again. It is an instrument both of representation and empowerment. The flexibility of our constitution has helped us accommodate diversities in a peaceful and negotiated manner. Affirmative action embedded deeply into the fabric of our democracy is giving new hope to the disadvantaged sections of society, not least of which are women. Today, there are more than a million elected representatives transforming our countryside. The creation of new states has kept centrifugal tensions at bay, and the reconfiguration of India's internal geography has been an important element in managing its diversities, while adhering to the rule of law.

Tremendous social ferment is taking place throughout the country. This churning does, on occasion, result in conflict. From the outside, its scale may get magnified, and it may appear that India is frequently in turmoil. The truth is that, at any given point of time, the vast majority of our people live in harmony and peace. There is, indeed, something powerful that gives strength and resilience to our society even as it is subject to varied stresses and strains. And that something is secularism and democracy -- two complementary forms of tolerance, as the Mexican Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz once put it.

What is striking and remarkable today is that international terrorist networks do not seem to have a hold on Indian Muslims. That is entirely because our political and social framework accommodates plurality in substantial measure. All over the world, an impression has been created that Islam and terrorism are inseparable. The fact that there are any number of terrorist organizations whose members subscribe to other religions is conveniently forgotten. India has been a continuous victim of cross-border terrorism. Hindus and Muslims alike have been targeted. This is particularly so in our state of Jammu and Kashmir where it is evident that the terrorists are acting in pursuance of the foreign policy of our neighbor to the west. It would be wrong to think that religion is their motive. Nevertheless, I should point out that, by the postures it adopts and the actions it takes, this neighbor provides a ready handle to those who stoke communal antagonism within India. There are also religious and political leaders on both sides who feed on each other's passions.

Terrorism has no religion. In fact, it is the antithesis of religion, for the essence of all religions is compassion. A major effort has to be made to enable people to appreciate this truth. Inter-faith dialogue and communication at various levels and in different forums have to be sustained, to help improve mutual understanding. Religious extremism very often is born out of perceived threats. These threats can be dealt with only through analysis, debate and engagement.

The new challenge that the world will face in this evolving century is decentralized terrorism on the part of well-organized political and ethnic groups armed with sophisticated weaponry. Their aim is to create panic among the largest numbers of innocent men, women and children. Humankind must urgently move to deal with this menace caused by zealots who deliberately misuse religion.

Terror should not be combated with greater terror. Though no end can justify mindless violence, ultimately the roots of terrorism have to be located in political, social and economic factors. Prosperity can breed terrorism as much as poverty can. A globalization process that is seen to be inequitable and destabilizing of cultural moorings can trigger terrorist mindsets. A political system that is closed and does not fulfill the aspirations of the people can create conditions that encourage dangerous ideologies.

Sept. 11 was a colossal tragedy, and all of us reached out spontaneously to America in that moment of grief. It is regrettable that the world woke up to the threat of terrorism only after the horrific events of that day. Terrorism cannot, and should not, be dealt with in a selective and segmented manner within the framework of individual nation-states and their priorities. Now that all of us are aware of the horrendous consequences of international terrorism and the threat of weapons of mass destruction, we must sustain a collective campaign against them with single-minded focus. This campaign should be framed and implemented on a clear understanding that terrorism is indivisible, international and is perpetuated not only by non-state actors but also by some governments, as an instrument of their state policy. The approach that says ''the terrorism I face is of higher priority than the terrorism you face'' is illogical and has dangerous implications for global stability and security. Equally grave is the cross-border flow of funds through different channels that help support terrorist organizations. This must be dealt with comprehensively and globally.

It has become fashionable to talk of an impending ''clash of civilizations.'' The Indian experience strongly disproves this approach. The concept of a deep fault line across world religions and its resulting inevitably in conflict lends itself to mischievous distortions and misrepresentations, both internationally and within our own societies. Complex political, social and economic realities cannot be reduced to a simplistic confrontation between religions. All of us need to guard against this.

Cherishing and upholding tolerance at home, it is but natural that India should champion coexistence among the nations of the world as well. Panchsheel -- the five principles of peaceful coexistence derived from the Buddha's teachings and given contemporary relevance by Jawaharlal Nehru -- still holds great meaning. Let me recapitulate what these principles are: mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence. Conflict and coexistence cannot be managed by any one single country, however well meaning and powerful it may be. There is urgent need to redesign international institutions so that they reflect contemporary realities. They must have an effective say in the management of global issues. The most recent Security Council resolution on Iraq has given multilateralism a fresh lease on life -- and we hope that this will be a long enough lease for the United Nations to be renewed and restructured. Globalization will prove equitable and sustainable only if serious attention is paid to its governance both within and across nations.

The United States is now the world's preeminent power in every sense of the term. But the paradox of this power is that it cannot afford to act unilaterally. Many in the United States are impatient with multilateralism, but in today's interdependent world, there is simply no alternative to working in concert and collaboration with each other. We fervently hope that the United States recognizes the desirability and feasibility of multilateralism. At the same time, other countries have a responsibility to keep the United States involved and committed to international agreements and institutions.

We have watched closely the developments relating to Iraq in recent months. As a founding member of the United Nations, India is deeply committed to the principles of its charter. It is our view that the question of Iraq cannot be dealt with unilaterally. Concepts like ''regime change'' are fraught with grave dangers.

For India, as for the world, the central challenge is to be one and many at the same time. That oneness must be reinforced. That variety must be nurtured. As we look back, we can derive some satisfaction that we have put in place in India a system of ideas and institutions to ensure that this happens. It is by no means smooth sailing. But political democracy is strong enough, social diversity is valued enough, and economic development is robust enough to help us navigate ourselves through the storms and tempests that lash every once in a while, threatening to blow us away.

What sustains us is the thought expressed so evocatively in Rock Edict XII of our great Emperor Asoka, who ruled in the 3rd century BC over a territory that extended well beyond present-day India. This edict is in a region of Gujarat, and its words resonate even today:

''The faiths of all deserve to be honored for one reason or another. By honoring them one exalts one's own faith and at the same time performs a service to the faith of others. By acting otherwise, one injures one' own faith and does disservice to that of others.''

(c) 2002, Oxford Center for Islamic Studies/Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 12/2/02)