Threats to Secular India
Right-wing nationalism in
by Sidharth Bhatia
Z magazine, November 2002
India has been no stranger to terrorist
acts and, in the past few years, "cross-border terrorism"
has been the mantra of the government, which blames all militant
activity in Kashmir and elsewhere on Pakistan. When President
Bush announced his plan to involve other countries in his war
against terrorism, India's policy makers saw two distinct opportunities:
(1) a chance to move closer to the U.S. as a key component of
the international alliance, and (2) edging Pakistan out of the
equation. Indian policy makers often complain about the U.S.'s
preference for Pakistan as the partner of choice in South Asia
and given that it was now a dictatorship and presumably out of
favor with a new United States, it was natural for New Delhi to
assume that Bush would turn to India as a key regional ally, perhaps
drawing upon its vast experience in dealing with Islamic terrorists.
How wrong this assumption turned out to
be became evident in less time than it takes to say Osama bin
Laden. As India furiously waved to attract Bush's attention, even
offering military bases for any putative attack on Afghanistan,
a new international star was born on the subcontinent. General
Pervez Musharraf, who had been in somewhat of a doghouse after
so bloodlessly assuming power in Islamabad, turned his back on
the Taliban that his army colleagues had supported and signed
on with Bush, no questions asked. The Bush administration, firmly
believing in the adage it takes one thief to catch another, and
fully grasping Pakistan's strategic importance to mount an attack
on Afghanistan (later securing all important pipelines, too),
welcomed Musharraf and turned him into the west's favorite poster
boy who could do no wrong. Want to hold a bogus referendum to
legitimize your coup? Go ahead. Feel like banishing all legitimate
political opposition and changing the constitution while you are
at it? Be our guest.
The Indians, who never tire of pointing
out how they are a "democracy" and therefore natural
allies with the U. S., felt disappointed and went into a sulk.
They also took President Bush's unilateralism to heart and decided
they too would finish off cross-border terrorism by striking at
its source, i.e., Pakistan. Thus, when gunners attacked the Indian
parliament in December and, subsequently, there were other heinous
killings of unarmed civilians, India demanded that Pakistan rein
in its puppet terrorists. To show India was serious, India rolled
out its military prowess, moving hundreds of thousands of troops
to the border, alarming the world into thinking nuclear Armageddon
was at hand.
A lot of shuttle diplomacy from the U.S.,
with a few sideshows from Britain, followed and the heated temperatures
cooled down, but the Indian and Pakistani armies haven't pulled
back from the borders. Given that India claims Pakistan-sponsored
terrorists tried to sabotage the elections in Jammu and Kashmir,
the readiness of the troops at the border is significant. A war
is not imminent, but it would be foolish to completely rule out
But Kashmir and Indo-Pak tensions are
nothing new and the U.S. will, for its own reasons, ensure that
these tensions do not get out of hand. A bigger worry should be
what is happening within India.
In February and March this year, Hindu
mobs in Gujarat went on a rampage and killed hundreds-official
estimates say 600, unofficial figures are closer to 2,000-of Muslim
women, men, and children in a brutal unprecedented orgy. Sectarian
riots have broken out in the past and Hindu Muslim relations are
often tense in some parts of the country, but this pogrom had
one significant difference; the state was an active participant
in the proceedings. Human Rights Watch has documented several
instances of official apathy and connivance in the killings. By
their acts of omission and commission, government functionaries
at various levels-police, civil servants and, if subsequent reports
are to believed, even ministers-ignored pleas for help from Muslims
and actively encouraged mobs to kill, rape, and loot. One magazine
reported that the chief minister, Narendra Modi, described by
a well-known sociologist as a "textbook fascist," had
called a meeting of senior civil servants before the riots began
and discouraged them from taking any action to stop the rioters.
This fury was ostensibly to "avenge"
an attack in which a mob set fire to a train in the small town
of Godhra and charred 59 people inside. The victims were Hindus
returning from a rally and were shouting slogans against Muslims.
This apparently enraged local Muslims so much that they gathered
a few hundred people and burned the passengers alive. A subsequent
inquiry has not conclusively proved that this is what happened
and a forensic examination has shown that the fire was started
from the inside. However, that is a moot point-within days of
this ghastly incident, enraged Hindu mobs were out in the streets
in other parts of the state systematically targeting Muslim homes,
as well as commercial properties owned by Muslims. So thorough
was their research that they managed to burn down Muslim-owned
shops while sparing other establishments right next door.
Universal condemnation followed. It was
not merely the fact of the rioting, but the Administration's weak
response in controlling it and the tacit justifications and finger
pointing by those elected to protect the citizens. Modi was quoted
as saying "Every action has an equal reaction" to justify
the rampaging mobs and the post-Godhra killings, a statement he
denied, but which was fairly typical of his subsequent behavior.
Not only did rioting continue for weeks, he blamed everyone-the
opposition parties, the media, and even Indian parliamentarians-for
fanning the flames by overblowing the incident. Journalists who
covered the rioting at great risk were singled out for severe
But the most blame was apportioned to
the dreaded Inter-services Intelligence of neighboring Pakistan,
which has become the familiar shadowy presence behind all acts
of terrorism in India and whose name is regularly invoked to prove
to citizens and the rest of the world that Pakistan has sinister
designs in India. They are the ones who fund, arm, train, and
control Kashmiri militants, they spread counterfeit Indian currency
in the country, and they had planned the train fire along with
local Muslims. That is the case that has been built up by the
Hindu right who rule India and whose party runs Gujarat, the state
where the riots took place.
The connection between the secret service
of a Muslim country with Indian Muslims is a clever one; it fits
the mythology that Indian Muslims, all 140 million of them, are
a 5th column whose loyalty to India is suspect. This has been
a theme of Hindu rightwingers for a long time and all kinds of
actions, real and imagined, are held out as examples of the Muslims
lack of fealty to India. Their habit of praying towards Mecca
indicates an extraterritorial loyalty. They have been accused
of cheering for the other side whenever India and Pakistan play
cricket. (An absurd claim as India's cricket team was captained
for a long time by a Muslim.)
For many years anti-Muslim tirades were
routinely disregarded by most Indians, who were steeped in the
traditions and culture of the secular state. Secularism-the complete
separation of religion and state-was the credo advocated by the
founding fathers of modern India when the country became independent
from British rule in 1947. To ensure that it was followed to the
letter and spirit, they enshrined it in the constitution.
But the forces of Hindu militancy only
went into hiding, they did not disappear. Four decades of secularism
and a commitment to protecting minorities did not prevent the
rise of the Hindu right, which made its presence felt dramatically
in the late 1980s, when the Bharatiya Janata Party, which till
then had only a few seats in parliament, raised the banner of
Hindutva was designed to appeal to Hindus
who felt that the minorities got too many special rights and that
"pseudo-secularists"-i.e., English speaking, westernized
Indians who also were allegedly left wing-had conspired to undermine
Hinduism in a country that was overwhelmingly Hindu. It was a
compelling argument, especially to those who felt marginalized
and the campaign caught on like wildfire. Riots broke out in different
parts of the country and in 1992, the campaign climaxed dramatically
when Hindu mobs demolished a 400-year-old disused mosque, which
they claimed was built on the sacred birthplace, several millennia
ago, of one of the gods of the Hindu pantheon .
That event, on December 6, 1992, marked
an historic turning point and the BJP's political fortunes have
been rising ever since. Though it never attained full majority
in parliament, it was the single largest party in 1998 and managed
to bring together a disparate group of parties, over 20 in number,
including one-time Socialists who would never taste power on their
own. This government has ruled India for the past four years and
has dismantled much of what India had been for nearly five decades.
The first major task of the coalition
was to fulfill something that the BJP had promised in its manifesto
in 1998, but which no one, including the world community, took
seriously: it conducted a series of nuclear explosions, finally
bringing India's nuclear new laws like the Prevention of Terrorism
Act have been introduced weapon capabilities out of the closet
where they had been kept for nearly 30 years. It was a political
decision more than a strategic one, designed to signal the advent
of a muscular and robust nationalism and it tied in well with
the BJP's agenda of building a "strong" motherland,
one that would stand up to the world and be proud of its heritage.
In pursuit of that goal, the government
launched a campaign to do away with established norms. It altered
the educational curriculum to provide the "correct"
version of history, took over social science and history research
institutions, even produced pseudoscientific research claiming
the existence of Hindu civilizations before the Indus Valley.
Skeptics have been silenced or marginalized-one historian who
suggested that Hindus ate beef at one time (the current Hinduism
worships the cow as a deity) found his book banned; another discovered
his commissioned book would no longer be published because it
projected a secular viewpoint of Indian history.
Externally, India has seen a war with
Pakistan, as well as an upping of the temperature, aided by incendiary
statements by government hard-liners who want to once and for
all " solve the Pakistan problem. " During border tensions
earlier in 2002, there was much talk of pre-emptive strikes and
the slicing up of Pakistani territory. In the end, India recalled
its ambassador and sent the Pakistani High commissioner packing.
At the same time, ostensibly to check
terrorism, tough new laws like the Prevention of Terrorism Act
have been introduced that allow for people with foreknowledge
of terrorist acts not yet committed to be arrested (this could
even mean a journalist who may have interviewed a Kashmiri separatist).
The neo-nationalism of the Hindu right
in India is projecting itself as macho and tough, that will not
tolerate any dissent or allow any nonsense from recalcitrant neighbors
or secular and liberal Indians, especially the much-reviled "English
speaking" Indians who are seen as the enemy.
To this brand of far-right thinking, the
ultimate model is Sharon's Israel, which indulges in pre-emptive
strikes against Palestinians before they can hit Israeli targets,
keeps troublemakers in check, and is unmindful of world opinion.
It also helps that it is fighting Muslims and, in keeping with
the visceral hatred for Muslims among Hindu chauvinists, this
makes Zionists and Hindus natural allies (never mind if influential
elements among Hindus are admirers of Hitler). Unlikely alliances
are being built among Hindu groups and Zionists, as well as among
Hindus in Britain and the anti-immigrant far right British Nationalist
Party, as British Hindus try to distinguish between themselves
and the hated "Pakis," as Muslims are derogatorily called.
At the same time, India, jettisoning 40
years of foreign policy principles, has begun turning away from
solidarity with the Palestinians to align with Israel (and the
U.S.) in defense and other matters. From playing a key role as
a voice of the underdeveloped third world, India now wants to
join the big boys, ideally as a permanent member of the Security
Council, but at least as a key power in the region and beyond.
The U. S. is content to string India along and, suddenly, all
manner of top U.S. policy-makers have come to reassure India that
it occupies an affectionate place in the hearts of the U.S. establishment
and will be roped in to join the "concert of democracies."
What does this portend for India? To start
with, the presence of two hostile nuclear neighbors, both itching
to start a fight, does not give cause for optimism. The acquisition
of nuclear weapons has not, as was forecast by the Dr. Strangeloves
of the region, reduced the chances of a conflict. Both countries
have fought one war and are in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation
at the border, with Pakistan having declined to sign a no-first
strike treaty. The theory of Mutually Assured Destruction may
not be applicable to neighboring countries, where communication
is minimum at best and launch to strike timings may amount to
a few minutes.
The simmering anti-minority feelings in
India, a land with 140 million Muslims constantly being taunted
about their patriotism, is another cause for serious concern.
In 1947, the subcontinent was partitioned into two, in keeping
with the "two-nation" theory propounded by Muslim leaders,
and Hindu groups and millions died crossing to the other side.
Many observers have expressed concern about another partition-like
environment if this minority baiting continues.
The possibility that a one billion strong,
secular, diverse nation, that prided itself on its multiculturalism
long before the phrase became fashionable, could fall under the
control of religious bigots should make people around the world
really scared. If the Hindu right is successful, that is exactly
what will happen. To the U.S. establishment, that will not matter
as long as economic policies favor American companies. But it
could spell the end of secular, liberal India.
Sidharth Bhhatia is a senior Indian journalist
who writes on South Asia for several international publications.
He is also an Associate Press Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge