Threats to Secular India

Right-wing nationalism in control

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 any conflict.

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 criticism.

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 (Hinduness).

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
University, UK

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