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Saturday, December 6, 2008

India's Dangerous Divide

DECEMBER 6, 2008
India's Dangerous Divide

India's Muslims are prominent in Bollywood but still struggle with their identity. In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, tensions have mounted and loyalties have been tested. Ramachandra Guha on the path forward for India and its Muslim minority.

An Indian Muslim woman at a candlelight vigil in New Delhi on Dec. 3, in memory of the victims of the Mumbai terrorist attacks.


In October 1947, a bare six weeks after India and Pakistan achieved their independence from British rule, the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, wrote a remarkable letter to the Chief Ministers of the different provinces. Here Nehru pointed out that despite the creation of Pakistan as a Muslim homeland, there remained, within India, "a Muslim minority who are so large in numbers that they cannot, even if they want, go anywhere else. That is a basic fact about which there can be no argument. Whatever the provocation from Pakistan and whatever the indignities and horrors inflicted on non-Muslims there, we have got to deal with this minority in a civilized manner. We must give them security and the rights of citizens in a democratic State."

In the wake of the recent incidents in Mumbai, these words make salutary reading. It seems quite certain that the terrorists who attacked the financial capital were trained in Pakistan. The outrages have sparked a wave of indignation among the middle class. Demonstrations have been held in the major cities, calling for revenge, in particular for strikes against training camps in Pakistan. The models held up here are Israel and the United States; if they can "take out" individual terrorists and invade whole countries, ask some Indians, why not we?
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A bullet hole in the window of a restaurant at Victoria Terminus station in Mumbai, one of several locations targeted in the terrorist attacks.



Other commentators have called for a more measured response. They note that the civilian government in Islamabad is not in control of the army, the army not in control of the notorious Inter Services Intelligence agency, the ISI not in control of the extremists it has funded. They point out that Pakistan has itself been a victim of massive terror attacks. India, they say, should make its disapproval manifest in other ways, such as canceling sporting tours and recalling diplomats. At the same time, the United States should be asked to demand of Pakistan, its erratically reliable ally, that it act more decisively against the terrorists who operate from its soil.

One short-term consequence of the terror in Mumbai is a sharpening of hostility between India and Pakistan. And, as is always the case when relations between these two countries deteriorate, right-wing Hindus have begun to scapegoat those Muslims who live in India. They have begun to speculate as to whether the attackers were aided by their Indian co-religionists, and to demand oaths of loyalty from Muslim clerics and political leaders.

There are 150 million Muslims in India. They have gained particular prominence in one area: Bollywood. Several top directors and composers are Muslim, as well as some of India's biggest movie stars. One, Aamir Khan, was a star and producer in "Lagaan," a song-and-dance epic about a game of cricket that was nominated for an Academy Award in 2002. But Muslims are massively underrepresented in the professions -- few of India's top lawyers, judges, doctors and professors are Muslim. Many Indian Muslims are poor, and a few are angry.

Pakistan was carved out of the eastern and western portions of British India. To this new nation flocked Muslims from the Indian heartland. Leading the migration were the lawyers, teachers and entrepreneurs who hoped that in a state reserved for people of their faith, they would be free of competition from the more populous (and better educated) Hindus.

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Mohandas K. Gandhi, who advocated for Indian independence and religious unity, was assassinated by a Hindu extremist two weeks after this photo was taken on Jan. 17, 1948.

Pakistan was created to give a sense of security to the Muslims of the sub-continent. In fact, it only made them more insecure. Nehru's letter of October 1947 was written in response to a surge of Hindu militancy, which called for retribution against the millions of Muslims who stayed behind in India. Three months later, Mahatma Gandhi, who was both Father of the Indian Nation as well as Nehru's mentor, was shot dead by a Hindu fanatic. That act shamed the religious right, who retreated into the shadows. There they stayed until the 1970s, when, through a combination of factors elaborated upon below, they came to occupy center-stage in Indian politics.

If the first tragedy of the Indian Muslim was Partition, the second has been the patronage by India's most influential political party, the Congress, of Muslims who are religious and reactionary rather than liberal and secular. Nehru himself was careful to keep his distance from sectarian leaders whether Hindu or Muslim. However, under the leadership of his daughter, Indira Gandhi, the Congress party came to favor the conservative sections of the Muslim community. Before elections, Congress bosses asked heads of mosques to issue fatwas to their flock to vote for the party; after elections, the party increased government grants to religious schools and colleges. In a defining case in 1985, the Supreme Court called for the enactment of a common civil code, which would abolish polygamy and give all women equal rights regardless of faith -- the right to their husband's or father's property, for example, or the right to proper alimony once divorced. The prime minister at the time was Rajiv Gandhi. Acting on the advice of the Muslim clergy, he used his party's majority in Parliament to nullify the court's verdict. After Rajiv's widow, Sonia Gandhi, became Congress president in 1998, the party has continued to fund Muslim religious institutions rather than encourage them to engage with the modern world.

Partition and Congress patronage between them dealt a body blow to Muslim liberalism. The first deprived the community of a professional vanguard; the second consolidated the claims to leadership of priests and theologians. In an essay published in the late 1960s, the Marathi writer Hamid Dalwai (a resident of Mumbai) wrote of his community that "the Muslims today are culturally backward." To be brought "on a level with the Hindus," argued Dalwai, the Muslims needed an "avant garde liberal elite to lead them." Otherwise, the consequences were dire for both communities. For "unless a Muslim liberal intellectual class emerges, Indian Muslims will continue to cling to obscurantist medievalism, communalism, and will eventually perish both socially and culturally. A worse possibility is that of Hindu revivalism destroying even Hindu liberalism, for the latter can succeed only with the support of Muslim liberals who would modernize Muslims and try to impress upon these secular democratic ideals."

The possibility that Dalwai feared has come to pass. From the 1980s, the dominance of the Congress party has been challenged by the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP seeks to make India a "Hindu" nation, by basing the nation's political culture on the religious traditions (and prejudices) of the dominant community. Charging the Congress with "minority appeasement," with corruption and with dynastic rule, the BJP came to power in many states, and eventually in New Delhi. However, its commitment to the secular ideals of the Indian Constitution is somewhat uncertain. For the party's members and fellow travelers, only Indians of the Hindu faith are to be considered full or first-class citizens. Of the others, the Parsis are to be tolerated, the Christians distrusted, and the Muslims detested. One form this detestation takes is verbal -- the circulation of innuendos based on lies and half-truths (as in the claim that Muslims outbreed Hindus and will soon outnumber them). Another form is physical -- thus, the hand of the BJP lies behind some of the worst communal riots in independent India, for example Bhagalpur in 1989, Mumbai in 1992, and Gujarat in 2002; in all cases, an overwhelming majority of the victims were Muslims.

The rise of the BJP owes something to the failures of the Congress, and something also to the example of Pakistan. As that society has come increasingly under the influence of Islamic fundamentalists, there is a more ready audience, within India, for the rants and raves of Hindu extremists. Likewise, the expulsion, by jihadis trained in Pakistan, of some 200,000 Hindus from the valley of Kashmir in a single year -- 1989-1990 -- has been used to justify attacks on Muslims in other parts of India. But to explain is not to excuse -- for the BJP has stoked feelings and passions that should have no place in a civilized society.
In its activities BJP is helped by a series of allied groups. Known also by their abbreviations -- RSS, VHP, etc. -- these were in the forefront of the religious violence of the 1980s and beyond. Roaming the streets of small- (and big-) town India, they addressed their Muslim prey with the slogan "Pakistan or Kabristan!" (Flee to Pakistan, or we will send you straight to your graves). Meanwhile, their ideologues in the press -- some with degrees from the best British universities -- make the argument that Muslims are inherently violent, or unpatriotic, or both.

In fact, the ordinary Muslim is much like any other ordinary Indian -- honest, hard-working and just about scraping a living. A day after I heard a BJP leader denounce the Congress for making the Muslims into a "pampered and privileged minority," I found myself making a turn into the busiest road in my home town, Bangalore. Just ahead of me was a Muslim gentleman, who was attempting to do likewise. Except that he was making the turn not behind the wheel of a powerful Korean-made car but with a hand-cart on which were piled some bananas.

That the fruit seller was Muslim was made clear by his headgear, a white cap with perforations. He was an elderly man, about 60, short and slightly-built. The turn was made hard by his age and infirmity, and harder by the fact that the road sloped steeply downward, and by the further fact that making the turn with him were very many motor vehicles. Had he gone too slow he would have been bunched in against the cars; had he gone too fast he might have lost control altogether. Placed right behind the fruit seller, I saw him visibly relax his shoulders as the turn was successfully made, with cart and bananas both intact.

One should not read too much into a single image, but it does seem to be that that perilous turn was symptomatic of an entire life -- a life lived at the edge of subsistence, a life taken one day at a time and from one turn to the next. In this respect the fruit seller was quite representative of Indian Muslims in general. Far from being pampered or privileged, most Muslims are poor farmers, laborers, artisans and traders.

The failure to punish the perpetrators of successive pogroms has thrown some young men into the arms of fundamentalist groups. But the number is not, as yet, very large. And it is counterbalanced by other trends, for instance, the growing hunger for modern education among the youth. The desire to learn English is ubiquitous, as is the fascination for computers. Even in the disgruntled valley of Kashmir, a press survey found that the iconic founder of India's most respected software company, Infosys Technologies, a Hindu named N. R. Narayana Murthy, was a greater hero among Muslim students than the founder of Al Qaeda.

Since the reasons for the poverty (and the anger) are so complex, a successful compact between Indian Muslims and modernity will require patient and many-sided work. It would help if the Pakistan center was to reassert itself against the extremism it has itself, in past times, encouraged. It would help some more, if, pace Hamid Dalwai, there was a more forthright assertion of Muslim liberalism within India. But perhaps the greatest burden falls on India's major political parties. The Congress must actively promote the modernization of Muslim society. And the BJP must recognize, in word and in deed, that the 150 million Muslims in India have to be dealt with in a civilized manner, and given the security and the rights due them as equal citizens in a democratic and non-denominational State.

Writing in 1957, the historian Wilfred Cantwell Smith pointed out that Indian Muslims were unique in that they shared their citizenship "with an immense number of people. They constitute the only sizable body of Muslims in the world of which this is, or ever has been true." True no longer, for in many countries of Western Europe and even in the United States, the Muslims are now a sizeable but not dominant component of the national population. This makes this particular case even more special. For if, notwithstanding the poisonous residues of history and the competitive chauvinisms of politicians, Indians of different faiths were to live in peace, dignity and (even a moderate) prosperity, they might set an example for the world.

Ramachandra Guha is the author of 'India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy.' He lives in Bangalore.

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