Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Secular as communal

by Chandan Mitra

Even as India was reeling under the impact of relentless terror attacks in Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Surat last week, I was startled by a news report from Iran. Last Sunday, the Iranian regime executed a whopping 29 convicts at a jail on the outskirts of Teheran, bringing the number of executions this year to 369. This figure, the report pointed out, was only next to the number executed in China in the first seven months of 2008.

There may be divergent views on capital punishment. Most liberals contend that it is barbaric to retain this on statute books in the 21st Century when the rights of the individual are being steadily enshrined in legal frameworks across the globe. Then, of course, there is the fundamental question whether man has the right to take a life since he cannot give it. Irrespective of that, the query which must be posed is whether heinous crimes against humanity -- such as terror killings -- can be dealt by routine penal provisions of the law.

In citing the examples of Iran and China, draconian societies both, it is not my case that their approach to crime needs to be emulated by India. Nevertheless, we must apply our mind to the question of creating an appropriate structure of investigation and deterrence against terrorist depredations - of which Bangalore and Ahmedabad were not the first and, unfortunately, will not be the last. Complicating matters further, the grim reality is that terrorist activities in India are very largely community specific.

Although its victims cut across religion and other identities, the blunt truth is that the overwhelming number of terrorist masterminds, operatives and suspects are invariably followers of the Islamic faith. Sadly but not unexpectedly, this leads many people to conclude that Muslims per se are not trustworthy, that their allegiance to Indian nationhood is suspect and that nothing but their emaciation will lower the danger that terrorism poses to this country.

This is a highly dangerous and counter-productive argument. In fact the more that Muslims feel shunned and suspect, the greater the possibility of their getting sucked into the web of fundamentalism from which it is often a short hop to jihadi terrorism. Having said that, one also needs to realise that unless the Muslims themselves do more to rectify this perception, attitudes are unlikely to change. But the corrective measures cannot be fashioned by some self-styled community leaders. For example, the ink on the supposed fatwa against terrorism, issued at a highly publicised gathering of Muslim ulema and endorsed by the respected Deoband School of theology, had barely dried before last weekend's bomb blasts happened. This clearly exposed the Muslim clergy's dwindling command over that section of the community's youth that has been indoctrinated by the philosophy of revenge and hatred.

Unfortunately, many madrasas that are often rightly described as jihad factories are run by the same ulema. It is the doctrinaire and intolerant section of madrasa teachers, who virulently resist all attempts at modernisation of their institutions, which has emerged as the ideological promoter of jihadism. The leadership of the ulema, if it is serious about assisting the nation in combating the spread of terrorist ideas, must intervene effectively in the appointment and training of madrasa teachers.

As Pakistan's example suggests, this is easier said than done. The tragic absence of a sizeable Muslim middle class with stakes in the economy and society makes the generation of articulate public opinion in the community that much more difficult.

However, it is the nature of the Indian polity and the national media that is guilty of fostering Muslim separatism more than the community's own leaders. Sustained and frenzied attempts by pseudo-secular parties to convert Muslims into a water-tight vote bank and exploit their insecurities has, predictably, generated a backlash especially among educated urban Hindus. The incumbent Government at the Centre is particularly responsible for that. Tragically, the real issue - Muslim economic backwardness and educational disadvantage - is not addressed. Cosmetic measures including setting up a ministry of minority affairs, separate financial institutions for minorities, presenting stern anti-terror laws, like POTA, as anti-Muslim, only reinforce the perception of minority appeasement without concretely benefiting the minorities.

By pandering to similar sentiment, the English-language media, both print and electronic, end up provoking Hindu opinion. Take for instance, the recent coverage of the Ahmedabad bomb blasts. Certain TV channels focused almost exclusively on how Muslim-dominated localities too had been targeted. While that was factually correct, the undue importance given to this made it appear as if the targeting of innocent people irrespective of community was not a major issue and only Muslim victimhood was. Secular fundamentalists, usually Hindu even if nominally so, queer the pitch further. Recently when a court ruled in favour of the adoptive Hindu parents in a custody battle over a lost Muslim child brought up by them for four years, Teesta Setalvad threatened to file a petition challenging the judicial order. This despite the testimony of the boy, now six years old, that he preferred to stay with his adoptive family, not biological mother. Although the media, by and large, extolled this as a fine example of secularism in action, hardliners were unreconciled. This kind of reaction prompts retorts that, had the verdict gone the other way secularists would have exulted.

Mere statement of facts on the issue of illegal Bangladeshi immigration leads to people being branded closet communalists. Guwahati High Court Judge MK Sharma is currently being targeted for commenting in his judgment that illegal immigrants are threatening to become "kingmakers" in Assam because their numbers have multiplied in geometric proportion over the last couple of decades. Although Justice Sharma specifically referred to the threat this poses to the "indigenous population both Hindu and Muslim" a section of the media loudly wondered whether the judge was penning a BJP pamphlet rather than a judgment. Such despicable biases trigger Hindu resentment and a growing feeling that nobody can afford to speak the truth lest it be denounced as politically incorrect.

The manner in which the fierce outrage in Jammu against the revocation of land allotted to the Amarnath Shrine Board has been treated both by the Government and most of the media is yet another instance of majority-bashing. So much so that former State Governor General SK Sinha, has also been charged with possessing a "communal agenda". The reality is that the land was given in pursuance of an Assembly resolution and implemented by ministers belonging to Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's PDP - the party that has been loudest in demanding (and obtaining) cancellation of the allocation.

The unfair branding of the entire Muslim community as suspect and soft on terrorists takes place in this background. Its erasure cannot be achieved by reform within the Muslim community alone for they are not entirely responsible for this. Unless the secularists drop their communal agenda, Hindu-Muslim mistrust will deepen and long-term solution to homegrown jihadi terrorism continue to elude India.

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