Is India Creating A New Cycle of “Victimhood”?

February 20, 2009

February 20, 2009

Although Mahatma Gandhi is revered for his life’s example, the culture of iconography and mythology that pervades India has thus far prevented a comprehensive evaluation of his errors. One was his neutrality during the 1939-45 war between the Axis and the Allies, when his “Plague on both your houses” stance became in effect a policy that worked to dilute the Indian people’s commitment towards victory over the Germany-Japan-Italy Axis. Unlike during World War I, when he was firmly in the Allied camp and indeed directly contributed to the war effort, by 1942 Gandhi demanded that the British “Quit India.” Given that the country was supplying more than two million of the “British” troops that finally helped liberate Western Europe and South East Asia (a contribution to Allied victory that has been mentioned only fleetingly in Western war annals ), this patent obstruction of the Allied war effort tilted the balance within Whitehall in favor of those backing Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the demand of his Muslim League that the subcontinent be partitioned between “Hindu” India and “Muslim” Pakistan. From that year onwards, the demand for the creation of Pakistan began to get tacit backing from London, leading finally to its creation on August 14, 1947.

The Mahatma was also responsible, in 1919, for ensuring the backing of the secular Indian National Congress behind that section of the Muslim community that was demanding the restoration of the Turkish Caliphate, abolished after World War I. The issue had been used to create – in the words used then of the future founder of Pakistan M.A. Jinnah – “a religious frenzy” in India; a climate that contributed to the adoption of large-scale violence by a section of India’s Muslims, who were deluded into believing that their faith was in mortal danger. This technique of mobilization is still being used with considerable success by many zealots including Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri. Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri, like Gandhi’s newfound allies in 1919, the brothers Maulana Mohammad Ali and Maulana Shaukat Ali, leaders of the Khilafat Movement in India, believe that it was their duty to establish a Caliphate that would be a “pure” Islamic state.

By backing the “Khilafat” (Caliphate) movement, Mahatma Gandhi gave it substantial thrust and credibility across India, hence directly contributing to the spread of a climate within the Muslim community that favored separation from the Hindus. This sectarian approach finally found complete expression in 1932 with the demand (made during the third session of the Round Table Conference held in London to plan India’s future) for an independent “Pakistan,” or “Land of the Pure,” which would serve as the homeland for India’s Muslims.

Even previous to that, sections within the British administration – not entirely surprisingly – sought to widen the division between Hindus and Muslims seeing in such a split a means of prolonging their sway over both. In 1937, separate electorates for Muslims were created in Bengal, a fateful policy decision that the Mahatma only challenged in a desultorily fashion. Gandhi had reserved his energy for opposing London’s efforts to separate the lowest section of Hindu society – the so-called “Untouchables” – from other Hindus, again by reserving a proportion of legislative seats for them. Interestingly, this very policy (of reserving a proportion of seats for the most disadvantaged segment of Hindu society) was implemented by the Congress Party government in India’s parliament as soon as the newly partitioned country gained its freedom in 1947.

Gandhi’s 1919-21 embrace of the Ali brothers and their movement, individuals with an agenda of religious exclusivism, led to the strengthening of such groups within Muslim society and the consequent weakening of Muslim moderates, a trend that has caused so much grief in the subcontinent since then. Pain expressed not only in the form of tensions between India and Pakistan, but as the organized cleansing within Pakistan of its Hindu minority, from 37 percent of the population in 1946 to less than one percent today. To this day, it would be inconceivable in “moderate” Pakistan to have a Hindu as president or, more consequentially, the chief of Army Staff, just as it would be impossible to roll back existing laws that separate Muslims from others for purposes of voting and which give women and religious minorities only half the evidentiary weight of a Muslim (or Wahabbi) male.

Islam is a faith that presently has within its fold nearly one-and-a-half billion individuals. It is also the fastest-growing religion in the world, not only through proselytizing but because of a greater fecundity that creates a higher birthrate than that found among Christians, Jews or Hindus. Muslim-majority states that are legally mono religious account for a substantial share of the world’s deposits of minerals such as fossil fuels. In no country in the world including the Jewish state of Israel – are Muslims forbidden to openly practice their faith or set up houses of prayer, in contrast to “moderate” countries such as Saudi Arabia, where anything other than a Sunni (or in the Saudi case, Wahabbi) house of worship or mode of worship is banned under law.

In several Muslim-majority countries, there are legal restrictions designed to ensure that the entire population follows the code preferred by the majority. For example, in Malaysia (40 percent of which is non-Muslim) foodstuffs that are not “halal” are banned from the shelves, while preferential treatment in employment and financing is given to Muslims, a trend that is gathering force in next-door Indonesia which just two decades ago had a largely secular population. Despite such a reality, it has proved surprisingly easy for radicals to rouse Muslim populations to a fury – even on the streets of Europe – by resorting to the cry that “Islam is threatened!”

Given the danger of volatility and that India now has the second-largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia, it would have been expected that any government in power would have hesitated to repeat Mahatma Gandhi’s 1919 mistake of indulging in actions that expand a sense of victimhood and separateness among Muslims. A policy of caution that is all the more required because of the emergence since the 1990s of an extreme fringe within the Hindu community that has copied the fanaticism of the Wahabbi radicals and has adopted the very same agenda of religious segregation.

Just as the rigor of secular law needs to be used against the effort of the Wahabbist Muslims that use fear and alienation to segregate their adherents from the rest of the population, so too ought it to be deployed against Hindu, Christian and other groups that seek to divide Indian society on the basis of extreme versions of their faith. Unfortunately, all three strands have been freely tolerated by successive governments, beginning with that headed by Rajiv Gandhi (1984-89), which adopted policies that do not reflect the views of the overwhelming majority of adherents of the faith they are legislating about but reflect only an extreme fringe thereby empowering and expanding that fringe at the expense of the moderate majority.

Since the latter half of the 1980s, but especially since 1998 when a center-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition came to office (and remained in power for six years), fringe groups of the Hindu community have taken on a salience and visibility out of all proportion to their numbers. If the names of the faiths get transposed, the terms of abuse used by one against the other are almost exactly the same. For example, the Karnataka-based “Hindu supremacist” group Sri Ram Sene shares a view of Valentine’s Day, for example, with radical Islamist preachers across the Middle East: that the celebration of love is a “cesspool of depravity and lust.”

The leader of the Sene, Pramod Muthalik, appears to share a wide range of views on the subject of women and religious “others” with those taking refuge in the hideouts in Waziristan where Al Qaeda’s top commanders reside. The vegetarian Muthalik may presumably blanch at adopting some of the unconventional modes of protest favored by Al Qaeda to deal with those disagreeing with their viewpoint, such as flying aircraft into buildings and seeking the death of innocents through the use of WMD.

Perhaps because the BJP is no longer in office, it was possible for secular and moderate civil society to mobilize itself across India to protest the recent episode when Muthalik’s followers rampaged across Karnataka tearing at the “immodest” dresses of young women. The local media began to refer to the Sri Ram Sene as the “Hindu Taliban.”

Since Sonia Gandhi formed the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government (under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh) in 2004, however, civil society has been restrained from protesting against the activities of fringe groups drawn from the minority faiths, which have consequently become vocal and influential in the formulation of policy. While the Christian groups seek large-scale evangelization of the Hindu population (they are wise enough to leave the Muslims alone), the Wahabbi fringe would like to replicate in India the situation prevailing in many parts of the Middle East, where local citizens get a lifelong pension from the state, disguised, of course, as salaries.

Despite the consequences of the Congress Party’s earlier flirtation with fringe Muslim groups such as when it helped expand segregationist instincts within that community, the Congress Party-led government that came to power in 2004 has once again acted in a manner that creates within the broader Muslim community the psychology of being separate from the rest. Such an unfortunate widening of the interfaith gap in India has been fanned by the public utterances of the UPA leader Sonia Gandhi. Gandhi has sought to portray the opposition BJP and, with somewhat greater justification, its fringe elements and associates, as a “fascist” force that aims to deprive religious minorities of their freedom to worship and ultimately to eliminate them through forced conversions. This charge has been picked up by some “liberals” in the United States who attribute to India (and Israel) the demonic characteristics of Nazi-ruled Europe.

Those familiar with the history of fascism in Italy would smile at the comparison. It is self-evident that the BJP has as its associates, however, some organizations that would fit the description “lunatic fringe.” Indeed, confronted with the multiplying activities of foreign Christian evangelists in India (almost all of whom were earlier barred for reasons of public order from entering India, and whose staple during their sermons is to deride the Hindu faith and mock its numerous deities), several Hindu organizations have replaced Muslims with Christians as the principal target of their hate campaigns. This has even led to a FBI investigation of several U.S.-based affiliates of such groups. It has also ensured the denial of visas in the EU and the United States to the leaders of these fringe Hindu groups.

Their activities, which have sometimes included acts of violence such as the torching of makeshift churches, have resulted in a palpable unease within the BJP’s key constituency, the Hindu middle class. This unease contributed to the party’s defeat at the hands of the Congress Party in state elections in Delhi.

Sadly, the most potent ally of these fringe Hindu groups has been the current ruling government of Manmohan Singh which, since inception, has sought to portray the minorities (chiefly Muslims) as being victims of discrimination. In 2006, Justice Rajinder Sachar, who during the previous decade was open in his expressions of sympathy for the “freedom fighters” in Kashmir, gave a state-sponsored report that pointed to the widespread incidence of illiteracy and poverty among Muslims, but gave as the cause a deliberate policy that discriminated against them, a fiction in secular India, where the Muslim population enjoys equal and on occasionally extra rights (such as in questions of marriage, where a Muslim citizen is permitted four wives).

In his defense, it needs to be said that Justice Sachar was perhaps unaware of the existence of Pakistan and Bangladesh,the former an overtly “Islamic Republic,” where the condition of Muslims is much worse than is the case in India, not because of “discrimination against them,” but because the traditional elites in these countries (as well as the dominant Wahabbi religious leaders), frown on modern education and, indeed, any education at all for women. Interestingly, the Sachar Commission had six other members appointed by the current government, one of whom was a Christian and four were Muslims, as was the officer who was seconded by the Prime Minister to help the committee. There were, of course, no women.

The numerous Muslim-specific policy initiatives of the ruling coalition in India, including the provision of enhanced state grants to districts where Muslims account for 20 percent or more of the population, preferential bank credit to Muslims, and an expansion of job quotas to include them, has led to Hindu resentment which, in turn, has accelerated recruitment to fringe Hindu organizations whose activities in turn have resulted in an increase in the already considerable psychology of victimhood within India’s Muslims.

Seeing the success of their Islamist counterparts by the creation of such a phobia, some Christian groups have followed suit, claiming that the community is “under threat” in “Hindu-dominated” India. Indeed, both Muslim as well as Christian religious segregationists have sought to dilute one of the basic tenets of their faith, which is the equality of man. They have demanded that “low-caste” Christians and Muslims (or those who themselves or in previous generations had converted from low-caste Hindu backgrounds) be given the same benefit of reservation of a percentage of public jobs as well as legislative seats. This demand has led to tensions between such converts and those from the disadvantaged castes who have remained Hindus and who believe that once an individual leaves the faith that has perpetuated the caste system, Hindusim, he or she has no longer a right to claim the benefits reserved under the Constitution of India exclusively for Hindus belonging to the lower castes.

Tension over this issue in states such as Orissa have resulted in violence and even in deaths. Whether Christian and Muslim doctrine should be diluted to include the Hindu caste system is a point for theologians to decide. It is a fact, however, that important elements within the present administration have encouraged a section of Christian and Muslim community leaders in India to demand the extension of caste-based reservation to their faiths thereby causing a reaction within the Hindu community especially those presently enjoying the benefits of the quota given to the more socially disadvantaged Hindu castes.

Has India entered into an action-reaction cycle in which the state implements policies that consciously favor certain faiths and thus promote a separatist mindset and triggers anger in those ignored? An anger that may in turn lead to actions that cause a negative reaction within the faith that has been favored by state policy? The jury is out.

It is clear that unless the government in India – any government – sees the population as a single entity and does not follow the British colonial model of dividing the people on the basis of their faith the conditions that led to the 1947 partition may once again emerge within a significant section of the Indian population. It may not be accidental that since 2005, it has no longer been possible for India to boast that the 154 million Muslims not within Kashmir are completely immune from jihadism.

M.D. Nalapat became India’s first professor of geopolitics in 1999 at Manipal University in India’s Karnataka state. Since 1992,he has held that Wahabbism-Khomeinism and authoritarianism are the twin threats faced by the international community and that the “unified field” of terrorism mandates a similar response. In 2003, he partnered with JINSA in organizing the first of four annual India-Israel-U.S. Conferences. Professor Nalapat, who first put forward the idea of forming an “Asian NATO,” believes that Israel, India, Turkey and Singapore form part of the “Extended West”, rather than an “extended Middle East”, and that the countries in this group need to work in concert to promote prosperity, democracy and freedom from terror.