Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 January 2003
Issue No. 621
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The enemy within

Hindu nationalists have formulated a new ideological platform centred around fighting terrorism that could spell disaster for India's Muslim community, reports Saba Naqvi from New Delhi

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Indian soldiers roll out Pritivi missiles during a full dress rehersal for the 15 January Army Day
The Hindu nationalist Bharitiya Janat Party (BJP), which leads India's coalition government, has a new found ideology to fight a series of state elections in 2003, before national polls slated for October 2004. The party's top strategists now say fighting terrorism is, "our new ideological plank". On the face of it, this is no different from the resolve of several nations across the world. But in the Indian context it has worrying implications, particularly for the country's 140 million Muslims.

The landslide victory of the BJP in Gujarat last month came after a series of humiliating reverses in election contests in crucial states like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. The party managed to retain power in Gujarat by running a campaign more vicious than any seen in India before. The controversial chief minister, Narendra Modi, openly targeted the state's Muslims in his speeches and public rallies. His message was crude and simple. Terrorism equals Muslims. Muslims equal terrorism. He effectively manipulated emotions in the aftermath of 11 September to magnify incidents like the burning of a train in Gujarat, that claimed the lives of over 50 Hindu pilgrims and a terrorist attack on a Hindu temple in the state capital, to demonise an entire community.

Mass hysteria often turns the truth on its head. In the Gujarat riots in February and March 2002, triggered by the train attack, the minority Muslim community bore the brunt of the violence. At least 2,000 were killed, women were brutally raped and babies burned alive. Civil society groups are still calculating the other costs of the worst ever pogrom in independent India: 300 Sufi shrines demolished, entire neighbourhoods incinerated, and the economic might of the Muslim community completely destroyed. Yet, barely 10 months on, the BJP and its allies managed to run a remarkable election campaign where the electorate were told that Muslims, just 10 per cent of Gujarat's population, are a threat to the security of the Hindu majority.

Chief Minister Modi has made a fine art of exploiting the fear of the unknown terrorist. Terrorism, in his vocabulary, does not come from Pakistan alone. The enemy, he repeatedly implied, lies within. Indian Muslims equal Pakistanis equal terrorists. Gujarat, with its long history of communal clashes, has long been viewed as a laboratory of the Hindu right. It is a border state and in no other part of the country has the BJP repeatedly won elections with such huge majorities. Even BJP ideologues doubt whether the "Gujarat-line" can be transplanted to other states. But this will not stop them from trying. Essentially, this means that continued "low-level" terrorism actually suits the BJP's domestic agenda. Some months ago the national press tore apart the government version of a so- called strike by two terrorists in a Delhi shopping mall, alleging that it was stage-managed.

The BJP exploded on the national scene just over a decade ago, when it called for the demolition of a mosque in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya, allegedly built over the ruins of a temple marking the birthplace of the Hindu god, Ram. Since then the party's ideology has been defined by three major demands: The construction of a temple on the site of the demolished mosque; abolition of a separate personal law for the Muslim community; and abolition of Article 370 of the Indian constitution which gives special status to Kashmir and prevents Indians from buying land there. Indeed, extremists of the Hindu right argue that the problem of Muslim majority Kashmir would be solved overnight if India would follow Israel's example and set up settlements in the troubled state.

Even though the party has been at the head of a national coalition since 1998 it has not been able to deliver on any of these demands. Instead, it has had to drop them to forge alliances with smaller parties. While the temple dispute is now under the purview of the courts, there is no hope of ever changing the laws governing Muslims or Kashmir. To do so would require constitutional amendments, only possible if the BJP were to win large majorities in both houses of parliament. This is becoming increasingly difficult in an era of coalitions where regional-based parties increasingly hold the balance of power in their hands.

Post-Gujarat, the BJP modified its ideological position, saying the fight against terrorism is even more important than building the temple. Most countries view terrorism as a security problem. India too has been fighting terrorism for years in Punjab, Kashmir and the North-Eastern states. That said, this is the first time terrorism has been turned into an ideological platform by a cadre-based party. Sociologist Dipankar Gupta has analysed the BJP's success in generating hysteria over terrorism. "This illustrates that the fears of a collapse of the Indian state are very strong. After all, our country is defined by Partition and the creation of Muslim Pakistan. The West sees terrorism as a security or law and order problem. But with our history the issue of sovereignty gets involved."

It is no coincidence that many luminaries from the Hindu right are refugees from Pakistan. They see no reason why India should give special rights to a community they hold responsible for historical injustices. They openly complain of the country's "pampering of Muslims".

Narendra Modi is representative of this new breed, which has no use for secular rhetoric. Modi arrived in Delhi last week to hold his first press conference in the nation's capital since his victory last month. He began by telling the national press, largely opposed to him, that "you've all had the mickey taken out of you." He refused to offer any apologies for the horrific violence his state has witnessed or give any assurance guaranteeing the security of its Muslims. Described as "the hero of hatred" he was triumphant and unrepentant. A scribe commented that even Hitler had been elected democratically.

In 1947, when India attained Independence from British rule in the midst of horrific Hindu-Muslim bloodletting, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi expended most of their energy rushing to Muslim localities to assure the community that they would be safe in secular India. Narendra Modi is the latest and most vicious in the line of BJP leaders who are undermining the great ideas that governed the creation of this vast nation.

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