Threats to Secular 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 right wingers 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

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 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 pseudo- scientific 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

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.

Bhatia 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.