By Randeep Ramesh, guardian.co.uk,
“An eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind”, Gandhi once remarked. In India the cycle of violence and reprisal between religious extremists has entered a deadlier phase. Saturday’s bomb blasts, which killed 45, appear to be the work of a home-grown Islamist outfit: Indian Mujahideen.
While in India the finger of suspicion might still point at Pakistan for incubating such groups, there is a problem in India. There’s no doubt Indian Muslims have been losing ground – falling behind even Dalits, the so-called untouchables in Hindu society, in educational achievement in recent years. Many Muslims barely escape the poorly-paid artisan professions of their ancestors, even in booming modern Indian cities.
Poverty and backwardness are not enough for people to turn to terror. There is, however, an increasing acceptance of the legitimacy of a series of grievances amongst Muslims in India. Indian Mujahideen’s email to TV stations five minutes before the blasts made it clear that it was tapping into these historical humiliations – nursing bloody wounds and encouraging revenge.
These include the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque in December 1992, by a baying mob of Hindu fanatics; the failure to prosecute police officers found guilty of excesses in the Mumbai riots that followed; the harsh jail sentences handed out to Muslims who were guilty of retaliating by bombing Mumbai in March 1993.
Perhaps the most difficult for the Indian state to repudiate is the worst outbreak of religious violence in recent decades in Gujarat in 2002. More than 2,000 Muslims were killed in cold blood – a four day orgy of gang rape, murder and looting. The violence was sparked when a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was burnt on the tracks – at least 58 were killed.
What Gujarat represented was a new menace – the mob in partnership with the state. The police were held back. Hindu rioters appeared to have computer printouts listing Muslim households. In the aftermath Muslims found that the courts could not always protect them against the popular frenzy.
In the four and a half years I have been based in India, I haven’t met a single Muslim who doesn’t deeply resent the Indian state for its failure to act in Gujarat. I have also met some who said they would retaliate in kind. This is the hate that hate made.
Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, has been accused at best of sitting on his hands while innocents were murdered and at worst of being behind the violence. A Hindu nationalist, Modi has been re-elected three times since the mayhem.
In the past he has baited Muslims – and appears to see religious difference as a deep threat to order. Modi, who has cultivated a new image as an economic reformer, figures prominently in the email sent by the terror group Indian Mujahideen.
The spectre of religious violence has made India a more dangerous place. The New York Times quoted a study by Washington’s Counterterrorism Centre from January 2004 to March 2007, which showed the death toll from terrorist attacks in India was 3,674, second only to that in Iraq during the same period.
None of these deaths can be justified. Indian Mujahideen are immersed in the kind of Islamist ramblings, plus the usual call for the release of terror suspects, that make them nothing less than a vehicle for violence. But they are building a narrative of despair that can seduce the angry and the dispossessed.
India remains a remarkable democratic adventure, daily reconciling demands from perhaps the most diverse population in the world. Its free press continues to expose corruption and efforts to roll back the country’s constitutional safeguards. It is still a country ruled by laws. Its elections largely produce stable, well-intentioned governments faced with awesome development challenges.
Islamic fundamentalism too holds little sway over the vast majority of its 150m Muslims who provide India with some of its most recognisable businesspeople, film stars and politicians. This huge population also means only a tiny fraction need to turn to terror for a problem to become unmanageable.
Most societies struggle as they try to convince people to replace loyalties to religious ideas with loyalty to the state. The problem is that in India this competition can end up destroying internal peace. The Islamists and Hindu extremists see the world in similar terms: legitimising violence in a bid to control. Unless these forces are kept in check, whether India can remain one of the world’s most tolerant societies is an open question.