Peace on a razor's edge

10 Mar 2006


Prem Shankar JhaThe bomb blasts in Varanasi leave no room for doubt that India is now playing host to a new kind of terrorist: one whose sole purpose is to destroy the delicate peace that exists between Hindus and Muslims in our country. This possibility first raised its ugly head when a series of explosions took 52 lives in Delhi on the eve of Diwali.

Diwali has become a mainly Hindu festival. Thus it was a safe bet that almost all those who were crowding into the busy marketplaces where the bombs went off were Hindus. But if any residual doubt remained after those blasts, they have now been laid to rest. For not only is Varanasi the holiest of Indian cities, but one of the bombs was placed inside the Sankat Mochan temple, one of it's most famous shines.

The attempt will fail, just as more than one such attempt in the past has also failed. In the '80s killer squads owing allegiance to the rebel Sikh preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale would leave the Golden Tempe at Amritsar every night and kill carefully targeted Hindus in and around the city. They did this every night between the end of February and the middle of May1984, but failed to destroy the ties that bound the Hindu and Sikh communities together in Punjab.

The early years of the militancy and proxy war in Kashmir saw a large number of such targeted killings of Hindus in Jammu and Kashmir, and more than one attack on temples in Jammu. But they too failed to ignite a communal conflagration. It took the burning of a train at Godhra and the shock generated by its repeated depiction on television to spark a genuine communal conflagration in Gujarat.

But even the grisly reprisal attack by some terrorists upon the Akshardham temple a few months later did not spark another riot. The truth is that in India people continue to see themselves as human beings first and Hindus, Muslims, Brahmins, Dalits, Sunnis or Shias second.

However, the attacks in Delhi and Varanasi highlight the razor's edge on which communal peace is balanced today. India may not yet be a breeding ground for terrorists brandishing the flag of Islam, but as in the rest of the world, the Muslim community here is under multiple pressures that predispose it to regarding itself as a victim of concerted attack by non-Muslims.

It is bitterly, and justifiably, angry with the US for its invasion of Iraq and the consequent deaths of more than a hundred thousand Iraqis. It is acutely aware of the way that the US and the Europeans have ganged up on Iran and are pushing it relentlessly towards a confrontation that can only lead to war, more deaths and another spurt in international terrorism. It cannot have failed to notice that the very same countries that do not hesitate to spread democracy by the sword spurn it when it yields results, as in Palestine, that do not fit into their master plan for the universe. And they can hardly have failed to notice the broad current of anti-Islamism in Europe that was laid bare by the controversy over the Danish cartoons of Prophet Muhammad.

Regrettably, they have also noticed that the Congress-led government, for all of its secular pretensions, has kept an unusually low profile over all of these issues. With the possible exception of the former foreign minister K Natwar Singh, not one leader has expressed distress or sympathy for the Iraqis in their present plight. India has joined the US and the UK in putting pressure on Iran; and it has said not even a single word in opposition to the US-Israeli plan to starve Hamas out of power, let alone promised it any help.

It has, admittedly, expressed its reservations about several of these policies to the US and to Britain, France and Germany, in private. But India's Muslims are not privy to those discussions. They are, however, acutely aware that India has not said a single word in public in support of Muslim nations or causes and is not, in any case, prepared to act upon the beliefs it may have expressed in private.

On the other hand they do see Bush, whom they regard as the greatest terrorist of all time, getting a hero's welcome in India. They see their fellow Muslims leading the demonstrations against Bush's visit in Delhi, in Lucknow, in Hyderabad and elsewhere, and they also note that all the three demonstrators whom the UP police gunned down in Lucknow were Muslims.

Add to all this their inbred feeling of insecurity, the difficulty they experience in finding jobs, the higher-than-national-average rates of unemployment among Muslim youth, and their growing under-representation in India's new middle class, and one cannot but wonder how much longer the peace will last.

The attacks in Delhi, Bangalore and Varanasi, and several others that have been foiled, show that the peace has begun to fray. Most are the work of the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, but as two recent articles by Praveen Swami in The Hindu had shown, except for a few prime motivators the cadres of the Lashkar all are Indian born. So were the two Lashkar leaders whom the police killed in operations that were unconnected with the Varanasi Bomb blasts. Swami's articles also showed that the Indian recruits were mainly from the middle and lower middle classes and were educated. They were, in short , from the same type of background as the 9/11 and the London July 7 suicide bombers.

All this leads to the conclusion that the attempts to provoke a communal backlash and turn India to another giant breeding ground for Islamic terrorism will continue. The police are doing a commendable job of cracking Lashkar cells, but repressive measures alone will not suffice to maintain peace. The government of the third largest Muslim country in the world must do much more.

* The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former editor of the Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Financial Express, and a former information adviser to the prime minister of India. He is the author of several books including, The Perilous Road to the Market: The Political Economy of Reform in Russia, India and China, and Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and a regular columnist with several leading publications.

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