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Then: Nonviolence, Now: Genocide

Priya Lal

Sidebar: Timeline

While George W. Bush sells Americans a ubiquitous stream of careless denunciations of “evil” Muslims in the Middle East and the rest of the world is distracted by the United States’ inept war-mongering, a deadly mixture of religious bigotry and ruthless political instrumentalism is brewing in another distant pocket of the world.

This venomous brand of Hindu nationalism, a movement that relies on the all-purpose scapegoating of Muslim and other minorities’ culture and even celebrates the literal extermination of Indian Muslims themselves, has been increasing in momentum in South Asia for over a decade now. While the hot, lethal winds of Hindu fundamentalism blow harder and faster across the subcontinent, the United States continues to celebrate India, the world’s largest “democracy”, as a stable base in a potentially turbulent region, and continues to ignore what is rapidly becoming a regime founded on the principles of faith-based fascism.

“The days of Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy of non-violence are gone.” So spoke Praveen Togadia, head of India’s Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), earlier this year, addressing a crowd on the one-year anniversary of the tragic immolation of the passenger train Sabarmati Express in the Western Indian city of Godhra.

Togadia’s matter-of-fact renunciation of Gandhi’s peaceful idealism echoes the aggressive, sinister, and vaguely apocalyptic rhetoric of India’s increasingly powerful Hindu nationalist movement as a whole, and particularly reflects the escalation of communal tensions in the region over the past year.

The event that triggered India’s recent downward spiral into the depths of religious violence was precisely the incident to which Togadia was alluding to — the burning of the Sabarmati Express in February of 2002. The train carriage carried a large contingent of the Hindu nationalist informal army (kar-sevaks) returning from a pilgrimage to Ayodhya. The carriage was set aflame in a Godhra railway station, killing some 58 people. Immediately, large-scale anti-Muslim pogroms erupted in the city of Godhra and throughout the larger state of Gujarat, fueled by official denunciations of the act of arson and the Muslims who had committed it. The carnage aboard the Sabarmati Express quickly paled in comparison to the virtual bloodbath that ensued. Within 72 hours, mobs of outraged Hindus took to the streets and slaughtered some 2000 Gujarati Muslims with knives, guns, clubs, even swords — and more fire.

A report issued by Human Rights Watch in the wake of the killings notes that “much of the violence was planned well in advance of the Godhra attack and was carried out with state approval and orchestration” and that “state officials and the police were directly involved in the violence.” Modi and his fellow members of the BJP (Bharati Janata Party, the Hindu nationalist, right-wing party currently leading India’s parliamentary coalition) flatly denied their involvement in the pogroms. Rather, they chose to characterize the violence as a spontaneous people’s movement, the latest manifestation of a sort of primordial hatred that has existed between Hindus and Muslims since time immemorial. Of course, all of this rhetoric came with the implicit assumption that Hindus were justified in hating Muslims — that Hindus were defending themselves against Muslim aggression and protecting their culture from pollution by India’s immoral and evil Islamic elements.

This attitude, in short, sums up the platform of India’s Hindu nationalist movement. The movement is not, in fact, new, and neither is the larger ideological struggle between defining the Indian nation in secular and religious terms. In the decades leading up to the independence of British India in 1947, the indigenous political leadership split into two camps — the secularists, whose philosophies were embodied in the kind of democratic, peaceful inclusiveness that Gandhi symbolized; and the proponents of a divided subcontinent based on religious identity. The result was an awkward partition of the former colony into Muslim Pakistan and what was to be a predominantly Hindu India. The 1947 partition of the subcontinent was washed in blood — astronomical numbers of Hindus fleeing Pakistan and Muslims fleeing India were massacred by methods that bear too close resemblance to those employed by angry mobs in Gujarat last year.

Since the nightmares of Partition, religious tensions in India have occasionally broken out into isolated acts of violence, but a tenuous cease-fire has largely allowed Muslims (12 percent of the national population) and Hindus (81 percent of the population), as well as the country’s many other smaller religious groups, to coexist in relative peace. That is, however, until the rise to power of the current government — led by BJP leaders — in the early 1990s. The BJP comprises merely the political arm of the larger network of organizations and individuals that make up the Sangh Parivar (Family of Societies), the vanguard of India’s Hindu nationalist movement.

And now this. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the recent events in Gujarat revealed itself in the aftermath of the violence. Not only did India’s BJP Prime Minister, Atal Biharee Vajpayee, fail to condemn Modi and the Gujarati state government for their role in organizing the Muslim pogroms; not only was Modi not brought to any kind of justice in front of a judge or jury — but Modi was re-elected this past December as State Minister in a BJP sweep of the Gujarati elections. During his campaign, Modi failed to offer even a single acknowledgement of regret or personal responsibility regarding the year’s earlier violence. In fact, encouraged by other BJP leaders including Vajpayee and Advani, his rhetoric became increasingly inflammatory as he employed campaigning techniques that explicitly drew upon Muslim scapegoating and reactionary Hindu ethnocentrism.

The BJP’s victory in Gujarat represents the party’s most decisive electoral success for the party since its ‘90s rise to power at the center, but many voices in the Sangh Parivar view this win as merely the first step in a more ambitious process. Hard-liners such as Modi and Advani want to see the BJP adopt an openly communal (i.e. openly anti-Muslim) party line at the national level, and plan to start by staging Modi-style BJP sweeps of other state governments in upcoming elections. Our friend Praveen Togadia in the VHP has clearly confirmed such intentions, remarking that “the Gujarat election has showed the right direction to the BJP.” All of this, of course, is taking place under the aegis of supposedly democratic, legitimately elected national leaders such as Prime Minister Vajpayee.

As an Indian-American, I don’t know who to be more ashamed of or angry with — the power-grabbing Indian politicians who commit unspeakable acts of violence in the name of my family’s religion; or American leaders who ignore the obvious parroting of democratic norms and the disgusting sanctioning of ethnic cleansing by these officials. Indeed, in the context of the post September 11 U.S. bombing of Afghanistan and the current War on Terror, Bush has chosen to embrace Vajpayee’s government as an ideological ally of sorts — painting India as a democratic paragon in opposition to the primitive theocracies of Muslim “fundamentalist” countries. In attempting to corral “fundamentalism” (also known as the appropriation of religious philosophy or rhetoric for power-seeking political purposes) into the same exclusive arena as Islam, Bush is both grossly distorting the public understanding of anti-democratic political movements that employ faith as a tool, as well as committing the unpardonable sin of eliding over equally insidious demonstrations of violent “fundamentalism” by non-Muslims, in countries such as India.

In reality, Hindu fundamentalism, Muslim fundamentalism in the Middle East, Zionist fundamentalism in Israel, and right-wing Christian Fundamentalism in our own country are all sides of the same coin. Once we choose to recognize the BJP’s circus-like antics conducted in the ostensible name of a “pure” Hinduism as what they really constitute, it becomes clear that Hindu nationalism, when stripped to its core, is merely a case of naked political instrumentalism. Unfortunately, some romantic, false ideal of the Hindu religion has become just another rallying point for Machiavellian officials like Narendra Modi — a tactic to distract the Indian public from the government’s true failings to address the chronic problems of poverty and corruption plaguing the country.

But there is a particular urgency to the Indian case. Hindu-Muslim violence in the region, whether during Partition, in Kashmir, or more recently in Godhra, has always been characterized by what I’ll call the “reprisal effect” — one act of violence begets another act of revenge begets another, and so on. As access to more lethal weapons increases, as religious hatred becomes a more blatant element of official national rhetoric, and as the latter continues to deafen domestic dissent about massacres such as last year’s Gujarat killings, the “reprisal effect” gradually approaches all-out warfare. Gandhi’s famous proclamation that “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind” has never rung truer than now, as we witness the dangerous effects of individuals like Togadia blatantly placing the concept of revenge at the center of their demagoguery.

As Americans, we need to look beyond the simplistic Manichean rhetoric our leaders shell out regarding the domestic politics of our national enemies and allies, and remember that fascism and “fundamentalism” are not so far away from what our government celebrates as their alternatives. And we can do more. The Sangh Parivar has effectively globalized its appalling movement by mobilizing many of the funds necessary to fuel communal activities in India from international networks of rich Hindus in the diaspora — from the U.S. and Canada to Mauritius and Malaysia. Against this globalization of hate we can work towards a globalization of awareness of the atrocities committed in the name of Hindu nationalism, and thus enrich the efforts of domestic Indian dissenters to overcome such hateful political instrumentalism. For, in fact, our acceptance of the gross distortions of “democracy” that we are witnessing in India today threatens the futures of more meaningful, socially just visions of the word for the entire rest of the world. And it is these collective visions of possible alternatives, better futures — and our dedication to working for them — that will ultimately sustain the fight against faith-based bigotry in India.


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