While the politics of hate ran amok causing communal violence across the country, there were also a few signs of hope…
Some years are etched in the collective psyche of the people of this land for the epic tragedies that unfolded in the course of those years, leaving many unhealed wounds and permanent scars. 1947 is remembered as much for the blood-drenched Partition of India as for India’s independence from colonial rule; 1948 for Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in the hands of religious bigots; 1962 for India’s humiliating defeat in war; 1975 for the declaration of the Emergency and the crushing of democratic freedoms; 1984 for the massacre of Sikhs following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi; 1992 for the demolition of the Babri Masjid; and 2002 for the brutal State-sponsored carnage in Gujarat.
It is too early to estimate whether 2008 will be similarly recalled in coming decades as another such year of iconic collective suffering, because of the daring commando terrorist attack in one of the most elite enclaves in the country, in south Mumbai. But, no doubt, memories of this year will long echo with the reverberations of machine gun fire and grenades thrown by radicals on suicide missions — armed with sophisticated automatic weapons and explosives, as well as mindless hate and chilling rage — as they slaughtered innocents on railway platforms and elegant hotel rooms.
However, even before this, 2008 had been a turbulent and troubled year in many ways, lived stoically under the grim shadows of persistent terror. Hate took a heavy toll of lives in many corners of the country, as bombs exploded in crowded market squares with sickening regularity, in Bengaluru one day, Jaipur another, in Gujarat, Delhi, Maharashtra, Assam… The bombs were planted by unseen men and women from shadowy organisations, who left in their wake not just dismembered bodies, blood on sidewalks and mangled vehicles, but also fear, anger and more hate.
Hate also played out in other ways, of mass communal violence that resurfaced in many parts of the country. The target in 2008 was most of all the Christian community, as churches, orphanages, hospitals and homes of Christian people were torched and demolished in mob attacks, nuns and priest were assaulted and an estimated 300 villages “cleansed” of their Christian populations. This continued unabated with impunity for many weeks in Orissa, and the State government was unconscionably laconic in reigning in the lumpen combatants of organisations like the Bajrang Dal. This violence against the Christian community spread like an epidemic to other corners of the country, most gravely in Karnataka but to several other States as well.
There was more communal violence this year since 2002 against the Muslim community. Some of the gravest attacks were in Assam, where Muslims of Bengali origin (who have been migrating to the State for well over a century) are universal hate objects, in a dangerous cauldron of competing oppressed ethnicities. I visited Udalgiri and Darrang in Assam where survivors of these latest waves of violence are clustered in camps organised on religious communal lines, and experienced the deepest disquiet at the uncompromising ethnic loathing openly voiced in the camps. Dhulia in Maharashtra saw this year the bloodiest episodes of communal violence since Independence. Even more worrying was the communal violence targeting Muslim Gujjar tribal communities in Jammu, and sporadic violence against truck drivers during the blockade against the movement of goods to and from the Kashmir valley in the agitation around the disputed land allocations to the Amarnath temple trust. Even at the height of the militant violence in Kashmir for azadi, never were Hindu tourists or residents targeted with mob or terrorist violence. It is enormously tragic that politicians of various hues have manifestly succeeded in their systematic efforts for injecting the virus of communal hatred in a region with a wonderful tradition of religious pluralism and tolerance of centuries.
Signs of hope
And yet amidst all of this, there were many signs of hope and resistance visible among the ordinary people wearied by politics that are founded on hate and difference. Not a single of the terrorist attacks except in Assam were followed by mob communal violence. It was heartening to observe a mood in which Indian Muslims were not widely held to account in the popular mood for acts of terrorist violence committed allegedly by people who claim allegiance to Islam. The elections held in Delhi and Rajasthan in the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai attacks saw a large turnout even in middle class colonies, and the results confirmed that the voters were not influenced by parties and ideologies that sought to communalise the attacks on the basis of religious identities. Indian Muslims organised a number of massive gatherings of religious ulemas to articulate publicly their emphatic rejection of the misuse of the Islamic faith to justify political violence. People of Muslim faith in many parts of the country wore black bands during Bakr Eid prayers after the Mumbai attacks as symbols of their shared grief and opposition to the terrorist attacks. I felt saddened that they felt so compelled to display publicly their sorrow in ways that people of other communities did not, but it did send out a message that we continue to stand together in the face of grave threats posed by international terrorism (in which there is mounting evidence of the involvement of Pakistani nationals and possibly segments of the Pakistani military and intelligence establishments).
The worry still remained because of the fears that terror does have home-grown Indian support. This year, there are growing official claims of indigenous support to terror. Terror attacks of earlier years were routinely ascribed officially by the police in India first to Pakistani groups and administration, and then to Bangladesh. Not Mumbai, but governments claimed that some of the earlier terror attacks this year were supported by Indian terror groups like the Indian Mujahideen. However, these claims need to be backed by a great deal more of evidence.
A stunning development this year was, however, of the belated official acknowledgment of the growth of another stream of native, locally-nurtured terror, and this was of women and men who laid claim to the Hindu faith, including Hindu nuns and serving and retired army officials. Human rights groups for years have argued that it is not self evident that all terror attacks, especially on Muslim places of worship and habitations, are also organised by “Islamist” terror groups. The evidence now confirms a large network of organisations and individuals who claimed allegiance to Hinduism, who organised attacks with explosives and other acts of individual terror, with dual objectives of hitting “the enemy” and then blaming them for the attacks. It is tragic that Hemant Karkare, who led the investigations into Hindutva terror and was bitterly reviled for this, was killed in Mumbai, fighting Islamist terrorism. Hemant represents the finest traditions not only of public service but of citizenship in a secular democratic polity, and his loss has left all of us poorer.
The evidence of Hindutva terror lays to rest finally the canard that “all terrorists are Muslims”. The role of Hindutva organisations in organising and fomenting hate, right from the Partition riots to many subsequent riots and pogroms was known, but it is now credibly established that segments of these formations are also using tactics of individual terror. Hindutva commentators and political leaders, including L.K. Advani, complained against media descriptions of “Hindu terrorism”. They passionately insisted that terror has no religion, that describing terror coupled with the name of a religious faith unfairly taints and labels all who follow that faith, that a person is innocent until proved guilty and that everyone should be investigated and tried while guaranteeing democratic protections and the rule of law. All of this is utterly unexceptionable; there is irony only in that for many years when Muslims were tainted, labelled and denied democratic protections in the name of the war on terror, they had never thought it fit to protest.
Democratic freedoms continued to be compromised in large swathes of India, in both its north-eastern and north-western frontiers, and many forested interiors, where security forces operate with impunity untrammelled by the protections of the secular democratic Constitution. Representing the enormous alienation of citizens denied these elementary freedoms is Sharmila in Manipur who has refused to eat since 2000, in an epic non-violent individual battle. A doctor and human rights activist, Binayak Sen, continues to languish in jail thorough the entire year of 2008, with little hope of early release. Muslim youth are routinely detained and tortured, and sometimes killed in police “encounters” after every terror attack.
This was a troubled year for the economy globally as well. In the wake of a banking scandal of global dimensions in the United States, stock markets in India crashed, and with it crumbled the savings and investments of millions. But hundreds of millions of Indians could not tell the difference. They live stoically at the edge of survival, often hungry at night, denied elementary public health care and schooling, often without work and bonded, and migrating long distances to hostile city streets to keep their families alive. They lived this way before the global economic meltdown, and they continue to do so. Their fortunes could hardly change for the worse.
An unheard India
The news of this other India of six to eight hundred million people continued its long exile from newsprint, television screens and the cinema. Yet, for them too, there were small glimmerings of hope. India is the only country to now guarantee 100 days of wage work a year to any family which seeks it, and there is evidence that this has begun to slowly dent the worst distress in States where this guarantee is being implemented. Pensions have at last been universalised for all impoverished old people, and for many it is their only life-line. Court orders have guaranteed hot cooked school meals to a hundred and forty million children. Impoverished and middle class people are using their right to information to fight corruption and injustice in government.
So how will the year 2008 be remembered in history? It is a year in which terrorist violence and the global economic meltdown dangerously breached the security of India’s wealthy. It is a year in which the politics of hate and fear, nationally and globally, pushed further its frontiers. But it is also a year in which ordinary women and men struggled to hold onto their faith, in each other, in governments that have repeatedly failed them, and in their own capacities for resilience, courage and humanity. It is perhaps just one more year in which they were pushed to the edge, and yet they held on. One more time!