Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Mumbai terror attacks is the perception that Indian Muslims who had, so far, appeared to have escaped the virus of global jihadi fanaticism have finally succumbed to it. Over the past week, British commentators have repeatedly recalled Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s proud ``boast” to visiting foreign leaders that it was a tribute to the country’s secular ethos that ``although we have 150 million Muslims in India, not one has been found to have joined the ranks of al-Qaeda” .
This, it is believed, may no longer be true; and — as The Times put it — if “fanaticism” has indeed taken root among Indian Muslims then “the future for a country built on tolerance , secularism and multi-ethnic balance looks grim.” This has been the dominant theme of much of the analysis of the Mumbai outrage in the British media with fears being expressed that a possible Hindu “backlash” could further undermine the already fragile Hindu-Muslim relations.
But before the Hindu Right gets into the self-congratulatory we-told-you-so mode, here’s the sting in the tail. The same analysis that suggests that home-grown jihadi-ism has arrived in India also holds that Muslim extremism is a reaction to the way the community feels it has been treated over the years — exploited as a vote bank, suspected as fifth columnists, discriminated against, and intimidated by Hindu militants. The communalisation of Indian Muslims, it is stated, is a result of the failure of the Indian state to confront the “fault-lines in the system” (an euphemism for anti-Muslim bias, and Hindu communalism) that Al Qaeda-inspired groups are now exploiting.
There is almost a sense that Muslim extremism and other violent campaigns going on in India — a simmering “insurgency” in the north-east and Naxalite violence in central India — are a “comeuppance” for a state that has tended to neglect its minorities and the poor. There is also a view that thanks to its image as a “thriving democracy” India has, largely, escaped international scrutiny whereas other countries are routinely censured for lesser crimes.
Mohsin Hamid, an expatriate Pakistani writer, thinks that the West is often soft on India over its handling of ethnic tensions.
“Had recent protests in Indian Kashmir occurred in a former Soviet Republic, they would have been hailed by the world as a new Orange Revolution and had they occurred in Tibet they would have resulted in calls for international pressure on Beijing. Similarly, the tensions in India’s north-east, the armed Naxalite movement, and the slaughter of Muslims in Gujarat all run counter to the half truth of ‘India-shining’,” he wrote in The Guardian.
Meanwhile, portents for the future don’t look good. There is concern that after the Mumbai attacks, the BJP could be tempted to revert to its “default” Hindutva programme in the run-up to next year’s general elections. Among Britain’s India-watchers, it has not gone unnoticed that the next putative BJP Prime Minister is the same man who led the inflammatory campaign on Ayodhya resulting in the demolition of Babri Masjid and the mayhem that followed. Nor do they find it comforting that the party’s next big star is Narendra Modi, who was the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 when the riots took place.
The “biggest challenge” before the Indian government is to maintain communal peace, says Edna Fernandes, a British-Indian writer and author of Holy Warriors: A Journey into the Heart of Indian Fundamentalism. Journalist-broadcaster Ian Jack, an old India hand and among the more sobre interpreters of Indian events, believes it is time to “pray there are no riots.”
Maria Misra, an Oxford historian, has no doubt that Al Qaeda-style extremism has penetrated India’s Muslim community and asserts that “there is evidence of an entirely domestic element at play” behind the Mumbai atrocity. But, she suggests, that it is hardly surprising given the sense of Muslim grievance. Pakistani involvement notwithstanding “the chief recruiting officer” of Muslim terrorists is “often the Indian State.”
“This is especially true at regional and state levels where the police and judiciary are often ‘captured’ by Hindu political interests that have used anti-terrorist laws to pursue political vendettas,” she wrote in The Times.
This was also the burden of an Economist editorial which described India’s Muslim community as a “fertile ground for those sowing hatred” because it felt discriminated and had “occasionally been subject to hideous communal slaughter.” Besides, the perpetrators of the 2002 Gujarat “pogram” had never been brought to justice. The sense of injustice that this bred among Muslims made them a sitting duck for jihadi propaganda.
Nor was the Left-leaning Observer surprised that Indian Muslims had fallen prey to the “terrorists’ conspiratorial narrative.” The reason was simple: the “vast majority” of Muslims had been excluded from the economic boom and though this was a fate they shared with “millions of poor Hindus” there were additional factors that militated against Muslims such as the fact that “they have also been subject to terror at the hands of ultra-nationalist Hindus and have had little or no state protection.”
It is nobody’s case (and all commentators have been at pains to stress this) that the Muslims’ sense of grievance, genuine though it may be, is a justification for terrorism. But if wounds are left to fester for too long there’s a real risk of the infection spreading.
One point that the British commentators have not made but which an “insider” can see is that Muslim fundamentalism has also been helped by India’s “secular” political establishment which, barring the Left, has not only made no effort to develop a progressive Muslim leadership but actively prevented it from taking root. Instead, it has relied on a class of Muslim “leaders” whose own political interest lies in keeping the community backward-looking.
By mobilising Muslims around issues that have nothing to do with their daily lives they have landed the community in a situation where it finds itself a target of Hindu fundamentalists, on the one hand, and susceptible to faith-based militant Islamist elements on the other.
While the Congress is the chief culprit in this respect, it is not alone in propping up self-serving Muslim leaders. The fact is that it is hard to name any progressive Muslim leader in any of the secular parties. Over the years, the only change that has been noticed is that instead of “mullahs” with long beards we now have suave English-speaking Muslim leaders to match the “modern” face of Hindutva. Their language and worldview, however, remain unashamedly sectarian.
But what about the ordinary Muslims themselves? The idea of an amorphous — uneducated, poor Muslim mass as hapless victims of either their own leaders, or Hindu communal groups or jihadis has become part of the secular/liberal mythology. It is a view that is not only patronising but also misleading. There is now a growing educated and politically aware Muslim middle class which does not fit this description.
Only if they could divest themselves of their “victimhood” mindset they could be a huge force for good for the community.