Sep 25, 2008

India - Reinvigorate secular nationalism

Malini Parthasarathy
The fundamental duty of any state is to ensure that its citizens are not rendered vulnerable to terrorists out to subvert the nation’s political structure and destroy its social fabric. It is equally the responsibility of the state to ensure that the social and political cohesion built up over decades is not undermined by groups with political agendas that will subvert and destroy national unity.
The deadly terror strikes in the heart of the national capital, which manifested themselves in five bomb explosions within the space of twenty minutes, shattering familiar landmarks, one such in an upscale neighbourhood like Greater Kailash, brought fear into the home of every Indian. With television images in living rooms nationwide relentlessly replaying the horrifying aftermath of the terrorist savagery — the agony of the bereaved, the struggle of the injured for their lives — the police and other authorities appeared to be scrambling to get control of the evidently perilous situation. It was becoming increasingly impossible to ignore the pervasive sense of vulnerability and dread.
The potency of terrorism lies in its disconcertingly accurate reach and seeming ability to penetrate the most inviolable and high-security areas, the safety of which ordinary citizens take for granted. By exposing the fragility of political and social structures, terrorism is able to strike fear at the deepest level of the psyche. Therein lies its strategic utility for its perpetrators.
Historical experience has demonstrated repeatedly that terror tactics are adopted by alienated groups to express their strong anger against the system that they believe has denied them justice. Terrorists bank heavily on creating sharp anxiety and insecurity among citizens so that their faith in the state’s ability to protect them is severely eroded. Certainly, no political or social argument can validate the premise that terror is a legitimate response to any perceived injustice or a denial of rights. Nor can it be suggested that unleashing violence and death constitute morally permissible acts of retaliation.
Yet the undeniable reality, as has been seen elsewhere in Sri Lanka or in the Palestinian crisis, is that the rise of terrorist groups like the LTTE or Hamas reflects extreme responses in polarised situations, in which the minority groups feel pushed to the wall. Terrorism is often the recourse of minorities who turn to fundamentalist doctrines to retaliate against what they see as a suffocating dominance by ethnic or communal majorities. The intention to disrupt political or social structures is a clear reflection of an alienated perspective that sees no light at the end of the tunnel, believing as it does that the entire state machinery, the courts, and other public institutions are in the hands of the majority that it sees as its oppressor.
It is unquestionably the fundamental duty of any state to ensure that its citizens are not rendered vulnerable to the homicidal impulses of terrorists bent on subverting the political structure and destroying the social fabric of the nation. But it is equally the responsibility of the state, especially in India, to ensure that the social and political cohesion built up over decades is not undermined by groups with subversive political agendas, out to destroy national unity for their own strategic gains.
It cannot be disputed that it was a conscious decision taken by the leaders of the Indian nationalist movement after Independence to ensure that India became a democratic republic, secular and pluralist in its moorings. It was this scrupulous adherence to the ethos of secular nationalism and the premium placed on national unity by India’s early leaders, particularly Jawaharlal Nehru, that insulated the Indian nation-state from disintegrative tendencies and allowed it to harness all its productive energies, transforming itself rapidly into a major power among developing countries.
Undeniably, the rise of an abrasive genre of Hindu cultural nationalism in the early 1990s — the first flashpoint being the Rath Yatra campaign of BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani — set in motion a dangerous process of communal polarisation. The destruction of the Babri Masjid was viewed as an ominous sign by the Muslim community that its culture and cultural symbols would no longer be safe in a Hindu India. It must be recalled that the very first instance of horrific retaliation by extremists in the Muslim community was the series of bomb blasts in Mumbai in early 1993, which signalled that the costs of strategies of communal polarisation were indeed going to be high.
If the BJP and its allies in the Sangh Parivar appeared to be determined to mount a challenge to the secular and democratic orientation of the state, the failure of the Congress and other so-called secular formations to grasp the true import of this challenge to Indian nationhood contributed in large measure to the increasing alienation of the minority communities. The carnage in Gujarat in 2002, perceived as having the implicit support of the state administration, which saw more than a thousand people killed in the violence targeting ordinary Muslims, has clearly radicalised some of the elements of the community, driving them to extreme forms of anti-social and destructive behaviour.
The latest wave of terrorist bombings, which surfaced first in Jaipur in May 2008, then in Ahmedabad in July, and recently in Delhi, have an eerily similar pattern in timing and execution. These terrorist strikes have all been traced back to the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and a sinister new group that has emerged from the shadows, calling itself the Indian Mujahideen (IM) and cold-bloodedly claiming responsibility for these gruesome and homicidal attacks.
The sudden escalation of terrorist attacks is clearly designed to suggest that a war of sorts against the Indian state is in progress. The IM aggressively declared that the terror strikes in Gujarat were “revenge” or “Qisaas”, an Islamic concept of “equal punishment,” for the Gujarat pogrom; it has also implied that the terrorist attack in Delhi was a similar retributory act. That Islamist terrorism has become a full-blown phenomenon and taken on a life of its own, with dangerous links to a larger global network, suggests that it is still regrettably able to draw momentum from the fact that there is a continuing crisis of confidence among the minority communities as regards the Indian state.
It is true that initially the Manmohan Singh administration made earnest efforts to reach out to the minority communities. One path-breaking initiative was the commissioning of the Sachar Committee report, which highlighted the deep deficiencies and deprivation that exist among the Muslim community, thus exposing the hollowness of the propaganda that minorities are being ‘appeased.’ However, recent events have served to undermine this promising start. In the controversy relating to the Amarnath Shrine Board, the UPA should have made it emphatically clear that there was no question of entertaining the proposition that state land could be handed over to the Shrine Board.
The failure to unambiguously uphold a basic tenet of the Indian Constitution, that the state should not mediate in religious activities or allow its properties to be used for religious purposes, was a dismaying indication that the UPA was yielding to Hindu cultural nationalist pressures. The provocative economic blockade of the Kashmir Valley by the Jammu-based activists of the Amarnath Sangarsh Samiti, with the encouragement of the BJP and the VHP, reopened old wounds and gave a lease of life to what was until then a moribund separatist agitation. This dalliance with the politics of Hindu cultural nationalism, particularly in the context of the Kashmir issue, marked a senseless tactical blunder on the part of the Congress-led UPA.
It has become imperative for the Congress leadership, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and party president Sonia Gandhi to acknowledge that costly mistakes have been made in the recent period. The latest savagery displayed by Bajrang Dal activists against Christians in Orissa and Karnataka shows that Hindu nationalism is trying to stage a comeback in the political arena. With general elections a few months away, it is clear why the BJP and the Sangh Parivar find it useful to return to the strategies of majoritarian Hindu communalism. A weak-kneed response on the part of the Congress at this critical juncture will invite disaster. The Prime Minister is justifiably elated over his foreign policy coup in having India beat the odds and become a member of an elite group of nuclear power nations. But he must also remember that India’s greatness and national pride lie primarily in the astonishing success story of its secular democracy. It is that ethos of secular nationalism that provided the underpinning for India’s economic advance and increasing global significance.
The failure to act decisively and punitively against anti-social saboteurs, be it Bajrang Dal militants or Islamist terrorists, will cost the UPA dearly. The costs of prevarication are too high. The time has come to affirm assertively that India cannot survive as a republic unless the structure of its democracy is anchored firmly to a secular national vision. The Congress party must take the lead in launching a nationwide struggle against the destructive forces of cultural nationalism. Such a campaign should also make clear that India’s future as a nation-state is critically tied to its capacity to uphold the original commitment to its citizens to provide secular and democratic governance.

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