Hurling towards a civil war
15 SEPTEMBER 2001. I am in my office. The telephone rings. The caller identifies himself as a retired professor of sociology at the University of Delhi and who now works with an NGO in Seelampuri, a slum settlement in east Delhi. The retired professor agitatedly asks whether something could be done about Aaj Tak, the popular Hindi television channel. I ask him to be a little more precise and the good professor bemoans that for the past two days the channel has been screening footage of Osama bin Laden and his demonic organization.
What is his problem if the bad man Osama gets exposed? The anguished answer: Till a few days ago nobody in this locality had heard of this man, a locality overpopulated with very, very poor Muslims. And now, the young boys unwittingly are being presented with a new ‘hero’, a man who can stand up to the mighty United States and who indeed has managed to create so much havoc. For the powerless and the marginalized in the ghettos, Osama is very much an anti-hero.
In the post-11 September attack in New York it was entirely understandable that western information outlets, propagandists, pamphleteers, polemicists and politicians should have presented a stark dichotomy between Islam and the West, the Muslims against the rest. Though the language of ‘crusade’ was corrected pretty soon, the suddenly fashionable prejudices declared Islam to be a bad proposition and every Muslim a potential card-carrying member of the Al Qaeda.
The universal reach of the American media, the Indian middle classes’ insatiable appetite for looking to the United States for ideas, inspiration and values, and the Vajpayee government’s foreign policy strategy of unilaterally declaring India to be an American lackey – all combined to import into this country President George Bush’s catalogue of enemies and friends. Our already combustible social equations are not going to be helped by this supposedly American-sanctified ‘anti-jehad’ jehad after the 11 September horror.
29 November 2001. A quiet post-iftar dinner with the family of a Muslim police officer, posted in Rajasthan. Very much a middle class family, addicted to the familiar tastes and fads, just as the advertisers would want them to be, trying to plug their way into the middle class dreams and hopes. But for their names, no one could tell the difference. I ask his 12-year daughter as to what her classmates talk about after ‘11 September’. I am curious to know how the young generation has soaked in the television images of the World Trade Centre carnage. Instead, the young girl blurts out: ‘Everyone in my class tells me that except me and my family, all Muslims are bad people.’ The story and experience must have been replicated a million times all over India.
The American instigated Islam/non-Islam, Muslim/non-Muslim divide is already working wonders on the susceptible young and not so young minds. The Indian media, never known for its originality or its self-assurance, unthinkingly reproduced copious reports and articles from American and British newspapers; the television channels simply gave in to the flag-waving coverage dished out by the Fox/CNN factories. The American prejudices, ignorant and arrogant as ever, were beamed unfiltered right into Indian homes. More than the revulsion over the WTC attack, as far as the ruling establishment is concerned, 11 September has confirmed the dormant suspicions and doubts about the largest minority group in this country.
Suddenly it is fashionable, even ‘normal’, to think of ones Muslim neighbour as an actual ally or potential recruit for Osama bin Laden’s terror organization. A creeping illiberality can be easily discerned. In the new catechism, those who pray at a mosque are less patriotic than those who worship in a temple. The new illiberality finds confirmation in the utterances of Osama bin Laden and Mullaha Umar, who sought to invoke the global Muslim anger over Chechnya, Kashmir, Jerusalem. The extremists and fanatics are working up a wonderful synergy.
The RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, opined in an editorial: ‘Islamic terrorists all over the world have successfully built up a war psychosis and carefully mixed universal religious ideology with local politics. The question is not just tackling terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir or solving the vexed Israel-Palestine problem. The real issue is understanding the real nature of the fundamentalist twist to terrorism, its globalization and threat to the entire civilization as such.’
17 December 2001. The horrible 13 December has taken place a few days earlier. Much of Official India has been converted into a fortress. I have just visited a senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office, after having negotiated my way through three cordons of security-men with their automatic weapons out and ready. It is Id, an ‘official holiday’, but a few key officers are at work, attending to the post-13 December nuts and bolts. The entire North Block/South Block complex is crawling with men in uniform, the watchtowers are manned with machine-guns and floodlights, the roadblocks are aplenty. The full treatment. The bureaucratic seat of the Indian state is not going to be trifled with, not again.
And, then, I spot them. Four of them, coming up Raisina Hill, all in their teens. At least two of them were in Id finery, spotlessly clean pyjama-kurta and the jarried-skull cap. They were wonderfully uninhibited by the paraphernalia of a macho state; just like any other Indian, they were strolling up Raisina Hill, going to gawk at the imposing Rashtrapati Bhavan. I saw hope in their carefree stride, just a few days after the 13 December horrible business. Much as our narrow minds would cavil, here was evidence that our Muslim youth refuse to be intimidated into a guilt-by-association. They refuse to feel like outsiders, much less act like one.
And, this refusal to give in to the new categories of deskbhakats/desh-drohis was evident when on the next day the Lok Sabha debated the December 13 incident. Omar Abdullah, the young minister of state for external affairs, argued: ‘Sir, I would like to end with one or two very simple points. First, I am a Muslim. I am a Kashmiri, as proud of being an Indian as every single one of you. It is my humble appeal to everyone, both within the House and outside, that not all Muslims are Pakistanis and not all Kashmiris are terrorists.’ The Opposition rightly pointed out to the young minister that his remarks ought to be directed at his own government and the ruling National Democratic Alliance.
The minister sought to move beyond partisanship and explained what the new calculus of suspicions meant in daily life for the Muslims: ‘The fact of the matter is – and this is something that has been widely reported – innocent Kashmiri people who earlier, let us say, for example, were renting an accommodation for Rs 2,000 are now being told "because you are a Kashmiri, pay more than Rs 3,000." It is these sorts of things that I am trying to highlight. The fact of the matter is, every Kashmiri trader here, or in Goa, or in Mumbai, is not a terrorist. It is this that I am trying to highlight for you. There are more than enough Kashmiris today who are laying down their lives for this country. The Jammu and Kashmir Police who are working side by side with the central agencies, not only to crack this crime, but all other incidents of terrorism, are also Kashmiris. They are also Muslim and they lay down their lives every day for this country...’
The young Abdullah’s plain talking proved infectious. Next day, the Lok Sabha debate saw G.M. Banatwala telling the House and the country that the Muslims were as patriotic as anyone else, and L.K. Advani telling the Muslims that they need not fear anything from his government. Maybe the enormity of the 13 December tragedy is dawning on the political establishment. Though, only for now. And, it is anybody’s guess that the votaries of Hindutva are not going to invoke 13 December, if only to insist on their narrow agenda of hate, discrimination and exclusion. The reports from Gujarat, for example, suggest that outfits like the Bajrang Dal have taken it upon themselves to identify ‘anti-national’ forces, individuals and groups.
On the other hand, the minorities, especially the Muslims, remain unenamoured of those ‘secular’ leaders and political parties that seek to provoke in them a sense of insecurity or invite them into a partnership in the universal ‘Islamic’ battle against this or that real or imaginary wrong. The Muslims are content to think and act locally, without getting worked up by global instigators. Increasingly they are also getting mindful of the benefits of the development pie; no longer willing to give in to ‘Islam-in-danger’ war cry, they want to turn to anyone who offers them a partnership in the developmental journey. Safety in their ghettos is no longer sufficient; they too want to join the welfare crowd. The challenge is to tap into the positive, constructive and collective impulse of the minorities and to create appropriate conditions of partnership and civic compact.
The danger is that after 11 September the Indian state and its present government have unwittingly worked themselves into an authoritarian mind-set that is not conducive to civic harmony. The itch to turn the heat on the minorities was very much alive and kicking even earlier; it is built-into the structural politics of the NDA government.
First, the Vajpayee government has resurrected the ‘macho’ state. Beginning with its mindless nuclearisation agenda, it used the Kargil conflict to crank-up jingoism and a dubious electoral victory, and has, since then, re-invented the religion of national security, arming itself with coercive powers of which POTO (Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance) is the latest manifestation. It is uninhibited in exhibiting its utter disdain for democratic rights and civil liberties. The middle classes are the most enthusiastic cheerleaders in this invocation of the Indian state and the national security mantra.
Second, the comprehensive failure of the Vajpayee government to usher in an honest regime of economic reforms has led to extensive pauperization of the lower middle classes, the very people who enthusiastically subscribed to the BJP and its promises of a new order, suraj. This constituency that once provided cadres and energy to the rath yatra movement is now fully disenchanted with the BJP regime, and it is obvious that their attention and anger would have to be diverted somewhere else. On the other hand, the government’s frustration in pushing disinvestment in the public sector has generated very undemocratic thoughts among its ministerial overlords.
Third, the cost of the Vajpayee regime’s misgovernance and non-governance is becoming electorally unbearable. Corruption and corrosion of values have been writ large across a dispensation that had promised to break the mould. The famous Chennai Declaration had undertaken an ‘obligation to give a new direction to politics and governance in India.’ The Tehelka episode produced a moment of grand disillusionment; the return of a blackmailing George Fernandes to the union cabinet found the Hindutva apologists looking for explanations. What is worse, the argument of ‘national security’ was invoked to justify George Fernandes’ return. The masses would have to be engaged some where else.
Hence, when 11 September happened, the them/us theology was suddenly infused with new meaning for local consumption. As it is the saffronization of history/education/textbooks project was already on; the new mantra is: Marxists, Macaulayites and Madrasas, a new trinity of baddies, ideological and historical. This mindset is becoming hardened. Now post 13 December, the identification of the enemy and his local co-conspirators is clear and unambiguous.
Another manifestation of the them/us divide was revealed during the POTO debate. Suddenly it was fashionable for the Indian state to arm itself with more coercive and sweeping powers because the United States government too was putting in place new laws, making distinct departures from two centuries of liberal dissent. Consequently on 24 October, the government felt emboldened enough to promulgate a new anti-terrorism ordinance. The defenders of the controversial law have repeatedly invoked the American example.
What is more alarming is that the new votaries of tough laws, tough responses are not averse to positing an irreconcilable opposition between the citizen and the faithful. The Arun Shouries and the M.G. Vaidyas are only too happy to use the doctrinaire pronouncements of a Osama bin Laden to bracket the minorities with the enemies of the Indian state. And as the Islamic world appears to have lost its air of invincibility since the Taliban’s defeat, it is open season to try to intimidate the Muslims at home. The riot act is being is being read out to the Muslims a thousand times every day by petty babus and the minatory policemen.
After the ban on the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, warned: ‘The political parties and persons should stand warned that any attempt to fish in troubled waters would recoil badly on them because 1947 and 2001 are different in many ways. One hopes that the Centre keeps a keen watch on those elements also who fan communal conflagration with a myopic view of Muslim vote-banks. SIMI is the Indian version of Taliban (literally meaning students). Those forces which are readying to take on the Taliban in their fight against terrorism should take note of such mini Talibans all over India and elsewhere.’
Both democratic India and the Indian state are under an obligation to frustrate these invidious attempts at creating two categories of citizens. A failing government and a failing state can always divert attention away by finding new scapegoats for their failures. Since 11 September, the theme song of the creaking coalition government has been that the ‘terrorists’ are denying prosperity and peace to Mother India. There is a fashionable roughness in language and manners; the itch is for violence at home and abroad. A new grammar of domination and oppression is being put in place.
The votaries of this new mood are aided and abetted by religious fundamentalists at home and from across the borders. In the days to come the collective challenge before democratic India will be to ensure that the rules of our internal engagements remain fair and firm, and that we do not promote conditions of a civil war.