“The saviors of religion [in Kashmir] ordered all Muslim women to adopt the hijab by September 10, 2001. Women did because they did not want acid to be thrown in their faces…. When Roop Kanwar became a Sati with her husband, the event was glorified by the guardians of Hinduism. When it comes to women’s oppression, all religions are masculinist…. The man who proves the superiority of his own religion is a hero, and the man who destroys the follower of another is a jihadi…. The women who are worshipped are those who climb horses and die in the battlefields, or bravely send their sons to war…. The Indian government — renowned for its own attempts to spread religious madness — has voluntarily offered its soldiers to the US for eradicating Islamic fanaticism.”
When Suraksha, a women’s organization in Lucknow, included these lines in its signature campaign statement against Operation Enduring Freedom on September 21, potential signatories and editors of leading dailies reacted sharply. They dismissed Suraksha’s claim that women opposed this war, noting that American women were proudly sending their men off to war. More importantly, they argued, this was a war between the US and Afghanistan. Why was Suraksha turning it into “our” Hindu-Muslim war?
On September 22, Munni, a Muslim domestic worker, heard five Hindu men in her neighborhood tea shop declaring, “These Muslims are bastards. They should all be killed!” “If a Muslim man were listening to this,” said Munni, “we would have immediately seen a riot.”
Five days later, the central government imposed a two-year ban on the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) for its alleged links with Pakistani and Kashmiri terrorist organizations, for supporting Osama bin Laden and for challenging India’s territorial integrity. The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the state of Uttar Pradesh arrested 83 SIMI activists, and violence and arson broke out in the Muslim-dominated historical core of Lucknow, the state capital. Police ruthlessly killed five teenagers (including one Hindu) and wounded many more, most of the victims being young Muslim men. A curfew was imposed and shoot-on-sight orders were issued for the “troubled areas.” Evidence suggests the involvement of the Samajwadi Party — a party drawing support primarily from the “other backward castes,” or lower-caste Hindus and Muslims not historically defined as “untouchables” — whose members allegedly mingled with the crowds to foment violence. With local elections around the corner, Osama bin Laden has become a new avatar in the politics of Uttar Pradesh. While the BJP is using him to amass votes from the Hindu majority, for the Samajwadi Party, he has become the key to strengthening its Muslim voting bloc.
For three decades after independence, secularism was the buzzword in Indian elections. Public rallies or platforms were rarely organized explicitly along religious or caste lines. But after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, the Samajwadi Party began to capitalize on caste politics. The BJP used the opportunity to create a voting bloc by mobilizing Hindu support for the construction of a Ram Temple at Ayodhya, the legendary birthplace of the Hindu God, Ram. Ayodhya was the site of the Babri Mosque, constructed in 1560 by the Mughal emperor, Babar. The BJP succeeded in making the Babri Mosque an important communal symbol in national politics. Its destruction in 1992, with the tacit support of the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh, triggered nationwide riots. Secularism was now mocked as “pseudo-secularism” and replaced by unforeseen Hindu militancy. “Declare proudly that you are a Hindu” became a popular chant. The destroyers of the Babri Mosque became martyrs in junior high school textbooks, and Muslim rule in India came to be seen as a shameful event, the signs of which had to be erased from history.
The rise of militant Islamist organizations in India in the last 15 years is directly connected to the hate campaigns launched by Hindu nationalist political groups. The destruction of the Babri Mosque was avenged by the killing of more than 200 civilians in the Bombay explosions engineered by Dawood Ibrahim, now based in Pakistan. These blasts were followed by anti-Muslim riots in Bombay. While the government labels as “terrorist” the mosques, Muslim schools and societies funded by Middle Eastern organizations, the popular STAR Television network (owned by an American) continues to reinforce Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) by producing serials based on Hindu mythological themes. SIMI uses posters of the demolished Babri Mosque to remind its followers that their struggle against infidels must continue. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a militant Hindu revivalist organization founded 67 years ago, swears by the ashes of Nathuram Godse (who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi) that they won’t rest until they have submerged Godse’s ashes in the Sindhu River flowing through unpartitioned India!
Why did the government single out SIMI for the ban and refuse to check Hindu fundamentalist organizations, despite severe criticisms from the opposition? The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh declared that SIMI was banned for being “anti-national” while the Hindu groups were merely “communal” — as if communalism comes in two brands, one acceptable and the other not. Hindutva supporters consider it ridiculous to compare a group which chants the praises of Mother India to SIMI, which is alleged to have links with al-Qaeda and Hamas, and which openly expresses its support for the struggles of Muslims in Kashmir and Palestine.
Previous demands to ban SIMI were rejected by the central government for fear of alienating Muslim voters. But now that global media imagery has established Muslim terrorists as the common enemy of the world, the banning of SIMI is intended to kill two birds with one stone. The BJP can convince Hindus that it is protecting them by containing “Islamic terrorism,” while the Samajwadi Party can be branded as anti-national for opposing the ban on SIMI.
In the middle of all this, as bombs, “aid” and propaganda continue to rain on Afghanistan, Indian Muslim communities feel further embarrassed, threatened and silenced. Although right-wing Hindus are not exactly rooting for America, the US war on the Taliban has strangely become a Hindu-Muslim war in Uttar Pradesh. While many have interpreted this war as one between the US and the Third World, between “the fireball and the ice pick,” the picture is far more complex. This will not simply remain a war between what Arundhati Roy calls two dangerously armed foes: “one with the nuclear arsenal of the obscenely powerful, and the other with the incandescent, destructive power of the utterly hopeless.” Equally, or perhaps more, important are the ways that this conflict is polarizing societies. In South Asia, with its increasing caste, class and gender inequalities, communal and regional divides and weakening socioeconomic fabric in the face of globalization, Bush’s war is fueling intolerance, injustice and violence at local, national and international levels.
On October 1, 40 more people died in suicide bombings of the Jammu and Kashmir State Assembly. Instead of confronting Jaish-e-Mohammed, the Pakistan-based organization that initially claimed responsibility for the killings, the Indian foreign minister begged Tony Blair and Colin Powell to come to India’s defense. Historically, India has been a leader in the non-aligned movement and a strong critic of US imperialism. With the world’s third largest Muslim population, it has also been a friend of the Islamic world. However, the BJP-led coalition government has actively formed defense and technology ties with the Israeli government and failed to take a critical stand on US foreign policy. With preparations underway to construct the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, the BJP leaders are using Bush’s “war on terrorism” to distract India’s increasingly impoverished and displaced millions and to bolster their own communalist and militaristic agenda.