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By GWYNNE DYER
Down the slippery slope
“AN INDIA that is not secular will not survive,” warned Sonia Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress Party, after Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee cast aside any pretense of religious tolerance on April 14.
Vajpayee hopes to hold onto power by whipping up Hindu fanaticism and anti-Muslim hatred, but Gandhi is probably right: India would not survive–and a world in which India was breaking up would be a place of huge violence and terrifying instability.
Crises in the Middle East get more air-time, but the Indian sub-continent is a far more important place. It has four times as many people as the Middle East, bigger and more diverse economies, and technological capabilities that extend all the way to the independent production of nuclear weapons. If Vajpayee continues down his current road, the Middle East will soon lose the limelight.
What Vajpayee said, to a conference of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Goa, was this: “Wherever there are Muslims, they do not want to live with others. Instead of living peacefully, they want to propagate their religion by creating terror in the minds of others.” It was a deliberate and vicious lie, spoken by the leader of a country with 130 million Muslim citizens, in the month after at least a thousand Muslims were murdered in the state of Gujarat by their own Hindu fellow-citizens.
The slaughter of Muslims in Gujarat was triggered by the killing of 59 Hindu militants on a train passing through the town of Godhra on 27 February, an event that the BJP treats as evidence that Muslim ‘militants’ and ‘terrorists’ are plotting against Hinduism and India. But the incident at Godhra actually had much more prosaic origins.
The fatal train was carrying hundreds of Hindu militants, mostly members of the BJP, back to Gujarat from Ayodhya, where they had been doing volunteer work on a Hindu temple that Hindu radicals want to build on the site of a 16th-century mosque destroyed by the same radicals in 1993. Many of the militants were young men, and by the time the train reached Gujarat some of them were much the worse for drink.
When the train stopped at Godhra, they pulled a couple of the young women selling food on the platform aboard the train–maybe as a joke, but perhaps also because they were Muslims. They chose the wrong place, as the run-down district around Godhra train station is almost exclusively Muslim.
Word of the incident spread, the train was prevented from leaving town, angry demands for the release of the women were met with frightened refusals, bricks and bottles began to fly–and then a Molotov cocktail.
Fifty-nine people died in the railway carriage that burned, which is an atrocious tragedy, but there is no evidence that ‘Muslim terrorists’ were involved. It was more like one of those terrible crowd incidents that happen occasionally at football matches or pop concerts. The anti-Muslim violence that swept Gujarat in the following days, by contrast, was very well planned.
The Hindu mobs that hacked and burned at least one thousand Muslims to death in towns across Gujarat and made over 100,000 homeless were “led by educated people–advocates, doctors, and the rich,” said the Ahmedabad police commissioner. Many arrived in cars, with cell-phones and lists of Muslim households with property worth looting. And if Narendra Modi, the BJP governor of Gujarat, was not directly involved in the planning of the attacks, he certainly did instruct the state police not to intervene in defence of the Muslim victims.
Prime Minister Vajpayee’s speech in Goa a week ago, reinforcing the myth of a Muslim conspiracy against Hindus, was in direct support of Modi’s decision to call a state election and ride back to power in Gujarat on a wave of anti-Muslim hatred. “Whenever (Vajpayee) loses his mental balance, he reacts like this, “ said Sonia Gandhi acidly, but there is a good deal of calculation in his actions, too.
What kind of calculation has turned the BJP back towards its rabble-rousing, anti-Muslim roots? When the BJP emerged from the 1999 election as India’s largest single party, but with too few seats in parliament to form a government by itself, it made a coalition with 22 smaller parties. This forced it to put aside its Hindu fundamentalist programme and govern from the centre, which risked alienating its core constituency.
The BJP tried to compensate by striking extreme nationalist poses like testing nuclear weapons, but recently its main political rivals have responded to the confrontation with Pakistan by taking equally rabid nationalist positions themselves, in effect stealing its political clothes.
The BJP vote in state elections has been dropping sharply as a result, but now Godhra and its aftermath have given it a pretext to return to its old staples of Hindu fanaticism and explicitly anti-Muslim policies.
So far, alas, its coalition partners, while verbally condemning the BJP’s excesses, have shown no enthusiasm for walking away from all the perks and privileges of power. Petty calculations by little, narrow-minded men, but meanwhile the world’s biggest democracy drifts towards disaster unparalleled. If the BJP ever puts its full programme into action, India is heading for communal slaughter on a vast scale, and quite possibly also for internal break-up, nuclear war with Pakistan, or both.
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