April 28, 2002
By Raffique Shah
"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." Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, April 14, at a conference of his BJP party in Goa (as quoted by syndicated journalist Gwynne Dyer).
THE things politicians say and do to either grab for power or remain in office are often outrageous, sometimes unbelievable. I have watched with foreboding interest developments in India, more specifically the incidents of violence between that country's Hindu majority and its Muslim minority. There is, too, the 54 year-old dispute between Pakistan and India over Kashmir, a border-state under India's control, where the clashes between their two respective armies have led to sabre rattling at the highest levels. In fact, the "gun talk" between Pakistan's Musharaff and India's Vajpayee has degenerated to the point where the former has hinted at the possible use of nuclear weapons "in defence of Pakistan".
Thus far, the bitterness between the two religious groups there has not had a negative impact on relations between practicing members of the two religions here in Trinidad. But when the flames of hatred are fanned by strident calls from Hindu extremists, and by prominent leaders like Sat Maharaj, one never knows what could be the result. Recently, Hindu scholar Anantanand Rambachan attempted to put the issue of violence between members of the two faiths in what I would term a human perspective. For that, he was slammed by Sat for being, well, a "fake Hindu".
Interestingly, Dyer revealed something about the incident that triggered the most recent spate of inter-religious violence that I had not read before. He wrote that the train that was returning from the controversial Ayodhya site when it stopped at a small town named Godhra. There, young men on the train pulled a few female vendors, who were Muslims, on board-maybe, as Dyer wrote, as a prank. Word of the "kidnappings" spread quickly, and soon the train was stopped and surrounded by angry Muslims. In the confrontation that followed, someone threw a Molotov cocktail into the train and by the time the smoke cleared, 59 Hindus were dead.
The orgy of violence that followed, in which hundreds of Muslims were slaughtered and entire villages razed, it was alleged that the police, Gujarat's BJP governor Narendra Moti, and Vajpayee's central government, took a hands off position as innocent men, women and children were murdered. To compound an already bad situation, Dyer concluded that Vajpayee's speech in Goa was his way of fanning the flames of religious hatred in order to "seal" the Hindu votes when elections are called in that state. Worse, the BJP came to power in a coalition arrangement with 22 smaller parties, many of which are as anti-Muslim as the BJP. So, to steer voters away from his coalition partners and towards the BJP, Vajpayee has to stir up Hindu fanaticism.
So what we have is a situation in which the means justify the end. If, in order to retain power, Vajpayee and the BJP have to split India down the middle (there are millions of Hindus who do not support their religious intolerance), he has no compunction about doing it. Matters not that in a nation of just over one billion people, there are 130 million Muslims, or that India is sandwiched between 100 million Muslims in Pakistan to the west and another 100 million in Bangladesh to its east. Too, both Arab and Islamic countries across the world have become much closer and more militant since Israel's latest atrocities in Palestine.
Dyer also quoted Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress party, which has been a stabilising factor in India's history ever since its independence, as saying: "An India that is not secular will not survive." It could not be put more poignantly. But in a secular India, there will be no room for extremists like the BJP and its even more right-wing allies. But it was secular India, under Jawarharlal Nehru, and later his daughter Indira, that led the sub-continent from a primitive state (in terms of development, not religion or culture) into the industrial and technological powerhouse that it is today. If it is to continue that growth path, it must remain as non-turbulent a society as is possible.
Let me state very clearly that I do not support Muslim fundamentalism in any of its various manifestations. I spoke out against the Muslimeen attempted coup in 1990 (even though my brother was a participant), I condemned the Taleban for the what they had done to Afghanistan, and I wrote a column that heaped scorn on the latter when they tore down the statues of Buddha. In fact, being agnostic, I am tolerant of all religions. But I cannot stand the posturing of fanatics of any religious or political group. They thrive on misinformation, on twisting the truth to suit their nefarious ends.
Professor Rambachan had to defend himself when he was wrongfully accused of condoning what the Muslim mob did at Godhra. I read what he had written (I always read him-his is a voice of reason in a sea of dogma) and that accusation was not true. What bothers me is if the militancy in both camps-and in both India and Pakistan-lead to widespread unrest, even civil war, what would be the repercussions here? Because there are fanatics from both sides of the religious divide among us. And not to be outdone, certain politicians will think nothing of fanning those flames of hatred if it suits their political aims.
You know, when I heard Musharaff spout his nuclear nonsense, I was tempted to say: "Why don't they really go to war? Maybe they should use a few nuclear bombs against each other, since that would help solve their overpopulation problems!" But that's not human-or humane. Clearly, what is needed in India and Pakistan are leaders far removed from the primal instincts of the rabid elements in their respective countries. Unfortunately, Gandhi seems to have given his life in the vain hope that a truly great nation would emerge from a people who, though stalked by poverty, were (and remain) gifted in so many ways.
Dyer suggested that as the Muslim-Hindu conflict worsens, "the world biggest democracy drifts towards disaster unparalleled". If that's what Vajpayee and Musharaff want, if their fanatical supporters would follow them to hell, then let them be. But please, let us not get caught up in that horrid religious (or racial) conflagration.
Copyright © Raffique Shah