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Terror has a religion

India isn't as bad as Pakistan. But denying growing radicalisation among Hindus and Muslims could presage a national clash of civilisations. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Jun 05, 2011 17:58 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times

More worrying than the assassination last week of Salman Taseer, the outspoken governor of Pakistan's Punjab, was the aftermath: the joy on the faces of those who showered rose petals on Taseer's radicalised and ever-smiling bodyguard (no doubt convinced of rewards in the hereafter) and the zeal with which imams warned anyone from mourning the slain governor.

Though there has been enough evidence of growing radicalisation on the fringes of our society, it's hard to imagine anything this extreme in modern, outwardly secular, democratic India. But the great cause for worry is a quietly accelerating religious conservatism and a spreading atmosphere of intolerance and hate. India tomorrow could be more threatened than Pakistan is today, for a mass radicalisation will consume not one religion but two.

To address these issues, it is important to stop the denial implicit in the slogan so beloved in India: Terror has no religion. Terrorism is almost always driven by religion. That's evident in every terror investigation since before the demolition of the Babri Masjid, which, along with the Gujarat riots of 2002, set off a wave of urban, Islamist terrorism.

Here's part of a motivational speech — submitted as evidence by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in 1993 — by Dr Jalees Ansari, a Mumbai doctor sentenced to life for masterminding more than 30 bombings, most of them before the Babri turmoil of 1992: "We should pressure the government and the majority Hindu community by whatever means, even if it means destruction of life and property to any extent... we want to terrorise them and government, particularly the police."

The latest confession comes from Jatin Chatterjee, or Swami Aseemanand, the botany post-graduate and Hindu evangelist who on December 18, 2010, revealed to a magistrate (as opposed to dubious confessions made to police forces renowned for torture) a nationwide web of terror around the Hindu cause. His confession supposedly joins the dots between five bombings (Malegaon, Maharashtra, 2006; Mecca Masjid, Hyderabad, 2007; shrine of Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, Ajmer, 2007; Samjhauta Express to Pakistan, 2007; and Malegaon, 2008) that claimed 119 lives and resulted in many young Muslims being arrested and charged with terrorism.

Of the 14 Hindu men arrested or absconding over the last two years, nine were members of the RSS, whose chief Mohan Bhagwat on Monday said the organisation has always asked members with "extremist views" to leave. Even so, the RSS and the BJP find it hard to accept that its members could ever cross over to the dark side. Instead of recognising the cancer within, they belligerently allege conspiracies. This is not too different from the denial practised in the past by the Sunni Ahl-e-hadees sect that spawned Dr Ansari and some other Muslim bombers.

Whether Islamist or Hindu, terrorists rise from denial, regarding themselves not as attackers but defenders of a faith they see as being under siege. They believe God is with them, that their cause is right and just and cannot fail.

Terrorism in India is yet a fringe phenomenon. Intelligence and police officials estimate there may be fewer than 200 individuals — they know of — both Hindu and Muslim, committed to being terrorists. But there is no count of sympathisers who might cross the line in an atmosphere of intolerance — something that is spreading through mainstream India.

A leading doctor in Mumbai tells me how some of his friends (almost all Gujarati Hindus, he notes) abhor the 'M' word, refusing to give jobs to Muslims. A young Muslim from the Mumbai ghetto of Nagpada tells me how some of his friends think it's unIslamic to befriend idolators.

Hindus and Muslims find it harder than ever to live in areas inhabited by the other. Young people often grow up with no friends from another religion. As prosperity and education grow, so do ambition and competition, and so, consequently, does the influence of religion as a life anchor. Few blink at the creeping invasion of religiousness into public life.

"It's true, most of our patrol vans and police stations have idols mounted on the dashboard, and gods on the wall," says one senior Mumbai police officer when I discuss my observations. "Can minorities possibly feel confident in such an atmosphere? Are we not going the way of Pakistan where police pray in their uniform?"

One uniformed man who succumbed to a general anti-Muslim feeling was Lt Col Shrikant Purohit, alleged supplier of explosives for the 2008 Malegaon bombings. The first Indian army officer accused of terrorism, he also tried but failed to recruit fellow officers into the shadowy Hindu outfit Abhinav Bharat.

The modern Indian terrorist is — unlike the semi-literate Ajmal Kasab, the Pakistani captured during the 2008 attack on Mumbai — often well-educated, rational and as a person, usually quite pleasant. Mirza Himayat Baig, the 29-year-old prime suspect in the February 13 bombing of Pune's German bakery, was a good student in the Maharashtra town of Beed. He allegedly became a jihadi after attending meetings where young Islamists spoke angrily of the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat. Among those arrested this decade include dentists, engineers and traders.

Terrorist actions, a British professor called John Hull once noted, represent the rational mind at the end of its tether in a troubled world, searching for a coherence that rationality can no longer offer. So, religion takes over. "The rationality of religion," says Hull, "produces the irrationality of terror."

Could Indians, one day, become irrational enough to shower rose petals on terrorists and murderers? It is a good idea to think about the unthinkable.

First Published: Jan 12, 2011 23:10 IST