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Against the current

There are unmistakable echoes of the pre-Diwali Delhi blasts in the bomb attacks in Varanasi.

india Updated: Mar 09, 2006 03:26 IST

There are unmistakable echoes of the pre-Diwali Delhi blasts in the bomb attacks in Varanasi. Though we cannot be sure who the Varanasi bombers were, it seems reasonable to surmise that they may have been Islamic extremists — just as those who set off the explosions in Delhi were. In Varanasi, as in Delhi, there was an obvious communal angle. Tuesday’s blasts came just before Holi and the bombs went off in a Hanuman temple. The Delhi blasts were timed to disrupt Diwali celebrations and the targets were innocent men and women who were out shopping for the festival.

And yet, the political and public response to the Varanasi incident has been completely different from the way in which the Delhi blasts were regarded. Then, nobody played up the Islamic angle. There was a stoic unity within the political establishment. And there was a quiet recognition that though Islamic terrorist groups would attack Indian civilians, Indian society would unite to fight the threat.

This time around, however, the response has been framed in Hindu-Muslim terms. The BJP has sought to link the Varanasi bombings to what it regards as the Muslim-appeasement policies of both the UPA government at the Centre and the Samajwadi Party ministry in Lucknow. On the night of the bombings, as the blood congealed on the floor of the Sankat Mochan temple, L.K. Advani went on TV to declare that these blasts could not be delinked from the protests against the Danish cartoons. His successor as BJP president, Rajnath Singh, blamed government policies towards Muslims.

It is easy to be cynical about the BJP’s attempts to extract political mileage from this tragedy. There was no shortage of terrorist incidents when Advani was home minister. But nobody suggested that this was because he was a Muslim-lover. Nor does it make any logical sense to say that Muslim appeasement leads to terrorism. People who are pampered or appeased do not need to resort to violence. Terrorism is the response of those who are angry, marginalised or denied a say in governance.

On the other hand, while the BJP’s motives are tragically predictable, it would be foolish to deny that many ordinary people — who have no political axe to grind — also saw the Varanasi blasts in Hindu-Muslim terms. This is in sharp contrast to the Delhi blasts where the man and woman in the street reacted with a never-say-die defiance and refused to focus on the communal angle.

So, what has made the difference? Why should two incidents that are broadly similar be regarded in two completely different ways?

Some easy explanations are available. The Varanasi blasts took place in a temple; this re-emphasised the religious nature of the attack. They took place in Uttar Pradesh where the SP has clung on to power by cynically playing on Muslim insecurities and encouraging Islamic extremism.

But is this the whole story? My fear is that the increased communalisation of the response to the Varanasi attacks — as compared to the more secular reaction to the Delhi bombs — tells us something about the manner in which many Hindus are beginning to perceive Muslim extremism.

It is too pat to say that Hindus feel that the UPA government is appeasing Muslims. Unlike the Hindu backlash of the Eighties, which was prompted by the feeling that the Congress favoured Muslims over Hindus to win votes, the public sentiment this time is more complicated.

The major difference in the two decades since the Babri masjid issue first emerged is that the global perception of Islam has changed. In the Eighties, nobody talked of a clash of civilisations. Osama bin Laden was an obscure figure. Al-Qaeda did not exist. Conflicts in West Asia were not seen in Islam versus The Rest terms — the long war between Iraq and Iran in the Eighties was not reported in a religious context. Whatever problems Hindus had with Indian Muslims were domestic, local and our own.

In this century, however, there is a growing feeling that Indian Muslims are focusing more on their global Muslim identity and less on their Indian nationality. The furore over the Danish cartoons is just one instance. Yes, all right, the cartoons were offensive. But what does it have to do with us? Why should Indian Muslims be ready to riot over cartoons they will never see in a paper they have never heard of in a country that most of them will never visit? Don’t Indian Muslims have enough problems at home that they should worry about European cartoons?

Similarly, to say that Hindus were shocked that a minister in the UP government got away with offering a reward of Rs 51 crore for the head of the Danish cartoonist is to miss the point. By now, most people are reconciled to the sad reality that the extremist fringe of the Muslim leadership includes many loathsome thugs. Nor does anybody expect

Mulayam Singh Yadav to act against the goondas in his government. (This is the chief minister who had Raja Bhaiyya sworn in to his ministry, remember?)

The point is that the UP minister offered the reward only because he knew that he would be applauded by Indian Muslims for this murderous gesture. And, in fact, not only has his reward gone down well with his constituency but other extremist Muslim politicians have echoed his sentiments. The question that bewilders many Hindus is: why should the Muslim electorate respond so positively to a campaign to murder a man whose name they don’t even know?

Nor can many Hindus understand the Muslim reaction to George Bush. Few Indians (of all religious persuasions) approve of the invasion of Iraq or of American foreign policy in general. And yet, most of us are able to distinguish between Washington’s attitude to Iraq and its policy towards New Delhi. If India stands to gain from a US foreign policy initiative, then most Indians will welcome that initiative no matter what their views on US policy towards Iraq, Iran or Palestine are.

But many Muslim leaders seemed to take the line that no matter whether India gained or not, anything that Bush did was to be opposed because America had acted against Muslims in Iraq. As the BJP has not failed to point out, the sub-text is clear: Indian Muslims will place the interests of global Islam over those of the Indian State.

Once political leaders encourage Indian Muslims to see themselves as Muslims first and Indians second, then even Hindus begin to accept this caricature. Thus, the Delhi bombings were an attack on the Indian nation. But the Varanasi blasts are yet another instance of global Islamic terrorism.

Some commentators have advised the UPA government to go slow on addressing Muslim grievances for fear of provoking a Hindu backlash. In fact, the opposite is true. Muslims are at the mercy of extremist lunatic-fringe leaders only because they feel marginalised by government policies. The way to fight Muslim alienation from the Indian State is to do more for them, not less.

In the Eighties, you could argue that the hard secularism of the Congress — which saw Muslim grievances in terms of right to refuse maintenance to wives and the right to kill Salman Rushdie — contributed to the Hindu backlash.

But this time around, it is not government policies that are provoking the backlash. It is the Muslim community’s own inability to rein in its extremists and to dictate a moderate, indigenous response to political events.

I am reminded of the US invasion of Afghanistan which removed the odious Taliban regime and pushed bin Laden into hiding. While the rest of India applauded the initiative, the tiresome Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid declared that he was on the side of the Taliban and wanted to help them.

It was Shabana Azmi who fixed him. Fine, she said, if he cares so much about the Taliban, let’s put him in a plane and air-drop him into Afghanistan. That way he can help his beloved Taliban and we will be rid of him.

This time too, the strongest condemnation of the bounty on the head of the Danish cartoonist has come from Muslims for Secular Democracy, an organisation that includes Azmi and her husband Javed Akhtar.

Why can’t more Muslims show such courage? Why can’t they speak out for reason and for Indian nationalism? How can they allow the thugs and the lunatics to hijack the leadership of their community?

My fear is that if they do not come forward now, we will be back to the great communal divide of the late Eighties and the early Nineties.

(Sitaram Yechury’s column, Left-Hand Drive, will appear on Saturday)

First Published: Mar 09, 2006 03:26 IST