As an adamant agnostic I don’t have a religious identity. But if I were religious, I’m pretty sure I would hate to be a Muslim in India today. Think about how claustrophobic it must be to find yourself sandwiched between two horrifying realities: to confront the fact that nearly 200 people were killed in the name of your religion, by someone who also prays to your God; and then to have to justify yourself over and over again to a country trembling with rage.
On the one hand is a twisted and sick world of those who claim to act on your behalf, a world to which you do not belong; and on the other side is the No Entry sticker plastered across the front door, a world that treats you with suspicion and hostility.
Sadly, the secularism debate in India mirrors these two extremes. Minority-bashers will paint the entire community in the same broad stroke; and the liberal orthodoxy will pretend that radical Islam has no roots in India.
Well, it’s time to end the pretence.
The Bombay blasts have hammered home one terrible truth. The Indian Muslim is no longer entirely immune to the insidious influence of global extremism. We may recoil in discomfort when we hear the phrase ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, but like it or not, the global pattern is slowly beginning to leave its imprint on India.
And this is our failure, both as a society and a nation.
By now we all know how President Bush had asked the Prime Minister in Washington just how it was that in a country with 130 million Muslims, not one could be linked to al-Qaeda.What did India have, he wanted to know, that other countries didn’t?
For years we have gloated about our secularism and rubbished theocracies with barely disguised contempt. We have watched countries like Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia struggle to build a bridge between Reason and Radical Islam. And we have always said proudly: look at us. There are more Muslims in India than in any other country in the world except Indonesia. But while the rest of the world wrestles with an increasingly politicised Islam, we have always boasted about how our robust democracy has helped us sidestep the storm.
Can we really, and truthfully, say this any longer?
Like you, I can barely follow the elaborate twists and turns of the Bombay investigations. But if the cops are to be believed, an ominous new face of terror is slowly taking shape. The hammer and chisel may belong to Pakistan-based terrorists, but the clay is Indian.
Look at the arrests made so far. They include a doctor, an engineer and an electrician from Dubai; most are professionals with no criminal background; they could just as easily be the neighbours down the road from your or my house.
Earlier when terror hit our nerve centre, we could always blame Kashmir. The Valley, we would say, had become a launching pad for violence; desperate terrorists were trying to spread their tentacles outwards to capture headlines and derail peace.
And then we would use the Kashmir conflict as an example of how well integrated the Indian Muslim is. We would tell the world that not a single Indian Muslim had ever backed the separatist movement in the Valley; that Kashmir was a political conflict, not a religious one; and that pan-Islamic sentiments could never capture public imagination in the Indian mainstream.
But for the first time perhaps, the cops have found no significant link between Kashmir and the Bombay blasts. Nor are the investigating agencies able to point a finger at the underworld.
And the question we must ask ourselves is this: If in all these years, groups like the Lashkar failed to mobilise a single Muslim outside the Kashmir Valley, what has changed now?
Are we ready to look homegrown terror in the eye? And are we ready to look at the fact that this is a scathing comment on our failure to be an integrated society?
And no, this is not, and cannot be, about falling back on justifications. Such politically correct formulations are also an example of extremism — just of a different kind.
So those who point to the horrific Gujarat riots of 2002 to explain the Bombay blasts should be careful. Extend that argument another level, and you won’t be able to counter Narendra Modi who also rationalised the anti-Muslim riots as an emotional outburst against the torching of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra. To locate responsibility in the endless cycle of cause and effect is not just over-simplistic but also self-defeating.
Yet, there’s no doubt that ultimately the war against terror is a war of the mind; extremism can only grow roots in soil that has been under-watered and under-nourished.
Anti-Muslim riots in which the State secedes responsibility will in turn break down trust. But a riot is still an event, an aberration, if you will. Sometimes it’s just the business of living that is tougher.
Bombay’s biggest icons may include Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan. But ask an ordinary Muslim in the city just how tough it is to rent a flat in a regular building; the glitzy acceptability of Bollywood makes no difference to his daily life. Our cities are collapsing into ghettos, with invisible borders dividing our people.
And the statistics tell their own sorry story. Less than 4 per cent of India’s police force is Muslim; no more than 2 per cent of India’s bureaucracy is Muslim; and Muslims are 5 per cent behind the national literacy rate, making them the most educationally backward religious community. Yet, if a government-appointed committee attempts to gather data on just how representative our political and military institutions are, we accuse it of fomenting communalism.
If the Indian Muslim remains on the margins of development, isn’t there a good chance that he will remain on the periphery in every other way as well? It’s this imbalance, the sense of being an outsider, a person with no stake in the system that could provide the perfect breeding ground for terror.
So next time, don’t just stare at the bearded man with the skullcap.
Look beyond, and look within.