India's Calculated Ethnic Violence
Jehangir Pocha is a journalist of Indian origin whose
essay The Sub-Continent's Opportunity appears in Dispatches From a Wounded
World, BookSurge, 2002.
India's rising Hindu fundamentalism should trouble the
world. Just beyond the spotlight that illuminates extremism in the Islamic
world, a Hindu militancy that preaches a hatred of Islam and Christianity
is breeding prodigiously in its shadows.
Over the last few months, two events have torn into the secular fabric
and traditional rectitude of India, once seen as a shining example of
In March, Hindu militants in the state of Gujarat seeking retribution
for an attack by Muslim groups on a train carrying their colleagues through
the town of Godhra, launched a sustained attack on Gujarat's Muslims.
Over a seven-week period, more than 1,000 people were killed and another
100,000 turned into refugees in the violence they unleashed across the
state. Then, with the death toll still rising, New Delhi launched a massive
military confrontation with Pakistan that brought the subcontinent to
the brink of nuclear war for the fourth time in as many years.
For three weeks, the subcontinent teetered on the brink. As refugees fleeing
murderous mobs sat garrisoned in makeshift camps across Gujarat, New Delhi
and Islamabad prepared for war. The United States, Britain and other allies,
whose armies were still chasing down scattering Taliban in neighboring
Afghanistan, ordered their citizens out of both countries and flew their
diplomats in. After intense cajoling by senior officials including the
US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the European Union's External
Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten to step back from its brinksmanship,
New Delhi relented and the panic passed.
But over a million troops still remain mobilized along India's 1,200-mile
border with Pakistan and militant Hindu and Muslim groups within India
remain geared to take each other on in yet another round of ethnic violence.
No one is certain when which conflict will erupt next, or where.
Though the India-Pakistan nuclear standoff was ostensibly driven by the
continuing terrorism that New Delhi accuses Islamabad of fomenting in
the disputed region of Kashmir, there is another story behind India's
Recent history has shown that both India and Pakistan routinely use international
crises to manipulate domestic politics. Border tensions inexorably build
whenever the ruling party in either nation is threatened politically,
only to dissipate fortuitously after a hold on power is reestablished.
It is hard to ignore that Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's
calls for a "decisive war" against Pakistan came hard on the
heels of Gujarat's Hindu-Muslim violence-violence that the ruling Bharatiya
Janta Party, or BJP, stood accused of planning and executing.
Witnesses and investigators said that during the worst days of the strife,
marauding mobs of intoxicated young men were systematically trucked into
Gujarati towns with written instructions for violence, including computerized
lists of Muslim businesses and homes. In their saffron bandanas, brandishing
"trishuls"-the mythical weapon of the Hindu God Shiva-the mobs
systematically devastated these places.
Their brutality was mind numbing. According to reports by independent
organizations like the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), homes
were flooded and then electrocuted. Parents were battered to death in
front of their children. Women and girls appear to have been specifically
targeted and raped in unpredicted numbers. Some of the violence inflicted
on them has been too macabre for many newspapers to print.
Within hours, a state renowned for its ancient citadels and verdant tribal
hamlets lay blood-drenched, pillaged and scorched. Many ordinary citizens
joined in the rioting and looting that followed. Eyewitnesses say that
local administrators, legislators, district magistrates and policemen
aided and abetted them.
Gujarat's BJP-led government, headed by Chief Minister Narendra Modi,
did little to stop the slaughter. Harsh Mander, a senior civil servant
who has since resigned, said that "if even one official had acted,
she or he could have deployed the police forces and called in the army
to halt the violence and protect the people in a matter of hours."
Instead, he said, the state witnessed "a systematic, planned massacre."
"I believe that what happened in Gujarat was a premeditated, state-abetted,
antiminority pogrom," said Sugata Bose, a professor of Indian history
at Harvard University, who recently visited the country. "This needs
to be condemned unequivocally and those culpable must be brought to book."
Leaders of the Sangh Parivar have all but admitted their involvement in
the riots. "It had to be done," said K.K. Shastri, chairman
of the Gujarat state unit of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, one of the chief
constituents of the Sangh Parivar. Talking with reporters, Shastri acknowledged
"our people" had unleashed the violence and said the rioters
were "well-bred Hindu boys."
Ashutosh Varshney, an associate professor of political science at the
University of Michigan, had predicted Hindu-Muslim violence in the state
and even identified the towns that would see the most bloodshed. Varshney
said such identification was possible because "large-scale ethnic
violence in India does not erupt spontaneously from the street but from
active political action by groups to polarize communities, and from calculated
violence carried out by criminal gangs associated with them."
To most, the image of Hinduism as a benign and syncretic culture is hard
to shake. The sight of a bearded and turbaned Islamic cleric can bring
an entire airport to a full security alert, but a saffron-robed, bald-headed
yogi inspires a grin at best. Yet, cheerful and comforting as this image
of Hinduism and India is, it is also turning false.
In a nation that was torn apart by religious divisions just as it attained
independence, time has not anaesthetized the trauma of the partition that
created Pakistan and India out of British India in 1947.
Jawaharlal Nehru's Congress party, which ruled India almost uninterrupted
from 1947 to 1996, struggled to build a secular India from what Mahatma
Gandhi called the "wooden loaf" of Indian independence-an independence
despoiled by ethnic hatred. Force-feeding the nation the dream of a secular
India through a torrent of clumsy, Soviet-style propaganda, India was
raised on a superficial diet of feel-good slogans while ethnic tensions
raged at its core. Unattended, the problem festered.
And it was compounded by corrosive corruption that systematically destroyed
what Arundhati Roy called "ordinary citizens'" modest hopes
for lives of dignity, security and relief from abject poverty.
Beginning in the early 1990s, the BJP, eager to grab the political stage
from a Congress Party made rudderless after the assassination of Rajiv
Gandhi, began rallying latent frustrations by asserting that only an India
ruled by Hindu principles, or Hindutva, could return the country to its
ancient "greatness." Arguing that India's minorities are anti-national,
pampered and aggressive, the Sangh Parivar violently advocated the transformation
of secular India into a Hindu state, with minimal minority rights.
With 81 percent of Indians describing themselves as Hindu, the Hindutva
campaign energized many Indians yearning for quick-fix solutions to age-old
problems into believing the BJP offered a remedy for ancient grudges and
The BJP's calculated, strategic use of ethnic politics that fed off the
ghosts from the past aroused suppressed rivalries and created a groundswell
of support for the Hindu fundamentalist movement that always patrolled
the periphery of India's social and political life. Their razing of the
16th century Babri Masjid mosque precipitated their popularity in the
1990s. Amidst the sectarian tensions that followed, the Sangh Parivar
unleashed waves of organized violence against Muslim neighborhoods. Later,
in a movement against Christian proselytizing, they began to target Christians,
killing priests and burning churches across the nation.
First riding to power on the Hindutva campaign in 1998, the BJP won mid-term
elections in 2000 to lead a coalition government in New Delhi. Under pressure
from secular allies the party appeared for a time to be attempting non-partisan
governance. But the party suffered serious reversals Feb. 25, when it
lost all of four state-level elections. Analysts suspect that hard-liners
in the BJP and Sangh Parivar then felt the need to reassert their Hindutva
Three days later, the violence erupted in Gujarat.
Gujarat showcased what the Sangh Parivar's new India could look like.
As the state bled, K.C. Sudarshan, head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh,
or RSS, the fountainhead of Hindu fundamentalism, warned Christians and
Muslims that their continued safety in India depended not on the rule
of law or their constitutional rights, but on "the goodwill of the
When paramilitary troops were finally called in to quell the violence
and they patrolled curfew-bound towns with orders to shoot at sight, the
BJP tried to consolidate its Hindu base through incendiary political moves.
In a move that cast grave doubt over the future security of Muslims in
the state "the few (police officers) who ignored political interference
and tried to prevent the escalation of violence were punished with sudden
transfers," said journalist Dionne Bunsha who covered the riots.
Then, Modi's government sought to compensate Hindu victims from the earlier
train attack in Godhra with twice the money offered to Muslim victims
from the riots.
At the federal level, the BJP government refused any independent, credible
investigation into the violence. Prime Minister Vajpayee's most severe
action against Modi has been to subject him to an avuncular chiding. His
most visible gesture to victims of the violence has been to release a
poem sharing his personal anguish and to grant them some financial compensation.
Outrage at the Sangh Parivar's tactics, both in the street and within
India's secular political parties, polarized India. In the ethnically
charged atmosphere that followed many Hindus gravitated further toward
the BJP. But the party lost credibility with secular voters and found
itself under intense pressure in parliament when two key partners threatened
to withdraw from its coalition. With the prospect of yet another mid-term
election looming party strategists realized that the BJP had to consolidate
its right wing Hindu base and win over moderate voters if it was to have
any chance of staying in power.
It was within this context that Pakistan-supported Kashmiri separatists
attacked India's Kalachuk military base on May 14 killing 34 people.
Though the attack typified the 14-year old terrorist conflict in the long-running
Kashmiri conflict-in which more than 50,000 people have been killed in
almost daily violence-Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee chose that moment
to call for a massive military retaliation against Pakistan.
A link has long been seen between the BJP's domestic anti-Muslim actions
and its aggression toward Islamic Pakistan. By stoking domestic ethnic
tensions and then casting India's complex political disputes with Pakistan
over Kashmir in a religious mold the BJP was won considerable domestic
support for a hard line against its nuclear neighbor. And it is using
this jingoism to further whip up ethnic tensions at home, thereby establishing
a cycle of anti-Islamic sentiment and nationalism from which it draws
Vajpayee's sudden escalation of tensions with Pakistan compelled opposition
parties and public opinion to unite behind his government. Conveniently,
the threat of nuclear war with Pakistan relegated emerging evidence of
the BJP's role in the Gujarat riots to the inner pages of all newspapers
even as it won the party renewed popular support.
Incensed by what the Pakistani army calls its "war of a thousand
cuts" being waged against it in Kashmir, India has been demanding
a harder line against its bete noire. And the BJP has been happy to oblige.
"Trouble," Vajpayee now told India, "brews wherever Muslims
live in large numbers."
The Bush administration, whose efforts to fashion a strategic relationship
with India took on renewed vigor after the World Trade Center attack,
initially seemed loath to acknowledge the severity of the Hindu militancy
unfolding in India.
But shocked by what it called "horrible violence in Gujarat"
and the soon-to-follow threat of nuclear war, Washington, with help from
Russia and the European Union, has begun to work carefully towards defusing
religion-based antagonisms in the region.
Although analysts agree on the need for the international community to
pull India and Pakistan back from their nuclear brinkmanship, some caution
that overt Western attempts to pressure the BJP to roll back its Hindutva
movement will be trickier and could easily backfire.
Though most of the Sangh Parivar's nationalistic ire is currently directed
toward Islam, it harbors deep suspicions of the West and China too. The
Sangh Parivar believes that Hindus have suffered oppression for a thousand
years, first under the Islamic dynasties that ruled India for some 800
years, and later under the British colonialists who displaced them in
1757. Convinced that Hindu disunity was the reason India was repeatedly
conquered by foreign powers, the Sangh Parivar sees Islam, Christianity
and Communism as foreign movements that could divide Hindus again.
Senior Sangh Parivar leaders like Defense Minister George Fernandes have
repeatedly referred to China as India's foremost enemy. In a private letter
to President Clinton in 1998, Prime Minister Vajpayee explained India's
decision to go nuclear by pointing to China. "We have an overt nuclear
weapon state on our borders, a state which committed armed aggression
against India in 1962 (and) has materially helped another neighbour of
ours to become a covert nuclear weapons state," Vajpayee wrote.
For now, in the midst of the war against what it sees as Islamic terrorism,
the BJP views the US and the West as an ally. But Professor Bose of Harvard
cautions "that the xenophobic strain in Hindu majoritarian nationalism
could alter equations in the future."
The BJP's reading of history has driven it to expand India's military
prowess, which it increasingly sees as central its romantic nationalism,
says Professor Arun Swamy, a fellow at the East West Center in Honolulu.
Since coming to power, the BJP has not only taken India nuclear, it has
also developed the country's long-range missile program, increased defense
spending by 30 percent (so it now totals 25 percent of government expenditure),
signed multi-billion dollar arms deals with Russia and initiated covert
military ties with Taiwan and Israel.
With the Sangh Parivar's nationalist religious ideology penetrating India's
government apparatus and shaping its policy some analysts worry that there
are indications of a 1930's-type European fascism unfolding in the country.
"The recent rounds of violence between religious groups in India
do more than reveal the fragility of India's secular state. They highlight
the inability of Indian democracy to combat what is essentially a fascist
onslaught," writes Swamy.
Recent changes in the government's leadership in the aftermath of the
human catastrophe in Gujarat and the perilous nuclear confrontation with
Pakistan indicate that the Sangh Parivar seems intent on continuing Hindu
nationalism's upward trajectory.
In a cabinet reshuffle on July 1, Vajpayee named L.K. Advani, the uber-nationalist
mastermind of the Babri mosque movement, as deputy prime minister. Advani,
who was responsible for domestic law and order when the riots exploded,
did nothing to curtail the violence even though he is elected to parliament
from a Gujarati constituency.
Last month the BJP and its allies installed Dr. A.J. Kalam, a Muslim and
India's leading defense scientist, as India's President. Though almost
entirely ceremonial, the position is seen to represent the nation as Head
"The BJP has been clever about using Muslims in highly visible but
ceremonial positions," said Radhika Desai, associate professor of
Political Science at the University of Victoria. "Co-opting Muslims
and having them function as subordinates works well with the BJP's strategy
which seeks to undermine Muslim independence."
Though Muslim by birth, Kalam's personal religious beliefs remain nebulous
and he has done little to speak for Muslim and minority rights. Instead,
he has been a long-time supporter of India's military expansion and his
quiet, avuncular nationalism has made him a hero with many Indians.
In a recent speech Kalam, whom the press has described as a "nationalist
self-help guru," told India what his vision for the nation was.
"India must stand up to the world," said Kalam, whom everyone
calls "Dr." despite the fact that he does not have a Ph.D. "Because
I believe that unless India stands up to the world, no one will respect
us. Only strength respects strength."
Kalam, who described his role in India's 1998 nuclear tests as a personal
"bliss" exhorted Indians to think of themselves as a developed
nation. Chiding the press for their coverage of political violence in
India, he suggested that they write about India's advances in defense
technology instead. Kalam also urged Indians to acquire "self-respect"
through "self-reliance" and urged them to turn away from "foreign
In a nation yearning for self-respect and recognition as it struggles
to catch up with the developed world, Kalam's speech enthused many even
as some worried that it heightened chauvinism across the nation.
With people like Kalam, and a rising number of retired army generals joining
the BJP, India's previously apolitical military establishment is becoming
increasingly nationalistic. Their support is giving the BJP added credibility.
Many of these officers openly call for war, even nuclear war, with Pakistan.
While talk of war usually arouses conservatism amongst fighting men, India's
armed forces have been so long thwarted by Pakistan's "war of a thousand
cuts" against them that their hatred appears to be overcoming their
good counsel. If international analysts puzzle at the popular support
for their warmongering, it might help to remember that few Indians really
know what the costs of war can be. The longest of India's wars lasted
three weeks and all of them were mostly confined to the border areas.
Even during the Second World War, India was one of the few nations to
have escaped any direct assault by the Germans or Japanese, though Indian
soldiers and resources contributed to the allied effort.
Outside government, the Sangh Parivar is indoctrinating millions of Indians
into its ideology through a cadre-based grassroots organization with more
than 80,000 local offices, or shakhas. Their saffron flags flutter from
lampposts even as Muslims and other minorities struggle to ply their trade
in the tumultuous streets below. At the shakhas, zealots in uniforms of
white shirts and khaki pants reminiscent of Mussolini's brownshirts learn
varied "self-defense" skills and talk earnestly of how India
must be "cleansed" of Muslims who should be "deported"
to Pakistan. Most significantly, through its madrassa-like religious schools,
called shishu mandirs, the Sangh Parivar is spreading religious hatred
and falsified history amongst thousands of India's poorest children. Realizing
the importance of the young in a nation where 36 percent of the population
is below 15, the BJP is also trying to "reshape the secondary-school
curriculum by stealth in ways that fit with Hindu nationalist ideology,"
The serious global implications of Hindu fundamentalism lead Professor
Varshney to suggest that subtle international actions could "nudge"
the BJP towards a more moderate position. "Careful, private diplomacy
from the Bush Administration could communicate to the BJP that its Hindutva
movement is damaging America's perception of India and is close to crossing
the threshold of international acceptability," Varshney said.
But Professor Bose disagrees. "This is a matter for the Indian political
process to resolve," said Bose, who believes that India's political
institutions-an independent judiciary, a free press and an energetic civil
society-are strong enough to defeat any emerging majoritarian tendencies.
As politicians, diplomats and human rights activists weigh their next
move, the question they struggle with is whether the religious militancy
consuming India is transitory or a reflection of the country's true nature.
A temporary waning of nuclear fears and a lull in ethnic violence notwithstanding,
Arundhati Roy warns that India is "sipping from a poisoned chalice-a
flawed democracy faced with religious fascism."
Despite the secular vision of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first post-independence
leader, most Indians continue to define their primary identity in terms
of religion, caste and ethnicity. Manipulation of this historical flaw,
and disillusionment with the present, are allowing the Sangh Parivar to
rouse a xenophobic pride amongst Indians.
"People who have lost control over their lives, people who have been
uprooted from their homes and communities, who have lost their culture
and their language, are being made to feel proud of something," wrote
Roy. "Not something they have striven for and achieved, not something
they can count as a personal accomplishment, but something they just happen
to be. Or, more accurately, something they happen not to be. And the falseness,
the emptiness of that pride, is fueling a gladiatorial anger that is then
directed toward a simulated target that has been wheeled into the amphitheater."
Yesterday the simulated targets were India's Muslims and Pakistan. Tomorrow
it could be any race, any country. For now in India, as Roy has said,
"there's fire in the ducts."
back to index