Using Ethnic Hatred to Meet Political Ends


By Jehangir Pocha*

Philadelphia Inquirer
June 7, 2002

Rulers on the Indian subcontinent have long seen the power of religion as that of a great warrior elephant - impressive when paraded peacefully, effective when used to fight their cause. Today, with Hindu nationalists holding sway in New Delhi and with Islamic Pakistan in the hands of its army, the elephant is systematically being goaded to run amok.

India and Pakistan's recent nuclear brinksmanship was ostensibly driven by the continuing terrorism that New Delhi accuses its longtime foe of fomenting in Kashmir. There is validity to India's claim, but there is another story behind the reckless belligerence consuming the subcontinent.

Recent history has shown that both nations routinely use international crises to manipulate domestic politics. Border tensions build whenever either nation's ruling party is threatened politically, only to dissipate after the party's hold on power is reestablished.

This time, New Delhi's call for a "decisive war" against Pakistan came hard on the heels of the worst domestic ethnic violence India has ever experienced - violence that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party stands accused of planning and executing.

In March and April, Hindu militants killed more than 1,000 Muslims and turned 100,000 more into refugees across the western state of Gujarat. Though ethnic violence is common in India, which has seen more than 1,000 tit-for-tat ethnic riots since becoming independent in 1947, both the scale of and the blatant state support for the Gujarat riots were unprecedented.

Though Pakistan, an Islamic state, has regularly intimidated its Christian, Hindu and Sunni minorities for decades, such calculated, strategic use of ethnic violence is relatively new in India.

Witnesses said that during the worst days of the strife, mobs of intoxicated young men were trucked into Gujarati towns with written instructions for violence, including computerized lists of Muslim businesses and homes. The mobs systematically devastated these places. Homes were flooded and occupants were electrocuted by power lines thrust into the water. Parents were battered to death in front of their children. Hundreds of women and girls were raped.

Within hours, a state renowned for its ancient citadels and verdant hamlets lay blood-drenched, pillaged and scorched. Witnesses and investigators in Gujarat, the only Indian state still controlled by the BJP, said local administrators, legislators, district magistrates and policemen joined the rioters in the looting that followed.

"I believe that what happened in Gujarat was a premeditated, state-abetted, anti-minority pogrom," said Sugata Bose, a professor of Indian history at Harvard University, who recently visited the country. "Those culpable must be brought to book."

Leaders of the Sangh Parivar, a family of Hindu fundamentalist organizations allied with the BJP, all but admitted their involvement in the riots. "It had to be done," said K. K. Shastri, of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, one of the chief constituents of the Sangh Parivar. Acknowledging that "our people" had unleashed the violence, Shastri said the rioters were "well-bred Hindu boys."

Gujarat's BJP-led government 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."

Ashutosh Varshney, an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan, had predicted Hindu-Muslim violence in Gujarat and even identified the towns that would see the most bloodshed.

"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," he said.

Beginning in the early 1990s, the Sangh Parivar began to assert that only an India ruled by Hindu principles, or Hindutva, could return the country to its ancient "greatness." It has since violently advocated the transformation of secular India into a Hindu state, with minimal minority rights. This resonated with many of the more than 81 percent of Indians who describe themselves as Hindu.

The Hindutva campaign helped bring the BJP to power in 1998. For a brief time beginning in 2000, the BJP appeared to attempt nonpartisan governance in a coalition government. But the party suffered serious reversals Feb. 25, when it lost all four of the state-level elections. Analysts suspect that hard-liners in the BJP and Sangh Parivar then felt the need to reassert their militant Hindu credentials.

Three days later, the violence erupted in Gujarat, polarizing the nation. Many Hindus came out in support of the BJP, but the party lost credibility with secular-minded people and faced growing pressure from the secular opposition in Parliament. Party strategists realized that the BJP had to win back the support of moderate voters if it had any chance of winning new elections.

On May 14, insurgents attacked the Kala Chuk military base in Kashmir, killing 34 people. Although the attack typified the 14-year-old period of terrorism in the long-running Kashmiri conflict - in which more than 50,000 people have been killed in almost daily violence - Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee chose that moment to call for massive military retaliation against Pakistan.

A link has long been suggested between the BJP's domestic anti-Muslim actions and its aggression toward Islamic Pakistan. By stoking domestic ethnic tensions and casting in a religious mode India's complex political disputes with Pakistan over Kashmir, the BJP has won massive domestic support. 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 its power.

"Trouble," Vajpayee recently said, "brews wherever Muslims live in large numbers."

Now, the continuing concern over the threat of nuclear war and increasing fear that a Balkanlike situation could develop in both countries are leading the Bush administration, with help from Russia and the European Union, to work carefully to defuse religion-based antagonisms in the region.

But some analysts warn that overt pressure on the BJP to wind down its Hindutva movement could backfire.

"This is a matter for the Indian political process to resolve," said Harvard's Bose, who believes that India's political institutions - an independent judiciary, a free press, and an energetic civil society - are strong enough to defeat domestic fundamentalist tendencies.

The lingering question is whether the recent religious militancy is transitory or a reflection of the subcontinent's true nature. Despite the secular vision of India's and Pakistan's first post-independence leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, most Indians and Pakistanis continue to define their primary identity in terms of religion, caste and ethnicity.

The political exploitation of these fault lines by their governments - both in their domestic politics and in their relations with each other - is weakening the chances for a stable subcontinent.

*Jehangir Pocha, who has a degree in public policy from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, is a writer based in Cambridge, Mass.

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