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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2188

Petty Politics: Fueling Fundamentalism

By Atul Cowshis

Political rivals in India are currently engaged in an intense battle over the rise of extremism and terrorism, hoping that their view on the subject will help them garner enough votes to capture (or retain) power in the next Lok Sabha polls. Thanks to the politically charged atmosphere of the last two years and the non-stop onslaught on the government, many believe the polls, otherwise due in early 2014, may be held before the end of 2013. This has forced the main combatants to raise the pitch and allow extremism and terrorism to intrude into the pre-poll narrative in the garb of the secular vs. communal debate.

Issues like corruption, inflation and slowdown of the economy may appear to be important in the run-up to the polls, but right now ‘secularism’ that covers the issue of fundamentalism seems to command wider attention. The wrangle over ‘secularism’ is diluting the danger posed by religious extremism, fundamentalism and growing intolerance in the country.

Terrorism has to be fought and eliminated but that is not possible when dissonance voices assume cacophonic proportions. It may be emphasised that the disease of terrorism is not exclusive to the followers of one religion nor is it of very recent origin.

With an overactive social media and legions of political gladiators, there is no escape from the daily dose of verbal spats, often undignified, between the principal political parties. Any thoughtless remark, not necessarily made at a party platform, invites instant and equally foolish retaliation. A point that has generated much heat lately is that the rise of fundamentalism in the country (for all intents, a euphemism for terrorism) among the Indian Muslim community goes back to the 2002 Gujarat riots.

True or not, this charge cannot be used to tar the entire community. But fundamentalist messages had begun to surface in the Muslim community in the country over two centuries ago. Likewise, fundamentalism in the Hindu community has a long history, going back into the early 20th century, if not earlier. The partition of the country in August 1947 accelerated its inroads deeper into the Hindu community.

Blame history or political expediency, but the problem of fundamentalism in the two major communities of India attracted little attention in its initial years of monarchical or ‘foreign’ rule when it was possible to nip it in the bud. Fanatical traits among sections of both communities were largely ignored first by the Muslim ruler and then the British rulers. If communalism and Hindu-Muslim clashes suited the British policy of divide and rule, the Hindus and Muslims found in it a way of taking revenge. Nobody saw the danger in letting it grow.

The end of the Moghul rule looked certain when the British rulers heaped humiliation on Bahadur Shah Zaffar, the last Moghul ruler. The Muslims had ruled over India for six centuries. They saw the end of this era as threatening the very existence of Islam. This gloom had followed what was preached by Abd-al-Wahab, a Saudi Arabian, and Delhi’s own Waliullah in the mid-18th century.

The Wahabi movement, named after Abd-al-Wahab, was generating extremism in the community by asking it use all possible means, including ‘jihad’, to ‘defend’ the religion. It demanded that the faithful go back to the age of Quran and follow it to maintain a distance from the composite cultural mainstream of the sub-continent.

Waliullah thought the Muslim ‘glory’ in the sub-continent could be restored only by following the Wahabi movement and strict adherence to the Quranic way of life. He found nothing wrong in the persecution of non-Muslims. The idea of Indian nationhood was alien to him. He placed religion above the nation. It is not difficult to imagine that the expression of such thoughts did not go down with the Hindu majority in the country.

Such ideas laid the foundation of division along religious lines. Social or religious movements that served the two communities did not tackle the crucial issue of Hindu-Muslim divide which thrived on distrust and hate.

Sir Sayeed Ahmed tried to popularise western education among the Muslims but his effort had only limited success because it was not backed up by an onslaught on ultra orthodoxy which opposed western education with its stress on scientific temper and rationality.

After discovering—and looting—the riches of India, early Muslim invaders noted that one of the ‘secrets’ of the success of the Hindu community was its adaptability and the tradition of learning. But apparently these were not seen as qualities worth emulating by the conservative Muslim preachers who did not hesitate to denigrate the idol worshippers. Some of the Moghul dynasty rulers tried to erase the communal divide by their words and actions but the effect did not percolate down to the grass root level. The Hindus were developing a sense of resentment.

The Hindu-Muslim divide was visible well before the arrival of the British in India but in subsequent years it spread fast. The Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh was founded in early 20th century when the British were firmly in power. It was styled as a ‘cultural’ organisation. There were other Hindu organisations which came up to preserve the religion but many of their followers worked to fan the anti-Muslim feelings.

The Hindu extreme view became more pronounced after partition. Any measure or policy of the government that went down well with the Muslims was interpreted as ‘appeasement’ of the Muslims. This kind of belief belied the perception of Hindu tolerance.

The ‘atrocities’ by the invaders centuries ago and the exaggerated spin on many of the unpleasant happenings of the past have been projected as contemporary dangers. It has not helped matters when the minorities are encouraged to believe that any action against a member of their community while probing a crime or an act of terror amounts to targeting the whole community.

The Hindus are encouraged to believe that ‘revenge’ in the form of physical harm or destruction of places of worship is the best way to retaliate against the ‘atrocities’ of the past and to avert the dangers of the present-day life.

The truth is that the gulf between the two communities has been increasing in the absence of any concerted efforts, either by the political class or the civil society, to provide a meeting ground for the two major communities. The readiness with which the politicians go after each other over senseless remarks does not suggest that there is any hurry to close this gulf.

- Syndicate Feature

- Asian Tribune -

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