//Area of darkness

Area of darkness

Sagarika Ghose, Hindustan Times, March 16, 2006

Never was there a greater contrast between Hinduism and Hindutva. Two bomb blasts shattered the calm of 2,500-year-old Varanasi on Tuesday, March 7. Immediately, the political party that claims to defend all Hindus swung into action implying that this was an attack on Hindus. The BJP disrupted Parliament, the Lok Sabha was adjourned, BJP leaders unleashed rhetoric about ‘minority appeasement’ and argued that the killers were emboldened by various policy initiatives of the UPA. But as Hindutva pointed fingers at ‘minorities’, ‘anti-nationals’ and ‘religious fundamentalists’ what did Hinduism, by contrast, do? Hindutva blustered but Hinduism turned to prayer. Hinduism turned its back on calls to religious hatred. Hinduism came in large numbers to donate blood. Brave forgiving diyas floated as a holy city asserted its magnificent dignity. Let the demagogues yell, whispered the Ganga, but I too am here.

Now the BJP is all set to launch its twin National Integration yatras, to be led by party president Rajnath Singh and leader of the opposition LK Advani. The yatras, Advani recently said, are a response to the ‘wildfire of minorityism’ lit by this government. In fact, ‘minorityism’, according to the BJP, is the main reason for the Varanasi blasts. No doubt the UPA government is trying to cultivate its Muslim vote bank in the guise of secularism. No doubt the  Congress’s Achilles heel has always been that it has misunderstood ‘secular’ to mean reservations and promises like the 5 per cent scheme in Andhra Pradesh or bending over backwards trying to declare the AMU as a minority institution.

Islamist extremism is linked to terrorism and al-Qaeda has used religion to advance its cause. But in the case of Osama bin Laden or the suicide bombers or Mohammad Atta, we at least have some knowledge of the ideologies they come from and the movements they represent. What do we know about the ideology of Salar alias Salim, shot by the police the day after the blasts as the alleged ‘Muslim’ mastermind behind the blasts? A kurta-clad ‘Muslim looking’ man creeping around the UP countryside armed with guns and grenades just after the blasts, waiting to be shot by the police, seems fascinatingly convenient.

Who is Salar? Doesn’t the public have a right to know? Why did he want to attack a Hindu temple? Simply because he hates Hindus and wants to create communal trouble? Seems like a caricature narrative.

The BJP’s insistence that it is the UPA’s minority appeasement that is leading to Muslim terrorism seems a trifle far-fetched. Whoever carried out the Varanasi blasts certainly had an acute sense of political timing. They knew that UP elections are a few months away. That the Godhra report had come out saying the Sabarmati Express fire was an accident and had created a furore. That the last few weeks had seen Muslim mobilisation on the Bush visit and the cartoon protests. Whoever bombed Sankat Mochan temple wanted to create a communal riot.

Let’s examine the ‘appeasement’ hypothesis. If I’m a ‘Muslim terrorist’ and the UPA is busy trying to appease me, would I suddenly set off bombs in Varanasi knowing that in any case the government is trying to please me? In fact, as a ‘Muslim terrorist’, I’m far more likely to set off bombs against the ‘anti-minority’ NDA, attacks which in fact did happen. There were regular terror attacks during the NDA regime, during the time of the so-called ‘hard state’ such as the attack on the Raghunath temple in Jammu in 2002, Akshardham temple in Gujarat in 2002 and the Parliament attack of 2001.

Not only is the logic linking ‘Muslim appeasement’ and the blasts a little faulty but this time Advani seems to be quite out of touch with the realities of a liberalising new economy. In 1989-90, Advani launched the famous Ram rath yatra which catapulted the BJP to the national mainstream, after the Shah Bano judgment and the Mandal report had created a mood of Hinduism under siege. Yet India is now a different country from 1989-90.

The new economy is now firmly on track and mass aspiration is bounding around the alleys of Kochi and Kolkata. Twenty-four-hour news television has dealt a body blow to the image of the politician. If that awful film Rang de Basanti is any indication, then a rallying cry given by a politician, any politician, is unlikely to galvanise those dreaming of how to murder ministers. PILs, event-managed PR events, citizen groups, local committee actions — these forums are fast becoming the preferred means of civil action by Indians, outside politics.

Also sadly, indeed tragically, society is already doing what the BJP’s politics is trying to gamely follow. We are already a hopelessly ghettoised society in which Muslims, even celebrity Muslims, find it difficult to find homes in south Mumbai or south Delhi. Inter-religious marriages are almost non-existent as many young people, even educated at the IITs and IIMs, have turned conservative in their choice of life partners. Suspicion of the Muslim is almost endemic in the police force. Frankly, ‘the Hindu’ is not under siege. ‘The Hindu’ is not feeling marginalised by rampant ‘Muslim appeasement’ simply because the Muslim has already been made a pariah by so many sections of society.

On the Samjhauta Express between Amritsar and Lahore, Muslim travellers to Pakistan are treated in unimaginable ways by Hindu customs officers at Attari. The Pakistan consulate cannot find accommodation in Mumbai because of protests by tenants in the building.

However, in spite of this daily social catastrophe, there is a new matter-of-fact togetherness: Aamir Khan, Tabu, Irfan Pathan and Munaf Patel are symbols of how a competitive talent-based society has no place for discrimination. Advani’s rath yatra is hoping to capitalise on the isolation of the Hindu, but it is an isolation that the Hindu clearly doesn’t feel.

Many who remember the aftermath of the Babri masjid demolition were expecting riots the day after the Varanasi blasts. The fact that there was no riot, that there was not even a whisper of communal trouble, that in fact Hindus and Muslims joined in condemnation, shows that we as a society may be polarised and ghettoised, but at the same time, we are looking forward not backward. The BJP’s rath yatra, focusing again on tired rhetoric about Hindus, Muslims, appeasement and minorities, shows how far the BJP is lagging behind our society. A society that is trying in many flawed ways to at least look forward, to at least reach towards some sort of confused equity, even though the muck of prejudice still tears at our feet.

The BJP’s value in a modern India is as an opponent of dynasty, of feudalism and of political sycophancy, in short to be the democratic, robust, mercantile alternative of the feudal socialist Congress. But this minority obsession is surely an old slogan from an older economy. If it wants to grow and endure (maybe for 2,500 years) the BJP needs to look no further than Varanasi.

The writer is features editor CNN IBN, [email protected]