By Aijaz Zaka Syed – Dubai
A friend and fellow Indian keeps warning me to lay off India and sub-continent issues. My friend, who has made a lifelong mission of speaking up for the voiceless and vulnerable, thinks the folks back home don’t take kindly to anything critical in foreign media.
Which is why I’ve been trying hard to ignore what has been going on India for some time now. But I am sorry, guys, can’t do it any more. Like everyone else, I love and deeply care for my country. After all, it’s the land that gave me and made me what I am today. India is home, the home, no matter how long and how far we live away from it. And it hurts to see the country you love so much slide dangerously into the kind of religious chaos and socio-political anarchy that India’s neighbours have been battling for years.
Until recently, many of my Pakistani friends would envy the pluralism and the culture of genuine tolerance in the world’s largest democracy, attributing it to its democratic ethos. This general worldview of India did not change even after the demolition of Babri mosque (1992) and Gujarat (2002).
But they are not so sure now. Neither am I. The current violence and attacks on the Christians by the militant Hindu groups in the eastern state of Orissa shame us all. At least, 50 people have died in the pogrom against the minority community. Tens of thousands of Christians have fled their homes to take shelter in the jungles or relief camps set up by the government. In a chilling reminder of the genocide in Gujarat when Muslims were burnt alive by the marauding mobs, the VHP and Bajrang Dal men set a missionary-run orphanage on fire with women and children inside.
The extremist Hindu organisations like RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal have been concerned by the massive proselytizing by Christian missionaries in the tribal areas of Orissa. The missionaries have been doing some excellent social work, running schools, clinics and orphanages in interior Orissa where even government officials avoid going. As a result, low caste Hindus and tribal groups, exploited for thousands of years, have been joining Christ’s flock in thousands every year.
The current wave of violence was sparked by the killing of a leader from the VHP, the militant Hindu organisation that was in the forefront of the Ayodhya mosque demolition and subsequent anti-Muslim riots.
Religious violence is hardly new to Orissa. In 1999, an Australian missionary Graham Steins who had been working in the state for three decades treating lepers in remote tribal areas, was burnt alive with his two sons as they slept in their jeep. The children had been visiting their father from Australia. And the self same demons have come back to haunt Orissa today unleashing a reign of terror across the region where Emperor Ashoka gave up violence to promote Buddha’s message of peace.
And all that the state government and the federal government in Delhi have done so far is pass the buck to each other. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has rightly called the attacks a “national shame,” just as PM Vajpayee had done in the case of Gujarat in 2002 where his own party was in power and his protégé presided over the carnage.
But is that enough? Is it not the responsibility of governments to protect their people, especially the vulnerable among them? The Orissa government finds itself helpless in dealing with the murderers and arsonists because they are led by the men who are part of the coalition in the state. The government in Delhi is busy settling political scores with the Orissa government. Instead of taking action to stop the carnage, the federal government has suggested a probe by the CBI – India’s answer to FBI – into attacks. No wonder the Christian community is infuriated and in protest it has shut the vast network of thousands of schools it runs across the length and breadth of India. Unlike Muslims, Christians are not economically challenged or politically marginalised. They will fight back — and in effective ways.
Remarkably, the authorities that look the other way while the mobs ransack Orissa, hunting and killing helpless men and women like some cornered animals, have been extraordinarily efficient in dealing with the ‘Muslim terrorists.’
From the plains of the North India to the Malabar coast down south, hundreds of young Muslims have been swallowed up by India’s jails as the terrorists and ISI agents. Although there has always been the ominous cloud of ISI and Pakistan hanging over Indian Muslims – especially if they looked like Muslims – the extent of persecution of Muslims under the secular and liberal UPA government is truly shocking.
Even though one has been reading and hearing about the harassment of Muslims in Indian press from time to time, the big picture revealed by the Tehelka magazine (www.tehelka.com) and the recent open, people’s courts held by human rights groups in Hyderabad is incredibly horrifying. I can’t believe this is happening in my own country. From fake encounters to torture to old fashioned terror tactics, the world’s biggest religious minority today faces the kind of terror that it did not experience even under the long British rule. Today, the Muslims have become enemies of the state in their own land.
The then BJP-NDA government started the witch-hunt of the Muslims by banning the SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India) in September 2001 – days after the 9/11 events in the US. Not only the offices of the obscure outfit hopelessly dreaming of Muslim glory were shut and sealed but hundreds of innocents from across the country were also thrown behind bars in the name of fighting terror.
And the current government of the Congress, that was once led by the greats like Gandhi and Nehru and which came to power riding on the Muslim support, has carried that mission unveiled by the BJP government forward. A whole community is being driven over the edge and nobody gives a damn.
The government of PM Manmohan Singh, who had so coyly informed his good ol’ friend Bush not long ago that there was not a single Al-Qaeda terrorist among Indian Muslims, stands and stares as hundreds of innocent Muslims – doctors, engineers and techies – are ensnared in false terrorism cases or are simply bumped off in states like Gujarat. Is this Gandhi’s India? Whatever happened to the India of our dreams, the champion of non-violence and tolerance? And where’s this country headed? I do not know. But I fear and cry for my country.
-Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.