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New tensions on the political scene

Harish Khare

The cause of secular India is ill served by any appearance of acceptance of religious mobilisation.

LUCKNOW HAS a long history of periodic Shia-Sunni conflicts, but not of Hindu-Muslim violence. On Friday, the city witnessed a Hindu-Muslim standoff, ostensibly related to George W. Bush's visit to India. Hardly anyone in Uttar Pradesh believes the State Government did not know what was cooking in the sensitive areas of the city. And now tension is building up in other towns and cities across the State.

All this in the name of Muslim anger at Mr. Bush, the United States, the West, and the Manmohan Singh Government's Iran policy. First an Uttar Pradesh Minister promised to reward anyone who beheaded the Danish cartoonist. Now a senior Muslim cleric in Bareli has announced a reward of Rs.25 billion for anyone who beheads President Bush.

According to Amar Ujjala, the Uttar Pradesh-based Hindi newspaper, Maulana Tankir Raza Khan, a senior Barlevi Sunni cleric, has said that every Indian Muslim would be happy to fork out Rs.99 each towards this fund. According to the Maulana, as there are 25 crore Muslims in India, the total purse would add up to just about a few lakhs less than Rs.25 billion.

The violence in Uttar Pradesh is the direct outcome of the deliberate stoking of Muslim anger. Mr. Bush is gone but there are long-term issues, which the democratic polity has to sort out, sooner than later. The secular leaders must have watched with considerable embarrassment that the Jamat-e-Ulema-e-Hind was able to mobilise last week in Delhi a turnout five times larger than what the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, and the Samajwadi Party could muster among them. Smaller groups have managed impressive Muslim turnouts in other cities.

Not spontaneous

Secular leaders cannot possibly be so nave as to believe that these turnouts are spontaneous expressions of Muslim anger against whatever is happening in Iraq, Geneva or Copenhagen. Someone has to be paying for this entire mobilisation. The security agencies are reported to be keeping close track of the growing interaction between West Asian chancelleries in New Delhi and Muslim political entrepreneurs.

After 9/11, the Sangh Parivar thought it had the licence to import Mr. Bush's categories of enemies and friends; secular India spurned the Parivar's attempt to replicate a Bush-inspired civil war at home.

Now, in a strange twist, in the secular theology Mr. Bush's enemies are becoming our best friends, who are deemed to have a better claim on our attention and policy than our own judgments.

There can be many secular reasons for castigating the Manmohan Singh Government for voting against Iran at Geneva. But the cause of secular India is ill served by any appearance of acceptance of religious mobilisation. In the heat of the moment, the secular voices seem to concede that it is legitimate for the Shias to agitate in favour of Iran against an Indian Government. Of course, all those who castigate the Indian Government for having voted against Iran take care to invoke issues such as "autonomy in foreign policy" and "American blackmail," etc.

Even at the Bareli rally, Maulana Tankir Khan while announcing a reward for Mr. Bush's head took care to throw in a fit of indignation at the American sniffer dogs' presence at Rajghat.

Iran, the Danish cartoons, Hamas, Abu Ghraib are orthodox clergy-centric and clergy-inspired passions and cannot possibly be the Muslim masses' agenda.

Sober and liberal Muslim voices certainly do not think so. In a letter to editor in the latest issue of the Milli Gazette, J.S. Bandukwala, a distinguished retired professor at MS University, has courageously asked: "Where are Muslims headed? There is hardly any attention to the actual problems facing the community: absence of quality education, lack of jobs, increased ghettoisation, the introduction of dowry, and the poor health of women due to frequent pregnancies that are aborted. Most important is the widening disconnect between orthodoxy and a modern scientific society."

A responsible political leadership is obliged to ponder whether the secular polity stands to gain if Muslims are seen as being encouraged to aggressively organise themselves on religious issues.

The reaction

The reaction will not be far behind. The reaction of the middle classes has already been on display. It is no coincidence that all those who raised their voices against the so-called "Muslim census" in the armed forces are the very interests that favour the nuclear deal with the United States, endorse the vote against Iran at Geneva, lobby for modernisation of airports, and believe in unlimited privatisation.

The great Indian secular project stipulates taming of religious passions and discourages a tapping of special religious claims. If this nascent trend of Muslim mobilisation on non-Indian issues is not bucked, the Praveen Togadias of the Sangh Parivar will feel that their idiom of religious mobilisation stands validated. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. All the secular gains of recent years are in serious jeopardy.

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