New terrorists in an old context – by Mosharraf Zaidi

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

One of the clear invocations of the Bhagvad Gita is an invitation to human beings to explore and traverse the more difficult, but righteous path that Krishna articulates for an angst-ridden Arjuna. The Sangh Parivar’s profit machine, from the Deccan plains to the Kashmir valleys, has used the Mahabharata as a vehicle to advocate war. Hindu pacifists like Mahatama Ghandi on the other hand, have used the same Mahabharata, as an almost Sufic pronouncement of the struggle of the soul between good and evil.

In the ashes and blood that are strewn across Mumbai there is little doubt that Narendra Modi’s war-mongering manipulation of Krishna’s call to dharma will find more countenance than Ghandiji’s tranquil message of aspiring towards the unfettering moksha. Post-independence India has thus far miraculously survived the almost impossible struggle for equilibrium between these two ice-and-fire orientations within the core spiritual challenge of life. That survival has been predicated on two overarching and unspoken Nehruvian principles. The first is that the Indian establishment can never admit that Indian Muslims represent a unique social, political and economic challenge that must be dealt with in a unique manner. The second is that India’s internal conflicts are a product or manifestation of the troublesome neighbours that have emerged since 1947, Bangladesh to the east, and Pakistan to the west. For Indian politicians of all persuasions, it may be high time to revisit these principles. A fragile equilibrium may depend on it. For South Asian Muslims, however, Mumbai represents an entirely different kind of inflection point: yet another opportunity to introspect. As Mumbai’s archetypal Muslim gangster might say, if not now saala, then when?

First things first: it is true that Pakistanis (and Bangladeshis) have no business in taking sides within India’s internal cleavages. However all South Asian Muslims, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and Indians not only have the right to think about and mourn what has happened in Mumbai, they have an anthropological duty or dharma to examine the carnage, to think about how it will affect them, and what they can and should do, to avoid it from happening again, anywhere.

Forget the accusations of Pakistani involvement. First, they are about as unique and unexpected as the presence of water during rain. Second, despite the potential plausibility of the accusations, there is an increasing stack of evidence that from New Delhi to Assam to Calcutta, India does have a domestic terrorism problem. Third, there is little argument against the fact that whatever involvement there might be, it is a product of non-state actors, not the Pakistani state.

Forget also that there is a domestic Muslim Indian terrorism problem. First, the problem is not unique to India, it is a problem that is common today to most countries with a substantial Muslim minority, from the United Kingdom to the Philippines, from Thailand to Nigeria. Second, domestic terrorism, as a problem is also not unique in India. India has had varying degrees of success in staring down secessionists and terrorists in Assam, Orrissa, Rajhastan, and Punjab among others. Third, as a democracy, India is better positioned to deal with the challenge of domestic terrorism than any country where democracy is a novelty. Democracy may be the tyranny of the majority, but the majority’s tyranny is self-contained. It eventually behaves in self-interested ways. By gun or with butter, democracies find ways that dictatorships cannot.

Finally, forget too the lethality of the reckless abandon with which the Indian media treats violence and its religious minorities (both separately, and in poisonous concoction). First, no reasonable connoisseur of post-modern Indian cinema would be able to miss the parallels between the tragic carnage in Mumbai and the hedonistic violence that is glorified and deified in “Shootout at Lokhandwala”, and “Rang De Basanti”. Second, the mainstream news media in India is even keener than India’s “partition-rage” establishment, to showcase rubber dinghy boats as proof positive of Pakistani involvement. Third, perhaps analysts need not reach for the Bollywood music videos that mix carnal pleasure with Muslim prayer chants like “SubhanAllah”, when both Gujarat and Ayodhya are freshly stamped into the global Muslim consciousness.

The real issue for South Asian Muslims of all stripes and nationalities is how their faith of peace and submission to the Most Merciful, Most Beneficent has come to signify such rabid and mindless violence as what has been inflicted on South Mumbai. No possible interpretation of the faith, no matter how informed by the real and perceived humiliations of Muslims, can rationalize the wantonness with which Mumbai’s attackers ravaged the Taj and the Oberoi. The spilling of blood at Nariman House is at a totally different level of debauch violence. The inhumanity of an attack on a place of worship alone should inspire deep remorse. But Ayodhya-grieving Muslims, more than any other religious group, should be outraged. Every living Muslim that has ever said a prayer for Abraham and his children should be utterly saddened by destruction and murder at Nariman House.

Most of all, South Asia Muslims need to reflect deep and long about how it is that the immediate, first, assumed and eventually established truth about the attack on Mumbai was that it involved Muslim extremists-domestic, or imported-Muslim extremists. Not Pakistani extremists, not unemployed and angry Indian extremists, but Muslim extremists. Self-professed South Asian Muslims that prefer other labels (liberals, seculars, progressives, enlightened moderates) all need to disavow themselves of their outrage at “these terrorists”. “These” pronouns are a balm that only soothes internal dissonance. It does not address the problem.

The diversity of South Asian Muslims of course, is legendary. We are not just the bipolar children of Sayyed Ahmed Khan and the House of Deoband. We are the children of Bin Qasim, Abdali, Akbar, Ghalib, Jinnah, Azad, Manto and Mujib. If bearded and ready for a fight, we are the children of Waliullah, Maududi, Golam Azam and Zia. If shaven and smelling Gucci-good, we’re the children of Shabana, Javed, Alamgir, Runa and Shah Rukh. And though we love to hate those we have loved most-from Khaleda, to Hasina, to Benazir, we cannot disown our most manifest confusion. Perhaps most of all, we are the children of Shah Bano.

Who is Shah Bano? Shah Bano was the 62 year old mother of five that was divorced, and awarded alimony beyond her period of iddat by the Supreme Court of India in 1985. The Indian mullahs went ballistic, prompting the safe-as-houses Rajiv Ghandi government of the time to pass a law that was meant to appease orthodox Muslim sentiment, and ostensibly protect Muslim women facing (or seeking) divorce proceedings. The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 however not only made it more difficult for Muslim women to seek alimony beyond their period of iddat, it also provided the Sangh Parivar with the ammunition it required to launch a hyper-overdrive campaign convincing the Hindu mainstream of how Muslims were being appeased at the expense of the rights of Hindu families.

Where was Muslim outrage in the Shah Bano case? Mostly, it was busy trying to deny Shah Bano her alimony. In the meantime, not only has Islamic jurisprudence and practice continued to suffer from ostrich-interpretations of the faith, but the Hindu right-wing has successfully Trojan-Horsed Shah Bano into a permanent position as the most credible opposition to the Cong’s long-standing domination of the Indian centre.

The Muslim politics in South Asia meanwhile was playing tiddly winks with itself. Muslim women, children and men, have become more vulnerable to being victimised by violence, more vulnerable to becoming violent themselves, and more socially and economically vulnerable than they have ever been before.

If peaceful South Asian Muslims feel besieged-by the mindless and evil violence perpetrated in the name of their faith on the one hand, and by the mind numbingly jingoistic Indian media on the other-they should get over it. Muslim culpability in the attack on Mumbai is historic, not episodic. It is structural, not incidental. The history and structure of this culpability has failed to release Kashmir from the clutches of oppression, failed to address the systemic social exclusion of the Indian Muslim, failed to formulate a workable Muslim paradigm in either Pakistan, or Bangladesh. What has happened in Mumbai will do more than any other previous incident to weaken the Kashmir cause, weaken the Indian Muslim, and weaken the average citizen of India’s smaller and more vulnerable neighbours. That’s why, despite our fascination with their sophistication, the Mumbai terrorists represent nothing substantively new. They are the newest face of an old problem.