My family sits on the Partition fence.
My paternal grandfather was a Crown Prosecutor based in the outer-Delhi neighbourhood of Gurgaon. When the communal riots started in Delhi in 1947, he and his family were moved to the border town of Sialkot in Punjab. His family never managed to get back, and they ended up as accidental Pakistanis.
My maternal grandfather taught philosophy at the Aligarh Muslim University. He had no plans of leaving behind a cushy job and a nice home provided by the university. He remained in India with his family following Partition.
I grew up in Sydney, the son of mixed Indian and Pakistani parents. Most of our family friends were from the sub-Continent: Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Parsis, Catholics and even a Pakistani Anglican priest. We spoke the same language, listened to the same music, watched the same movies and ate the same food. We celebrated each other’s religious festivals.
I also grew up with harrowing stories told by my Hindu, Muslim and Sikh uncles of the communal bloodbath that claimed over 1 million lives during the 1947 Partition that created two independent States of India and Pakistan.
One image features prominently in these tales; trains arriving at Lahore and Amritsar filling the air with the stench of death, carriages turned into communal coffins filled with innocent Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs massacred by religious militants.
But were all these deaths caused by militants? Or were they caused by innocent people manipulated by militants spreading rumours? Or by survivors of massacres who saw family members massacred and raped and burnt alive before their eyes?
Who knows? My uncles certainly had no idea who started all the madness. But they did want me to know that it happened. And that members of all communities suffered.
The memory of ‘carriages of death’ runs deep in the sub-Continental psyche. Religious fanatics, last week, tapped into this on Mumbai’s railway. The Mumbai blasts of 11 July targeted first-class carriages ridden by members of India’s burgeoning middle class. At last count, 182 people were killed and over 800 injured.
Ironically, before ambulances and police arrived on the scene, it was Mumbai’s slum-dwellers who first came to aid the injured, and in many cases, these slums were heavily populated by Muslims.
A cursory glance at the published death lists shows that typically Muslim names like Mohammed and Ali are listed along with typically Hindu names like Ramesh and Krishnan (not to mention typically Sikh and Catholic names).
The hatred which inspires terrorists has not infiltrated those poorest sectors of urban Indian society, where each day is a struggle to survive. Every day, over 800 impoverished rural Indians migrate to Mumbai in search of work. Many build makeshift homes by railway tracks.
A Muslim from a slum adjacent to one of the railway stations attacked was quoted in The Independent as saying:
They are trying to split us, but they cannot. We are 99 per cent Muslims living here, but we were the first to go to help the people on that train. We didn’t care if we got Hindu blood or Muslim blood all over us.
Even officials of the Hindu chauvinist Shiv Sena Party were overwhelmed by the inter-communal response. Manohar Kargaonkar, a Party official, was quoted by Reuters: ‘Hindus and Muslims walked hand in hand, these people have shown what brotherhood is.’
Groups such as al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Toiba may have been responsible al-Qaeda’s paranoid propaganda has recently added Hindus to its grand Judeo-Christian conspiracy to destroy Islam. But there is more to the Mumbai attacks than meets the jaundiced eye. Writing in the Australian Financial Review on 13 July, under the headline ‘Islamabad Not the Prime Suspect,’ Nick Hordern writes of ‘the size and diversity of India’s cultural and religious landscape.’ Adding:
As well as a sub-Continental range of insurgencies and communal conflicts, India is riddled with organised crime gangs and caste militias. Add the fact India is surrounded by neighbours with similar problems and it’s no wonder that in the aftermath of terrorist attacks the list of suspects is a long one.
Mumbai train blasts
In Mumbai, as in the rest of India and other parts of the world, religion and ethno-religious identity are frequently used as rhetorical cover, as are national liberation and self determination. Institutional cover is provided by conventional politics.
A number of groups proscribed as terrorist organisations in Western countries are following the IRA’s lead in manufacturing ‘political wings.’ When the armed wing commits an atrocity, the political wing can choose to condemn or support it, depending on the political stakes.
India has its own groups of religious extremists, many of which are not afraid of using both electoral politics and communal violence to achieve their goals. Indeed, voters in this largest democracy in the world have been known to elect religious fanatics at both State and Federal level.
More Muslims live in India than in any other nation on earth apart from Indonesia. But Indian Muslims hardly make up 15 per cent of the total population. They are the largest religious minority, and their communities are scattered across the length and breadth of the country.
Religious extremism and separatism has appeared among Indian Muslims, though largely limited to the disputed region of Jammu & Kashmir. A similar phenomenon has also existed among the Sikh communities, though largely limited to Punjab.
Sikh and Tamil separatism has claimed the lives of Indian Prime Ministers. But the first Indian leader to be assassinated was Mahatma Gandhi. His killers emerged not from a minority but from a movement wishing to establish a Hindutva nation, a Hindu theocratic state in which non-Hindus would become second class citizens.
Just as extremists have hijacked Islam for their own ends, similarly the peaceful and tolerant theology of Hinduism has been held hostage by an array of extremist groups misusing Hindu symbols to rape, pillage and murder.
Following the Mumbai blasts of 11 July, the Indian Prime Minister called for Indians to remain calm and not to believe rumours. He did this in the context of India’s deep history of communal bloodbaths, where a single rumour can quickly spread and be exploited by religious fanatics to deadly effect.
In 2002, 50 Hindu pilgrims in the State of Gujarat were burnt alive when their carriage accidentally caught fire. A rumour spread throughout that Muslims had deliberately lit the fire or laid explosives in the carriage.
That single rumour led to India’s worst communal riot since independence. Over 2000 members of Gujarat’s religious minorities (mainly Muslims but some Christians also) were massacred.
Women and children were targeted, as they are in every communal riot. In the immediate aftermath, Salman Rushdie wrote of Indians’
particular gift, always most dazzlingly in evidence at times of religious unrest, for dousing our children in kerosene and setting them alight, or cutting their throats, or smothering them, or just clubbing them to death with a good strong length of wood.
As is often the case in the sub-Continent, the real terror begins when the shock of the initial terror subsides. Terror breeds a worse terror,
out of all proportion with the initial terror. When religion is hijacked by terror, essential religious values are thrown with the enemy into the furnace of hatred.
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