Gurpreet Singh: Reflections on Islamophobia and religious extremism
As the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy (SANSAD) is getting ready for a public forum on Islamophobia in Vancouver this Sunday, fingers are pointing at the involvement of the Indian Mujahideen—a Muslim extremist group—as being behind recent bombings in Mumbai. The attacks left 21 people dead. Although it’s premature to judge who may be behind the crime, Indian media reports suggest the involvement of Islamic extremists.
Whereas Muslim terror groups are certainly involved in senseless violence and deserve no sympathy, the media and investigators need to act responsibly before jumping their guns. Stereotyping and racial profiling against Muslims may be a post 9/11 scenario in the West, but in places like India, it has been going on for years. What many secularists describe as Islamophobia may be a new phenomena in this part of the world, but not in India. Although a secular democracy, India has witnessed systematic discrimination against the Muslim minority in particular and other minority groups in general by the ultra Hindu nationalists.
This prejudice has gone on since the independence of India in 1947. The bloody partition of India and Muslim Pakistan resulted in large-scale riots. This forced Hindus and Sikhs to leave Pakistan, and caused millions of Muslims to emigrate from India. Since India chose to become a secular democracy, many Muslims who stayed back in India have always been looked down upon with suspicion and mistrust by the Hindu fascists, who have always wished to convert a pluralist Indian society into a Hindu nation as an answer to the Muslim theocracy in the neighbourhood.
It is for this reason that the Hindu extremists assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation in 1948. Gandhi was against partition and a supporter of Hindu-Muslim unity. He wanted to give concessions to the Muslims and tried to save them from the onslaught of the Hindu extremists.
The ultra-Hindu nationalists have been active on the Indian soil since then. Though Islamic terrorists—with or without the support of Pakistani agencies—have continued their acts of violence in India, Hindu terror groups have largely remained outside the radar of the Indian authorities for years. This can be explained as Islamohphobia, or a strong anti-Muslim bias among certain non-Muslim investigators, who might be sympathetic toward the cause of Hindu nationalists.
Most of the time when bombs exploded, Islamic terrorist groups were quickly blamed and Muslim men were arrested and harassed by the police. Only in recent years has the Indian establishment started taking the threat from the Hindu terror groups more seriously. This, too, came after some honest police officers and secular journalists exposed their activities.
One of the honest police officers who revealed Hindu terrorist organizations was late Hemant Karkare of the Anti-Terrorist Squad of the Maharashtra state police. For doing this, he faced criticism from Hindu organizations. Ironically, he died fighting against Islamic terrorists who attacked Mumbai in 2008.
Most suspected Hindu terrorists arrested so far have allegedly been responsible for bombings that targeted the Muslim community. Yet in some cases, police had earlier arrested Muslim suspects.
The most glaring case in point is the Samjhauta Rail Express blast in 2007 that left 68 people dead, mostly Pakistanis. This rail service was launched to strengthen the Indo-Pakistan relationship. Knowing well that Hindu extremists on the Indian side were against the service as much as Muslim extremists on the the other side of the border, the crime was prematurely blamed on the Islamic terrorists. However, it later emerged that those involved in the crime were pro-Hindu-nation terrorists. One of them, Swami Aseemanand, was charged last month.
Thanks to the continued campaign by secularist social-justice activists, the Indian media and the government now recognize Hindu terrorism as a threat. However, if the Hindu nationalist BJP, which is the main opposition party of India, ever succeeds in forming a majority government, this might give oxygen to such dangerous groups.
After all, the BJP government in Gujarat, India was responsible for the anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002. However, the ruling, secular Congress has also encouraged sectarianism for narrow political gains. In 1984, the Sikh minority felt unsafe under a Congress government that allowed large-scale anti-Sikh violence. The Congress government back then was also accused of distorting the image of the Sikh community in the name of the fight against Sikh terrorism.
The present Congress-led coalition government can in the meantime outlaw Hindu terror groups. Both Hindu and Muslim terrorists should be treated alike, and there should be no sympathy toward any group that promotes violence and hatred in the name of religion. There has to be a clear differentiation between moderates and extremists in any community. After all, an entire religious group cannot be blamed for the misdeeds of a handful of fanatical elements.
Groups like SANSAD can educate people to denounce stereotypes and fundamentalism of every shade. There should be absolutely no compromise with any organization, whether representing a majority or a minority community, that supports religious extremism. Otherwise, the very purpose of promoting secularism and breaking stereotypes will be defeated.
The forum on Islamophobia will be held at 3 p.m. at Cafe Kathmandu at 2779 Commercial Drive in Vancouver on July 17. Former B.C. Human Rights Commission chair Harinder Mahil will be one of the three panelists. Others are former federal NDP candidate Itrath Syed and Graham Fuller, author of A World Without Islam. Zahid Makhdoom will moderate the event.