Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Is India reaping a harvest of hatred sown by Indians? We have seen it all before-a Sri Lankan perspective

As I write this, Indian security forces are still fighting terrorists in Mumbai, the financial capital of India and centre of its glamorous film industry. Over a hundred people are dead, gunned down by young men in a crazed Columbine style shooting of unarmed civilians. A previously unknown group called the Deccan Mujahedeen have claimed responsibility. With the choice of this name-the Deccan valley being a large plateau in India-these guys are sending a clear signal: they are sons of Mother India. And they are not alone: a string of bomb blasts over the last year in Delhi, Ahmadabad, Bangalore, Jaipur, and Uttar Pradesh was claimed by another home-grown group calling themselves the Indian Mujahedeen.

India is the largest democracy in the world. They’ve got several hundred languages, they’ve got every major world religion in residence and originated four of them; they are multi-cultural and multi-ethnic, with a male Prime Minister of the minority Sikh religion and a female President. This is a kaleidoscope of people, all very proud of their individual cultures, and yet also very proud that they are one nation under one flag. This is the land held up as proof that no matter how large, how populated, and how diverse a country may be, democracy works for everyone; democracy protects everyone. So what the hell is going wrong now?

One of the terrorists spreading carnage at the Oberoi Hotel told Indian television via telephone: “Muslims in India should not be persecuted. We love this as our country but when our mothers and sisters were being killed, where was everybody? Release all the mujahedeens, and Muslims living in India should not be troubled.” What is he going on about?

In 2002, over two thousand Muslims were massacred in the state of Gujarat. It was called a spontaneous communal riot, but the weight of evidence suggests that it was a premeditated attack against the Muslims organized by local authorities and politicians. The attack was particularly severe against women, with organized rape and mutilation of women and female children-“when our mothers and sisters were being killed, where was everybody?”

The violence in Gujarat bares many resemblances to the landmark event in our own battle against terrorism: the 1983 anti-Tamil riot. It too was called a spontaneous communal riot, but as with Gujarat the weight of evidence suggested premeditated action by the then government. It is alleged that the government minister Mr Cyril Matthew organized gangs made up of the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya to systematically target Tamil houses and businesses using voter lists which they had conveniently got access to. In Gujarat too, voter lists identified the Muslims and the chief minister Narendra Modi was accused of instigating and encouraging the attacks, and of being wilfully negligent in providing relief to the victims. The 1983 anti-Tamil riot swelled the ranks of militant groups in Sri Lanka with youth determined to exact revenge, and evidently the Gujarat riot has had the same effect in India.

Our response to 1983 was to ignore it and pretend that it was an isolated and spontaneous incident, rather than accept that there were deep-seated injustices perpetrated against the minority even prior to 1983. India did the same: investigations were sabotaged, no one was held accountable. Few saw the broader context of the problem: the ever-simmering violence in Kashmir, and the fact that the Indian economy-laudable though it is-had left out many Indians, many of whom felt that they had been systematically neglected because of their minority status.

To see what is happening in India today is to look in the rear view mirror of what we did wrong in Sri Lanka. When we suffered terrorist attacks, we blamed it on foreign interference, namely India. India does the same today: the Prime Minister in a televised message blamed a “group based outside the country”. Both countries have failed to realize that the root of the problem is not outside our shores; the problem lies within. Messages from the Indian public are scrolled continuously on NDTV, most of them blaming the government for inadequate security and calling for a severe crackdown on terrorism (as if they weren’t already trying all this time). Not one message asked the question: “what drove these Indians to do this to other Indians?”

In the interests of combating terrorism, it won’t be long before anti-terrorist squads ask Indians with Muslim names questions like:  what are you doing out so late? Do you have a legitimate reason for walking near that hotel? How can you prove that you live in this city? If you’re not from here, what reason do you have for being in this city? It won’t be long before Indian Muslims are arrested simply for being Muslims, and asked to prove that they are not terrorists. As for the public, the great majority will applaud these actions. They’ll say it is unfortunate, but it is necessary. We know this because we have seen it all before.

One of the police officers killed by the terrorists in Mumbai was an ‘encounter specialist.’ This is a euphemism for government assassins who shoot dead alleged gangsters and terrorists without bothering to collect evidence. Our equivalent would be the ubiquitous white vans that make ‘suspected terrorists’ mysteriously disappear and keeps adding to the tally of bodies that wash ashore or turn up in ditches. How does the public know they really are terrorists? We know, and that’s all that matters-who needs evidence anyway? In India these ‘encounter specialists’ are glorified by the media and cinema as heroes. Murderer equals hero. Isn’t that the same logic used by terrorists?

So here’s a word of advice from a Sri Lankan to our big neighbour. Don’t go down the path we have taken. Don’t be tempted to sacrifice the freedom of another for your own safety. Be smarter than us. Look within and find the disease that is causing this fever called terrorism. For now, your terrorists seem to be ad hoc groups of lethal young men. With every attack in your country a new terrorist group with a new label takes credit. That’s how it starts. The day will come when a determined and motivated leader manages to coalesce the many fingers of extremism into a hard-hitting fist, with an ideology as compelling as it is evil. When that happens, you will pay a price in blood and sorrow for generations to come. We know this because we have seen it all before.