India: Shining, Rising Or Seething ?

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Days after American President George W Bush departed India and a week before the Hindu festival of Holi, three bombs took a toll of 23 human lives and left 68 injured in Varanasi. As the first bomb was targeted at the Sankat Mochan temple, it raised fears of a Hindu backlash against Muslims.

Varanasi blasts

It inevitably evoked the razing of the Babri Masjid in 1992 in Ayodhya that left a gory trail of more than 2,000 killed in communal riots. In the 2002 terror attack on the Akshardhan Hindu Temple, 30 people lost their lives. The latest outrage was claimed by Lakhsar-e-Kahar from India-administered Kashmir where an Islamic rebellion has been raging for decades against New Delhi’s rule.

It sparked a nationwide terror hunt by counter-insurgency forces who gunned down a suspect hours after the blasts. At the time of writing, eight other suspects had been held. The Varanasi attacks recall those in New Delhi in October 2005 just before the festival of Diwali, in which 66 people lost their lives.

Notably, the people and the authorities in India responded as one, as the Indian Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil immediately placed all states on alert and sealed off Varanasi. Much less admirable was the propensity of Indian politicians to point a finger at extraneous forces. Given the nature of opposition politics, it was only inevitable that both houses of the UP legislature were rocked with the BJP disrupting proceedings.

Yet, such details do not explain its political setting. That has been provided by a recent report in the Times of India. Homing on to what it calls the growing lawlessness in UP, it traces the backdrop to that disturbing phenomenon in the largest state of a supposedly rising and/or shining India.

Politics a la India

It coincides with rising communal temperature in the volatile state in the wake of what is seen as a massive mobilisation of Muslims over Danish cartoons featuring Prophet Mohammad, the Bush visit and, even, the government’s vote against Iran at the IAEA.

“Weeks earlier,” so the report goes, “the state has seen communal passions being stoked by politicians belonging to the ruling Samajwadi Party leading to the perception that the regime in Lucknow, anxious to hold on to power after polls early next year and against heavy odds, was playing along.”

While all that is, of course, quintessential Indian politics, it is an interesting revelation that the state government was reluctant to take action against its minister for Haj when he publicly announced a bounty on Rs. 51 crore on the head of the Danish cartoonist. Nor, did it take any action against those who fired shots on the streets of Lucknow allegedly to vent their angst over the same issue, which led to the death of four individuals in a communal clash.

A realistic account of India today comes in a recent Times of India editorial entitled ‘divide and misrule’ which links terror in Varanasi to communal mobilisation in UP. Clearly, those responsible for the blasts wished to strike at the secular roots of the Indian nation against which there have been repeated assaults in the past – mostly, it would seem, from the anger that continued Indian rule in Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir ignites.

The paper laments that “political mobilisation using religious frenzy is as much an anti-national act as the blasts are in these times of national crisis – Politics in states like Uttar Pradesh has ceased to address the genuine needs of people – It has not helped that democratic spaces and institutions in UP have been captured by criminal and communal forces – The politicisation of criminals has blurred the divide between criminals and career politicians.”

What is true of UP is also true of many other Indian states including Bihar where murder and mayhem, booth capturing and vote rigging are legendary.

Despite that ugly reality of Indian polity, which enlightened Nepalese are familiar with, India continues to be praised to the heavens by high priests of Western-style democracy be it a Bush or a Blair. They, of course, wish to ram down their pet version of democracy upon others, on the premise that it has worked wonderfully in India – especially after it opened its doors to liberalisation, ditched the erstwhile USSR and aligned its strategic goals to a Western agenda.

A seething India

What is particularly deserving of note is that eastern UP, of which Varanasi is the nerve center, has become awash in gangs and guns. Doubtless, it has become a reliable source for the kind of lethal weapons/explosives that were recently seized from an Indian vehicle entering Nepal – fortuitously before it took a murderous toll in lives and resulted in wanton destruction of property.

Even in the context of the Maoist insurgency, there was not a murmur of concern from the Western votaries of democracy and human rights at such mischief, possibly because it might not mesh with their version of a rising/shining and benign/democratic India.

Beneath the surface, however, India is seething with discontent as reflected in the spate of terror groups be they Maoist/Naxalite, Islamic separatists or tribal guerrillas. In that witches’ brew must be added the Nepalese Maoists who are feted and fussed about in New Delhi while the democratic West still pretends not to notice – even by the head of the international anti-terror brigade who was recently there.

M. R. Josse is a writer on Nepal and the author of Nepal: Politics of Statemate, Confusion and Uncertainty and Nepali Politics 2002-03: Gotterdammerung, The Twilight of the Gods.