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Growing rift threatens to tear India apart

Nov. 30, 2008

 Barely a couple of weeks ago my stepsister, Shalaka, got married at the Taj hotel in Mumbai. Last Wednesday night my stepfather, Ajit, called to pay the bill. When he arrived home 10 minutes later he realised he had left his mobile phone charger behind, so he called Mandira, the Taj banquet manager.

“I can’t speak now, sir,” she said. “We’re under attack.”

Ajit lives in a building next door to Mumbai’s other big hotel, the Oberoi. Within a few moments, he heard gunshots from there too.

In the 48 hours that followed, his neighbourhood was sealed off and his building came under attack. In the windows of the Oberoi he saw deserted rooms, half-drawn curtains, fires, brown smoke and gunmen moving from floor to floor.

By Friday, he knew that three chefs who had worked at his daughter’s wedding and the family of the Taj’s general manager were dead. Friends of his sisters had also been killed. As terrorist attacks went — and Mumbai has known several in the past few years — it didn’t come much closer to home than this.

My stepfather’s reaction came in the form of a text message the next day. It read: “Pardon Afzal [Muhammad Afzal, accused of attacking the Indian parliament in 2001], hang Sadhvi [a woman accused of participating in the only act of Hindu terrorism in a Muslim neighbourhood], Ban the Bajrang Dal [a Hindu extremist organisation], talk to Simi [a Muslim student organisation of which the Indian mujaheddin, responsible for a string of attacks in Indian cities, is said to be a part], restrict the Amarnath pilgrimage [a Hindu pilgrimage that led to upheavals in the Kashmir valley last summer] fund the Haj. Wow! Truly, my India is great! Fwd 2all Hindus.”

This message, steeped in irony, read like a roll call of the issues and violence that have divided Hindu and Muslim India over the past year. Almost a call to arms, it contained the great, twofold rage that has grown in Hindu India: the feeling that Islamic terrorism seeks to destroy the vigorous “new India” and the suspicion that the state is either unable or unwilling to defend itself — for cynical reasons, such as shoring up the Muslim vote for the government.

The attacks on Mumbai — a city that, in its prosperity, its hybridity and openness to the world, stands as a symbol of the new and energised India — confirmed to many what they had long feared.

Within hours of the attacks, groups gathered in the streets of Mumbai, chanting “Bharat Mata ki Jai” (Victory to Mother India) and singing “Vande Mataram” (Bow to you Mother), a patriotic song that Muslims had objected to as the choice for the national anthem because it implied obeisance to gods other than Allah.

Many British commentators have asked in surprise why India is being targeted. There is no confusion among Indians themselves. When the terrorists say on their websites that they seek to break up India and reclaim it for Islam, they speak a language many Hindu Indians understand. And India has proved to be the softest of soft targets.

More than 4,000 Indians have died in terrorist attacks — the country is the second biggest victim of terror after Iraq and virtually every one of its big cities has faced a terrorist attack. Yet the government has no centralised terrorist database, its intelligence is abysmal and there is little evidence that the state knows who it is fighting.

In dragging its feet, the Indian state does nobody a greater disservice than Indian Muslims. When there are no real suspects, arrests or trials, everyone becomes a suspect. Already an underclass, with low literacy rates, low incomes and poor representation in government jobs, Indian Muslims are increasingly alienated. There is also great pressure on them.

Nobody wants to listen to genuine grievances about poverty, illiteracy and unemployment in the face of a real threat to the country. Many Hindus want Muslims to come clean on the issue of the jihad and to make clear whose side they’re on.

Far from responding positively to this pressure, some Indian Muslims are simply beginning to see their grievances as part of a global conflict between Muslim and non-Muslim.

India’s position in this is unique. It has the largest Muslim minority population in the world (13.4% of the population, or about 150m) but unlike Muslims in western Europe, they are not immigrants.

They have been part of India for centuries.

This is why all Indians — Muslims and Hindu alike — know that the deepening divide threatens the country’s existence.

Many years ago, a divide like this re-energised the Hindu nationalist BJP. Today who knows who it might throw up? The hour of men like Narendra Modi, who oversaw a pogrom of Indian Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, might have come at last.

Aatish Taseer is the author of Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey through Islamic Lands, to be published in March by Canongate.