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Ethnic Tensions in India Flare After Bombay Attacks

Last week’s bomb blasts in Bombay have increased tensions between the Hindu majority and India’s large Muslim minority. During a recent visit to Bombay, VOA’s Zlatica Hoke discussed India’s ethnic tensions and other issues with local writer and scholar Kannan Srinivasan.

Q: Mr. Srinivasan, India by constitution is a secular democracy, guaranteeing equality and justice to all its many ethnic groups. Yet lately we have seen attempts by the government to introduce a federal ban on beef slaughter, which is supported by many Hindus, but is worrying those minorities who depend on beef for food and cowhide for industrial production. What is happening to the secular character of the Indian state?

A: That’s changing very fast because there is a party in office, the BJP, which is a party dedicated to making religion a central feature of Indian public life and Indian government. So in a number of different ways, the secular character of the Indian state is being lost.

Q: How is that affecting India’s minorities, such as Muslims and Christians?

A: It’s making them resentful and frightened. For example, the chief election commissioner is somebody who was born Christian and he is often attacked by members of the government because he is upright and fair. He is often attacked as being a Christian agent. In fact, he is an atheist. He doesn’t believe in any religion at all. But the public perception is created by the government that anybody who opposes it is an agent for a foreign religion in one fashion or the other. So there is a strong anti-Christian and anti-Muslim push in the government’s behavior.

Q: In your opinion, what government actions may have specifically upset the minorities?

A: The BJP and its paramilitary wing the RSS have been agitating on two issues. One: they have been agitating about the conversion of many tribal (people)s and people in the northeast of India in general to Christianity. And the other issue they have been agitating about is the Muslims in India. (The BJP and RSS are) saying that they (the Muslims) are in effect a sort of ‘fifth column,’ virtually Pakistani agents.

Q: But many of these minorities, including Muslims and Christians, say they are proud and loyal Indians. What do politicians who use such tactics expect them to do to prove that?

A: Well, they would like them to become more aggressively Indian and announce that they support Hindu values, and that they minimize their Muslim identity – one. Two: they would like the Christians In India to become much more discrete in their worship and they would like missionaries in India to stop converting people to Christianity. I think all these are actually fantasies. The pace of conversion to Christianity has not increased significantly.

Q: Does this apparent attempt of the majority Hindus to impose their values on minorities cause others, such as Muslims, who are the largest minority, to become more intensely religious, maybe even radical?

A: Oh, definitely, that’s definitely happening in this country as there are attacks on Muslims. What it does is to encourage the fundamentalists and extremists within the community who are saying: ‘Look, this proves what we say. You can’t trust the Hindus and you can’t trust the Indian government.’ and therefore it provides the basis for poor Muslim youths to turn to more fundamentalists’ paths.

Q: Is there a danger of Indian Muslims turning to fundamentalism in large numbers?

A: I wouldn’t say it is happening of Muslims as a whole, or Muslims as a majority, but what is true is the following: as a result of this sort of persecution and harassment, the fundamentalists within the community get strengthened. Secondly: because of an absence of any government responsibility, in education in particular, it’s these Muslim schools, the madrassas, which are providing some education to many of the poor. Muslim rich never got to madrassas. It’s only the poor who go to those madrassas. So then there is the fact that people turn to a more conservative path. And thirdly, many of the people who are attacked, like families which were attacked during the pogroms against the Muslims in Gujarat and in Bombay, those families are more willing. They are a recruiting ground for any terrorist activities.

Q: Muslims also constitute the poorest population segment in many parts of India. Why has India’s economic boom left them out?

A: When India and Pakistan gained independence and were partitioned, the Muslim middle class, which provided some leadership, went to Pakistan. So what stayed behind in India was a small number of landed families – aristocracy, because the aristocracy always stays where the land is. And a large number of Muslim very poor who were earlier working in areas where there was some employment for them, like artisans -- manufacturing activities, which were cottage industry really, and which have tended to die out with the advent of industrialization. For example, people in textiles people in printing, people in furniture making and professions like these, have been significantly Muslim people. And these people have been increasingly unemployed. Thy are often illiterate and therefore ill-equipped for the modern competitive market and therefore there is a tendency now to blame the Muslims in India for the increasing poverty in this country.

Q: So despite the economic boom, between 30% and 40% of people in India, depending on how we measure, remain below the poverty line. Ethnic and religious tensions seem to be on the rise and the war over Kashmir is not over. In your opinion, what policies would help solve India’s biggest problems?

A: I think what India needs is a focus on welfare in terms of feeding its people, in terms of educating its people, and in terms of being able to provide them basic medical services and other things of this nature. And for doing this, I think it needs to abandon its current free-market-at-all-cost, its shock-therapy economic policies and focus on social welfare. The second thing is: it must abandon this crippling arms race with Pakistan and it must come to some sensible policies over Kashmir, which can make a big difference. And the third is, I think, it should treat its minorities more fairly because there have been large-scale pogroms against the Muslims in particular in the last fifteen years. I think they must uphold the value of the system of justice and punish people who have been involved in these killings and must protect the minorities from this sort of attack in the future. This is the way, I think, to a better India.