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Anatomy of India’s Taliban

by Jawed Naqvi, 2 February 2009

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Last week’s vigilante-style attacks on young revellers in a pub in the BJP-ruled Karnataka state could be seen as an attempt to “Talibanise India” as a government minister feared.

Or it could be dismissed as mere hooliganism, as some newspapers would want us to believe. The innocuous-looking violence can actually be better explained as a continuing facet of a global phenomenon that began during the Cold War, when religion became a handy tool in the cat-and-mouse game of the superpowers.

A quick survey of the global events should establish the link between Santiago in Chile and Mangalore in India. America’s defeat in Vietnam caused convulsions across the world. The CIA-backed coup against Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973 and the ensuing Israeli-Arab conflict, leading up to the daring oil embargo against the United States the same year set the dimensions and desperation of big power rivalry. This was the year when Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were awarded the Nobel peace prize for ending the Vietnam War. By 1975 Angola and Mozambique found themselves in the Soviet camp, while South Africa shored up the western stranglehold across the continent.

Closer home Daud Khan overthrew King Zahir Shah in Afghanistan and veered close to Washington in 1973. In Dhaka, Mujibur Rehman was assassinated with his family. In Sri Lanka, Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s coalition broke up, paving the way for her removal from office in 1977 followed by her suspension from parliament by a pro-Washington regime. The same year in Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s elected government was dismissed in a military coup.

It was in the middle of this global turbulence that in 1975 pro-Soviet India suspended its constitution to thwart a virtual civilian coup led by a rainbow opposition, which included anti-Moscow leftists as well as Hindu and Muslim right-wing groups, the RSS and the Jamaat-i-Islami. The Iranian revolution began to gather momentum soon, but the Soviets were denied its fruits when their ally, the Tudeh party, which gave spine and structure to the campaign against the Shah, was deftly marginalised and eventually crushed, not without a cloak and dagger charade played out between the superpowers.

The success of Islamic fervour deployed against a pro-West autocrat in Iran was replicated against the Soviets, this time in Afghanistan. It was, however, only in the wake of Ayatollah Khomeini’s victory that the project was unleashed in India to recast political Hinduism in the mould of Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions with an attempted set of fundamentals. Its leaders were quick to learn some of the lessons from Tehran.

In the run-up to the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, the confrontation between Hindu zealots and the secular state revealed several symbols and tactics from Iran. The lasting image of young Hindu volunteers wearing orange and saffron bandanas was lifted physically from the black strips worn by Khomeini’s supporters in their oft-suicidal mass rallies against the Shah. A feature of the Iranian rallies was the observation of ‘chehlum’, the 40th day of mourning for the departed, sacred to Muslims.

The Iranians that came out to face the Shah’s armoured columns returned to the streets on the 40th day of the confrontation, when several more of them would be killed. Hindu volunteers too were similarly shot during their attempts to raid the Ayodhya mosque. The bodies were taken out in public rallies a la Iran, and eventually the ashes were immersed amid Iran-like displays, though based of course on the Hindu calendar.

The overall strategy was akin to Iran: shake the state with popular marches till it caved in. Indira Gandhi, who had pro-Moscow communists in her government, outsmarted the challengers though not for long. The western-backed coalition that succeeded her was too rag-tag an alliance to present a viable alternative. Moreover, Hindu revivalists were not as popular as their Islamic counterparts in Iran were. So they used the few months in power from 1977 to 1979 to infiltrate the state apparatus, particularly in education and media. The project to communalise the police was put in place around then.

An unexpected problem has arisen with the growing fervour of martyrdom, at least at the theoretical level, among radical Hindu groups. Following their Muslim counterparts, Hindu radicals have wanted to raise suicide volunteers willing to die in their cause. However, the would-be suicide squads, applauded among others by Bal Thackeray, are in a quandary. There is no word for martyr in Sanskrit or Hindi.

The closest Sanskritised refrain used for the more widely popular ‘shaheed’ of Arabic/Persian origin is bali, bhent, aahuti, all meaning an offering, including of life. But it could be anybody’s life, not necessarily one’s own. It is thus that there has been no replacement for Bhagat Singh, icon of many young Indians, who was hanged as a terrorist by the British rulers. He is still remembered as Shaheed Bhagat Singh.

The easiest element that Indian religious extremists — both Hindu and Muslim — could borrow from their Islamic counterparts was vigilantism. The practice was honed into a craft by the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, which the Taliban turned into a gory public spectacle in Afghanistan. Last week’s attack on young men and women by the self-styled Army of Lord Ram (Sri Ram Sene) in Karnataka’s Mangalore town is thought to have connections with the BJP and its ideological parent body, the RSS.

“We have been molested and humiliated in the name of God and country by people who obviously have no regard for either of the two,” cried a woman who was present at the ‘Amnesia’ pub.

The incident has come at the heels of horrific examples of vigilantism shown by the Taliban in Swat. They recently threw the body of a renowned dancer into the main public square with the threat to kill more dancers and musicians. Government officials and the media have described the incident in Karnataka as an attempt to “Talibanise India”. The fact is that this was not the first time vigilantes had attacked defenceless quarries in the country.

In the 1980s in Lucknow, once the centre of fine culture, for example, hanging out with a girl was as dangerous as walking through a forgotten minefield. The marriage of feudalism with a religious ideology proved to be truly explosive. In February 2000, the ABVP, student wing of the RSS, banned the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day on the grounds it is contrary to the cultural ethos of the country. The disruption of the filming of Deepa Mehta’s Water, which is about the plight of widows showed that the lunatics were winning. Of course, fanaticism is not the preserve of any one sect.

Before they fell from grace with the United States, when Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers were planning to do brisk business with the West, they were still mistreating their women and girls. But at that time they were considered western allies, as indeed several other Islamic states continue to be though they still subject their women and girls to barbaric laws. It is to be seen how far the West is willing to put up with the Indian variant of the Taliban, political expediency notwithstanding.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.