The roots of Muslim anger in India
By M K Bhadrakumar
The needle of suspicion points to the involvement of Islamist organizations in
the savage acts of terrorism in Mumbai on Tuesday. But no matter the
pan-Islamist links of these organizations, the inescapable reality is that
political Islam can only thrive on fertile native soil. The specter of
political Islam haunting India is no exception.
A starting point, therefore, will be an attempt to define "Islamism" or
"political Islam". Islamism, like other ideologies in modern history intensely
focuses on the issues and problems of contemporary governance, society and
politics. Islamists draw meaning out of Islam and transmute their
interpretations into an ideology that underpins their political and social
This is an important distinction between Islamism on the one
hand and Wahhabism and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Wahhabis are
preservers of the status quo; they are, paradoxically, apolitical. The Taliban,
in a sense, were closer to the Islamists in so far as they sought political
change, but they too were essentially traditionalists.
Islamists, in comparison, are urbane. They relate Islam to modern concepts,
principles and institutions. They are "politicians" first and foremost. The
factors that provide a "breeding ground" to Islamism may be identified as:
acute social and economic conditions; incompetence, corruption and lack of
sensitivity of regimes toward popular aspirations; authoritarianism; close
circulation with Western powers; Arab-Israeli conflict; Western domination in
economic and political life; and certain manifestations of globalization,
especially the perceived cultural domination by the West.
But Islamism is not monolithic. Broadly, it has more or less settled into three
general trends. First, the al-Qaeda-style terror warriors. In relative strength
of popular support, this trend of Islamism is the smallest. The second group
comprises Iran and its predominantly allied Shi'ite groups in the region.
They form the forces of revolutionary Shi'ism. They dominate Iran, Iraq,
Lebanon and Bahrain. They focus on self-empowerment and are resisting the
hegemonic aims of the United States and Israel. The third group comprises
predominantly Sunni mainstream Islamists - Hamas (Palestine), Hezbollah
(Lebanon-Shi'ite), Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt), Justice and Development Party
(Turkey), and so on.
Beyond these three broad trends, there is a wide variety of Islamists with
different goals and tactics, usually inspired by local angst. They are an
evolving phenomenon (rather than static movement), largely reacting to domestic
and external stimuli. Their motivations may overlap, but their operational and
strategic goals often differ. The elements involved in this week's train
bombings that left about 200 dead in Mumbai would in all probability belong to
The Islamists part ways in their methods and tactics. Al-Qaeda simply blows up
its targets. The Iranian and Shi'ite groups, on the other hand, concentrate on
political resistance and defiance couched in highly inflammatory rhetoric. In
comparison, Sunni mainstreamers resist through military means when appropriate,
though more often these days, they concentrate on playing and winning the
political game on the strength of their impressive organization.
In terms of the above parameters, it is possible to say that Islamism as such
has not taken root in India. But Islamist groups have begun appearing here and
there - responding to local stimuli. They are a considerable way from assuming
a national character, though.
The heart of the matter is that the Indian situation is fundamentally different
from that in the Muslim world. Muslims comprise a minority community of less
than 15% of India's population. The vocabulary of Islamic culture is not the
mainstream vehicle of political discourse. Thus, the primary agenda of Islamism
in the Muslim world, namely, "capturing" political power, is not relevant to
the Indian situation.
In the Muslim world, Islamism is "objectively progressive", to use Marxist
idiom. It is in the vanguard of reform and change; it argues for human rights
and democracy. But the issues in the Indian context are primarily of the
accommodation of Muslim community's interests in the national life and the
preservation of space for maintaining the community's profound cultural
India's political system based on democratic pluralism theoretically provides
space for all ethnic groups and sub-nationalities. But, in actuality, there
have been severe deficiencies in the way it functions. Suffice it to say,
political empowerment of the people is still far from complete - even after six
decades of independence.
Equally, there is a visible alienation among significant sections of India's
population regarding the opportunity for fulfilling their socio-economic
aspirations within the framework of democratic pluralism. In something like 200
districts in India, the state machinery has been rendered virtually
The socio-economic problems facing Muslims in India are certainly acute. The
Muslim community is beset by poverty and illiteracy. The Indian intelligentsia
is not ready for an honest, transparent national debate about it. If the
general literacy rate stands at 63%, the corresponding figure amongst the
Indian Muslims stands at 42.2%.
Roughly 21% of Muslim women are estimated to be literate, while the national
average of female literacy stands at about 41%. Muslims hold only 2% of
government jobs. This includes even regions of India where Muslims form a
substantial percentage of population such as in the provinces of Uttar Pradesh
(20%), Bihar (17%), Madhya Pradesh (14%), Karnataka (14%), Himachal Pradesh
(11%) and Gujarat (16%).
Various reasons may be attributed to this deplorable state of affairs - lack of
political leadership, presence of self-seeking political middlemen and
power-brokers, the politics of "vote bank", influence of obscurantist clerics,
and so on. But the plain truth is that protest is rare. There are several
factors at work, some historical.
First, the plight of Muslim masses was not any better substantially in the
centuries of British rule preceding India's independence - arguably, even in
the period prior to the British conquest of India. Thus, the distressing
realities of today have constituted a fact of life for the Indian Muslims
through the centuries.
Second, the Muslim community shares this plight with the majority of Hindu
society who also suffer from prejudice or repression as a result of the
inequities of the caste structure. This point is particularly important in so
far as Muslims were converted into Islam from the "low" Hindu castes or the
Muslims of India, therefore, are inheritors of a historical consciousness where
social and economic prejudices, and repression thereof, have been part and
parcel of their life. They shared the apathy and stoicism of the "low" castes
and "untouchables" in the highly stratified Hindu society.
Third, Islamism is not the primary vehicle for the advancement of change.
Muslims of India have realized that through appropriate political vehicles it
is possible to gain real empowerment. They see that despite frequent backlashes
from the entrenched upper castes, socially and economically deprived sections
of Hindu society have been steadily asserting their rights.
Indeed, the present phase in Indian politics is transitory in so far as
regional political parties claiming to represent the class interests of the
"low" castes lack authenticity. But that does not detract from its historic
It is in this otherwise "hopeful" scenario that militant Islam is appearing in
India. Why is this happening? The fact of the matter is that certain political
conditions have arisen in India in the past decade or two. Hindu fundamentalism
has been on the rise due to right-wing political forces represented by the
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) unabashedly exploiting religious sentiments for
electoral purposes - with remarkable success.
Something as horrendous as the Gujarat riots of 2002 had no parallel in India's
modern history. Even more fearsome is the reality that the BJP-led government
in Gujarat connived in the mindless violence let loose against the Muslim
community in the form of organized pogroms. Needless to say, Muslim community's
response to these "stimuli" has assumed militant features.
The forces of Hindu fundamentalism and the weakened Indian state organs are
creating a breeding ground for militancy. The recurrence of anti-Muslim pogroms
in Gujarat two months ago has once again shown that the BJP government, with
the forthcoming provincial assembly elections in view, is stoking the fires of
Extreme conditions of "anti-Muslimism" (to use an expression by international
relations expert Fred Halliday) and destructive governance combined with a
sense of siege are producing frustration and anger that are pushing people
toward political Islam as a form of resistance.
In the "ghettoization" of the Muslim community that followed the Gujarat riots,
Islamists are bound to be the real victors. This is because they come to
represent the grassroots; they are close to the neighborhoods; they are closely
attuned to local interests. Islamists are often far more responsive than the
state to the social needs in the neighborhood. They are also modern in their
heavy emphasis on grassroots organization.
The danger is that incrementally they may drive all challengers out of
politics. There is every reason to believe that this week's violence in Mumbai
has been in the nature of a riposte to the pogroms in Gujarat.
In other words, Islamism in India, which could have been a mainstream social
movement ("post-Islamism", as Olivier Roy who wrote The Failure of Political
Islam would describe), is careering away in a retrogressive direction
that is more and more political with less and less societal emphasis. This
portends grave dangers. India could be torn apart by cycles of violence -
violence begetting more violence.
There is doubtless an international dimension to the crisis facing India. While
it is possible to generalize that Indian Muslims have not pandered to
"pan-Islamic" tendencies historically, the fact is they have not been
impervious to the happenings in the wider Muslim world either. The Khilafat
movement of the early 20th century (in support of the Ottoman Sultan, who was
also the caliph) must be singled out. That is to say Muslims in India indeed
share the "angst" over the Western dominance of the political, economic and
cultural life of the Islamic world.
These sentiments have assumed a "pan-Islamic" character following the American
invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. It is from this perspective that New Delhi
should guard against the almost inevitable temptation to view the violence in
Mumbai through the prism of the "war on terror".
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service
for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan
(1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).