Saturday, May 31, 2014

India gets a new hero, a new ideology - By Bobby Naqvi - GULF NEWS

India gets a new hero, a new ideology

The ‘Muslim’ attacks on Parliament, Godhra and Akshardham temple led to the emergence of a Hindu right. The hero of this political story was Modi

  • By Bobby Naqvi | Special to Gulf News

  • Published: 16:53 May 25, 2014
  • Gulf News

When a democracy makes an ideological shift towards the right, there are three likely outcomes: a majoritarian election verdict, or a reduced representation of minorities, or both, each posing a threat to the nation’s social fabric. On May 16, India elected Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi, a first for his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party to get majority on its own since independence. Also a first, Muslims have lowest representation in Parliament, only 4.05 per cent of 543 members are from this community that accounts for 150 million in a nation of 1.25 billion. The state of Uttar Pradesh that elects 80 lawmakers and has highest concentration of Muslims, has no Muslim member. Moreover, 21 states and union territories have not elected a single Muslim.

It is important to understand how a right-wing party won a landslide victory in India where secularism and inclusiveness are enshrined in the constitution. Emergence of a new political ideology is a historic moment and the crowning of a king is a culmination of a long, slow and gradual process — a churning that often goes undetected and unnoticed for years. Similarly, marginalisation of a community does not happen overnight, it takes years. It takes a sustained campaign and a protracted vilification.

On September 24, 2002, two gunmen jumped the fence of Akshardham, a pink sandstone monument in Gandhinagar, and opened fire. The temple complex, an architectural marvel dedicated to a 17th century revered Hindu saint Swaminarayan, was soon surrounded by police and commandos. In a battle lasting over 12 hours, the two gunmen killed 30 and injured 80 others, including 27 cops and two commandos. The gunmen, found dead behind a bush, were later identified as Murtuza Hafiz Yasin and Ashraf Ali Mohammed Farooq. India was outraged, it was an attack on one of the most popular Hindu temples in northern India. Modi, who was the chief minister of Gujarat, and India’s home minister L. K. Advani next morning posed before the bodies of the two assailants. They sent a clear signal, India will deal with terrorism with an iron hand and a steely resolve. Soon, Gujarat police arrested six people, promptly identified them — all Muslims — and swiftly charged them under a draconian Prevention of Terrorist Act or Pota, a law enacted by Advani.

Their names were published by the media even before a trial began. In July 2006, a court condemned three to death and others got life sentence, a fitting climax to a dastardly act that shook the nation.

Akshardham was preceded by attack on Parliament in December 2001 and the burning of Sabarmati Express train in February 2002 in which 59 Hindu pilgrims were killed in Gujarat’s Godhra town. All these attacks happened under the rule of a coalition led by Modi’s BJP. In all these incidents, Indian state acted swiftly and resolutely — immediate arrests, draconian charges, a swift trial and harsh sentences. After all, these attacks had shaken India’s conscience.

While these attacks were different in nature and form, prosecution and sentencing of suspects in all these cases followed a similar trajectory. In the Parliament case, four suspects — again all Muslims — were arrested, charged and sentenced in a record six months. Three suspects, including a university lecturer, were sentenced to death and the fourth, a woman was acquitted of terrorism. A higher court later discharged the lecturer and the woman, a verdict challenged in India’s Supreme Court which upheld the acquittal and commuted the death sentence of the third. However, in a controversial ruling, the Supreme Court said: “…there is and could be no direct evidence amounting to criminal conspiracy. The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation, and the collective conscience of society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender.” One offender, Afzal Guru was hanged in secrecy last year. He maintained his innocence.

In Godhra, a court in 2011 convicted 31 suspects and acquitted 63 others, all Muslims. The court accepted the prosecution’s argument that the burning of the train was a terror conspiracy, a theory first coined by Modi but widely contested by many who said it was an act of spontaneous violence. Ironically, while accepting the terror conspiracy angle, the judge acquitted two people prosecution said were main conspirators – cleric Maulana Umarji and politician Bilal Hussain Kalota.

Around the time these attacks by Muslim ‘conspirators’ happened, by coincidence or by design, a new political story was being scripted, a new political idea was being formed, a new leader was capturing the imagination of Indians. The ‘Muslim’ attacks on Parliament, Godhra and Akshardham temple had led to the emergence of a Hindu right. A nationalist sentiment had begun to sweep India. The hero of this political story was Modi, the new poster boy of the Hindu right. The villain always was the Muslim ‘terrorists’. The media played a major role in this story, promptly splashing names of Muslim suspects on the front pages and on TV after every attack. Never mind these were just suspects, not yet tried in a court of law. Overnight, Muslims of various social and economic backgrounds were becoming ‘terrorists’. Poor vendors, petty criminals, engineers, small time politicians, mosque imams were labelled as terrorists. By extension, an entire community was coming under suspicion, an entire community was becoming the enemy of India.

After winning state elections in 2002, 2007 and again in 2012, the hero made a natural progression from state to national politics and catapulted himself to the centre stage of Indian politics. Today, he will become India’s 15th prime minister, a perfect ending to a carefully crafted script. However, even a perfect script can have unexpected turns and twists. On May 16 when elections results were announced, India’s Supreme Court read out a verdict that in any other society would potentially destroy tall edifices. Not here though. The court acquitted all the six Muslims who were convicted in Akshardham temple attack case. Remember, the six included three who were sentenced to death by a court in Gujarat. The verdict slammed investigators and prosecutors. It was Modi who had approved their prosecution.

The media in general ignored this verdict. After all, on such a historic day, acquittal of six Muslims is only a minor detail. We Indians love happy endings, our cinema industry thrives on films ending with hero’s victory over the villain. So how could this story be any different? On Tuesday, a day after his release, one of the six Muslim suspects, Mohammed Saleem, told Indian Express that Gujarat police had given him the “choice” of being implicated in Godhra, Akshardham or Haren Pandya murder case. Pandya, a minister and political rival of Modi was murdered in 2003. His wife accused Modi government for his killing. Saleem’s chilling statement and the disturbing fact that six innocent Muslims spent 11 years in jail can, at best, be part of an insignificant epilogue, certainly not the story itself.

Journalist Ashish Khetan, who investigated Godhra tragedy, wrote: “What happened to the Sabarmati Express on 27 February 2002 will always be a blot on the nation’s conscience… That there was a conspiracy afoot in Gujarat those years is undoubtable. But as this story shows, it was a conspiracy of a different kind… a conspiracy by State machinery to blacken one community’s name. And declare them the enemy.”

Today, India has elected a strong leader. Never mind we Indians are clueless who conspired to attack Akshardham, who planned Godhra or who are the masterminds of Parliament attack. The march of the victor has begun and India has a happy ending.

Bobby Naqvi is the Editor of XPRESS, a sister publication of Gulf News.

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