India's time of reckoning

The world's second-largest population of Muslims has until now resisted the pied pipers of jihad. Bu

''Are you tough enough?" the anchor with glasses and a serious expression asks viewers in the television advertisement for Newsnight, a programme on one of India's cable news channels. Jeremy Paxman might ask his audience the same question if it was his job every evening to report on terrorist bomb attacks, massacres of low-caste Hindus, floods, drought, collapsing bridges and school buildings, and death and torture in police custody. But I didn't feel my toughness was being put to the test when I switched on Newsnight one evening in August. The opening item was from Florida, where Leander Paes, an estimable tennis player, who has regularly saved India from joining the Tongo Islands in obscure Davis Cup zones, had been admitted to a hospital with a suspected brain lesion.

A doctor was wheeled out at the studios in Delhi, and questioned at length. He was later replaced by plump teenagers wearing designer sports shirts and standing on Delhi's exclusive grass courts - tennis is even more of a rich person's sport in India than it is elsewhere. These young Indians spoke in oddly American accents about how worried they were for Leander's health.

Perhaps India's slick new electronic media (for which, in a country heaving with bad news, there is no silly season) should be allowed to take an occasional break from India. But however much people may speak of the insularity of Americans, there is no self-absorption like the self-absorption of the globalising classes in the so-called developing world.

You might think it would be hard to live a cocooned life in India. Half of the country's population is barely literate, lacks access to clean drinking water, and is constantly exposed to disease and early death. But this proximity to wretchedness and misery makes a privileged minority even more resolute in its defences.

It draws its cultural fantasies from cable television, or from the Bollywood films which, though never celebrated for gritty realism, have recently presented Indian village schools as being akin to the basketball-and-proms high school found in Archie Comics. It ensures its political protection through an allegiance to Hindu nationalism - the first fully worked-out ideology India has produced in its passage to the modern world. In the past decade, as poor low-caste Hindus became more politically assertive, and Muslims, especially in Kashmir, more discontented, many insecure upper-caste Hindus abandoned the Congress party and gravitated to the BJP (the Bharatiya Janata, or Indian People's Party). They were not deterred by its fascistic nature, which has been clear since the 1980s, when it led a campaign explicitly aimed against India's 140 million Muslims - a campaign that caused mass killings across the country and culminated in 1992 in the demolition of a 16th-century mosque that Hindu nationalists claimed had been built by a Muslim conqueror over the birthplace of Rama, a Hindu god.

Middle-class Indians liked the BJP because it was the only pan-Indian party that seemed capable of protecting their interests. The BJP spoke of cracking down on external and internal enemies while liberalising the Indian economy and opening it further to American and European corporations. The massacre, assisted by Hindu nationalists, of more than 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat early last year clearly showed how the political culture of India has been radically altered by this shift of an insecure but still powerful class to the extreme right: state power had been seized by an organisation with a millenarian ideology, which had played no role in the anti-colonial movement and which had been on the political margins for much of the five decades since independence. Images of young Hindu men wearing Nike shoes and baseball caps and holding mobile phones as they led murderous mobs to Muslim homes revealed how the beneficiaries of globalisation in poor countries might find religious fascism more congenial than the democracy they are mysteriously expected to embrace.

But many influential journalists and columnists had discarded their commitment to Nehruvian secularism and socialism and begun to support the BJP long before last year's pogrom in Gujarat. More disturbingly, the party's ideological fellow-travellers are increasingly visible even in the judiciary and the military, the hitherto unpoliticised wings of the Indian state.

During their five years in power, the nationalists have distinguished themselves chiefly by trying to privatise state-owned industries, threatening Pakistan with war, introducing draconian anti-terrorist laws, and supervising the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat. By playing up threats to national security, they have hoped to defuse or at least postpone the long overdue empowerment of low-caste Hindus, and conceal their pro-rich, anti-labour and anti-peasant policies.

But now the time of reckoning draws near. Although the general election is not due until next year, four states will elect new legislatures in November. The opposition, consisting mainly of Congress and some centre-left parties, is expected to give a hard time to the BJP, which, primarily urban-based, has never won a clear majority in the Indian parliament and has depended on allies to form a government.

The desperation of the nationalists was evident when the hawkish deputy prime minister, Lal Krishna Advani, exhorted Indians to learn from the Americans. They had ignored their differences when confronted with terrorism, he said, and had supported their president in an impressive display of national unity. More recently, Advani quoted a Bollywood actor who had said that in the new millennium, Indians all over the world had begun to take a fresh pride in their Indianness.

This may be true. But the middle-class ego, periodically boosted by nuclear tests, war cries against Pakistan, the killing of high-profile terrorists in Kashmir, and the occasional cricket victory, is unlikely to be protected for long by what is now beginning to seem the most ominous consequence of Hindu nationalist rule.

Soon after the car-bomb explosions in Mumbai that killed more than 50 people last month - the sixth and the most lethal so far in a series of similar blasts in the city - Advani blamed terrorists based in Pakistan. This was to be expected. Hindu nationalists routinely describe India as being besieged by Muslim terrorists backed by or based in Pakistan, especially in the disputed Kashmir Valley. These accusations grew louder after 9/11, as India tried to persuade America that Pakistan, its new ally in the war against terror, was an active sponsor of international terrorism.

This time, however, Advani's accusation was swiftly contradicted by the police in Mumbai. The four people they arrested in connection with the attacks were Indian Muslims, part of a new group called the "Gujarat Muslim Revenge Force". They may have received logistical support from a Pakistani outfit with links to al-Qaeda, but they are Indian citizens.

This is worrying news. The radical Islamist movements that spread quickly in the past decade in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan have until now left India's Muslims largely untouched. Even as Hindu nationalists rose to power demanding, among other things, that Muslims adopt what they define as India's "Hindu culture", Indian Muslims have stayed away from the anti-India insurgency of their culturally distinct co- religionists in Kashmir. More remarkably, no Indian Muslim in the past seems to have heeded the many pied pipers of jihad in Afghanistan and Pakistan who lured Muslims from across the world, and who deluded even a non-Muslim from California.

It may be that most Indian Muslims are too poor and depressed to join radical causes elsewhere. It is also true that they have what is denied to most Muslims in the world: the chance to participate in regular elections and choose, given that they comprise between 13 and 14 per cent of India's population, their representatives, if not their rulers. But this faith in democracy, which Indian Muslims have long expressed by voting tactically in large numbers, has been tested repeatedly in recent years. Hindu nationalists not only demolished the 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya, they are also building a temple on the site of the demolished mosque, and promise soon to complete its construction.

In the nationwide violence that followed the mosque's demolition, almost 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, died in Mumbai alone. In 1998, a commission of inquiry, which the nationalists tried to disband, identified some of the Hindu police officers and politicians responsible. Not one has been tried and convicted yet. In Gujarat, too, the perpetrators of last year's very public massacres of Muslims are mostly known. But they are unlikely to face justice, judging by the collapse of a recent trial in the same state, after the main prosecution witness withdrew her testimony. Human rights groups say she was threatened by Hindu extremists.

So the surprising thing, perhaps, is not that militant groups with international connections, such as the Gujarat Muslim Revenge Force, are emerging in India, but that it has taken so long. As revealed by India's leading English-language newspaper, the Indian Express, most of the 27 Muslims arrested by the police in connection with the string of bombings in Mumbai have said they were seeking revenge for the state-assisted killings of Muslims in Gujarat.

Many of these young men have degrees in business management, forensic science, chemical and aeronautical engineering. They have been radicalised in a geopolitical environment that has never been more highly fraught for the Muslim community at large. And so while the rage and resentment of these educated Muslims may have purely Indian origins, they are now likely to feed on international events - the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the car bombs in Bali, Casablanca, Riyadh and Baghdad - which probably still seem remote to an older, impoverished generation of Indian Muslims.

The parallel with Indonesia, a new and floundering democracy, is striking. In the only country with more Muslims than India, a new, educated and politically aware generation has outgrown the old, tolerant culture of Indonesian Islam. Its distrust of the Indonesian government, which it calls anti-Muslim and pro-American, is increasingly channelled into the politics of anti-Americanism and, for some young Muslims at least, into association with al-Qaeda and radical Islamist groups in east Asia.

This makes the Indonesian government cautious in its dealings with both radical Islamists and the Bush administration. In comparison, the Hindu nationalists seem eager to expand the Indian Muslim list of grievances. Their eagerness to assist the Bush administration and commit Indian troops to postwar Iraq was checked only by strong protests from opposition parties. And in a spectacular reversal of India's usual support for the Palestinians, Hindu nationalists are developing close political and military relations with Israel, whose prime minister, Ariel Sharon, visited India earlier this month.

Indeed, nowhere is the collapse of Nehru's ideals more vivid than in the realm of foreign policy. The previous BJP foreign minister described as "wasted" the years when Nehru steadfastly refused to enlist India as a junior partner of the US in the cold war. Pro-BJP commentators in the media argue for closer military and political relations with America. There is more to this strident advocacy of American patronage than a craving for visiting fellowships at conservative foundations in Washington, DC; there is apparent in it, as in the Hindu nationalists' frequent praise of Sharon, an envious fascination with brute power.

Brute power is what the nationalists have mostly used in dealing with insurgent Muslims in Kashmir. With elections fast approaching, they are unlikely to step down for long from an anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan platform. Until then, Muslims pondering their fate in Hindu-nationalist-ruled India can only be confirmed in their sense of isolation and impotence.

It is exactly such local political frustrations that in North Africa, the Middle East and, more recently, east Asia have given the network of terror its global range and resilience. History may come to see the September bombs in Mumbai as the moment when al-Qaeda's recruiters, heartened by the mess in Iraq and by fresh gains in Indonesia, received news of more unexpected bounty: militant disaffection among the second-largest Muslim population in the world. Meanwhile, as one of the English dailies in India put it: "The nation can breathe a sigh of relief." News from Florida has it that Leander Paes is absolutely fine.

Pankaj Mishra's book on the Buddha will be out next year