Behind Mumbai

Robert D. Kaplan offers insight into the Hindu-Muslim tensions festering within India

Heavily armed, hooded gunmen have killed more than 100 people and wounded more than 300 in Mumbai in coordinated attacks against two five-star hotels, the city’s largest train station, a movie theater, a hospital, and a Jewish center. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a televised address that the attackers had “external linkages,” an indication that Pakistan and perhaps al-Qaeda, too, would be blamed for the attack. It is clearly possible that the terror rampage had its origins outside India, aimed as they were at international rather than Hindu targets. But in a least one sense it doesn’t matter. For the attacks will aggravate a growing fault line between Hindus and Muslims within India itself.

India is home to 154 million Muslims, the third largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan. Tolerable inter-communal relations are the sine qua non of Indian stability and ascendancy. India has more to lose from extremist Islam than arguably any other country in the world. The Mumbai terrorists announced themselves as the Deccan Mujahideen. The Deccan is a rugged plateau region in south-central India that Aurangzeb, the fierce Sunni emperor of the Mughals (India’s most historically significant Muslim dynasty) could never subdue and in fact died trying in 1707. The Islamic Mughals vanquished all of northern India, Pakistan, and a good part of Afghanistan, but they could never consolidate the Deccan against the Hindu Maratha warriors. This Mughal history has taken on heightened symbolism in India in recent years precisely as a result of globalization and the expansion of electronic communications and education, all of which have sharpened the country’s religious divide.

Let me explain.

In the early Cold War decades, India’s ruling Congress Party, the party of independence, sought to unite both Hindus and Muslims under the umbrella of a shared community and new nation-state. It worked, more or less, until the 1970s, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi enacted dictatorial emergency decrees that erased much of the romantic sheen from Congress’s image. New imagined communities then started to form. In the 1980s, and particularly in the 1990s, with the opening up of the Indian economy to the outside world, Indians, especially the new Hindu middle class, began a search for roots to anchor them inside an insipid world civilization that they were joining as a result of their new economic status. This enhanced status, by the way, gave them new insecurities, as they suddenly had wealth to protect.

Consequently, we had the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party, or BJP). The BJP is one of several Hindu nationalist organizations that promotes a revisionist view of Indian history, in which the Mughals and other Muslim dynasties of the medieval and early modern era (which helped create India’s dazzlingly syncretic civilization - but who also brought terrible depredations upon the Hindus) are considered interlopers in what should have remained a purely Hindu civilization and story-line. Mass communications have helped Hindus in this historical journey, enabling the creation of a standardized and ideologized Hinduism out of many local variants. It goes without saying that a similar process simultaneously occurred within parts of the Indian Muslim community, who joined a world Muslim civilization that competed with Indian nationalism for their loyalty. Bottom line: this is not an ancient historical divide so much as a recreated modern one.

The divide exploded in full force in February and March 2002 in the northwestern province of Gujarat. Following the massacre of 58 Hindus on a train, Muslim areas of Gujarat, and particularly neighborhoods in its largest cities, were besieged by Hindu mobs: hundreds of Muslim women were raped, more than a thousand were killed, and 200,000 were made homeless. The Hindu nationalist BJP government in Gujarat was implicated in the killings, and because there was never an official apology for what happened, the atrocities have lived on in infamy, becoming a symbol for both groups in India.

With this background – and I have provided only the most rudimentary chronicle – the immediate result of the Mumbai terror attacks will be a further hardening of inter-communal relations within India. The latest attacks will also increase the likelihood that in national elections slated for early 2009, the result will be a BJP-led government, as Hindus, who comprise the overwhelming majority of Indian voters, take on another layer of insecurity.

Internationally, this event will further aggravate Indian-Pakistani relations, making it harder for the incoming Obama Administration to effect a rapprochement between the two countries, necessary for progress in Afghanistan, where the two subcontinental states are engaged in a proxy struggle that goes on behind the immediate conflict between the United States and al-Qaeda.

But the real story is India itself, whose undeniable rise as a major world power is being threatened by these civilizational tensions.

I have just spent a month reporting in Gujarat on Hindu-Muslim relations, and will have much more to say on the subject in the future.