Friday, February 22, 2013

Analysis: Hyderabad bombings raise specter of Hindu-Muslim violence

With elections approaching, terror attack could lay foundations for riots.
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - February 22, 2013)
NEW DELHI, India — Almost as soon as the bombs ripped through a crowded Hyderabad street on Thursday, fingers started pointing at Pakistan. 
Given the recent execution by Indian authorities of Kashmiri militant Mohammed Afzal Guru, many assumed a Pakistan-based terror outfit like Lashkar e Toiba was seeking revenge. Many braced for heightened cross-border tensions.
But, some say, the real fallout may be new conflict between Hindus and Muslims within India, rather than a further deterioration of New Delhi's relations with Islamabad, especially with 2014 national elections looming.
“Investigations have just begun,” said Hashmi, “but the media is already saying it is the [Lashkar e Toiba-backed] Indian Mujahideen, and taking all these names."
"There's almost an atmosphere of terror where Muslims live together. Nobody knows whose son will be picked up for this.”
Crackdowns on young Muslims in the wake of 2007 bombings that struck the Mecca Masjid mosque in Hyderabad have left the minority population angry and suspicious of the government.
Neither the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai nor subsequent incidents like the August 2012 bombings in a shopping center in Pune, Maharashtra, or the September 2011 bombing of the Delhi High Court have triggered Hindu-Muslim riots.
But some observers fear that such a backlash grows more likely as 2014 national elections get closer, since Indian politicians have long used interreligious violence to win votes. Most famously, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) first rose to national power in the wake of Hindu-Muslim violence over the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992.
“None of those guilty of communal violence have ever been punished," said Manisha Sethi, president of the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association (JTSA).
"There is a general systemic tolerance of crimes of communal violence and this impunity creates possibilities of further violence.”
In the leadup to Thursday's blasts, Hyderabad had been aboil over hate speech by Muslim politician Akbaruddin Owaisi of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM). Released on bail on Friday, Owaisi allegedly sparked outrage by suggesting at a rally that Muslims should attack Hindus, though he has denied those charges.
Subsequently, Pravin Togadia of the far-right Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) retaliated with some inflammatory comments of his own, bringing the issue to national prominence and further alienating the Muslim population.
And there are countless disputes over religious sites in the offing in other locations like the Kamal Maula Masjid in Madhya Pradesh, where Hindu extremists claim that a Hindu center of learning once stood, and the Bhagyalakshmi temple, which is located in the Muslim area of Hyderabad and which some claim threatens the city's most famous historical site, the(Muslim) Charminar.
Activists who work on behalf of India's Muslims worry these developments could spell danger for the minority group in the leadup to polls — especially following the bombings in Hyderabad on Thursday.
“There have been several low intensity riots at least since last year across the country,” said Sethi.
“This will certainly only rise in the run up to 2014, as both BJP and Congress compete for the right wing space.”
Already, more lives were lost to interreligious riots in 2012 than in any year since 2004, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came to power, according to India's Hindustan Times newspaper. Nearly 185 people were killed in so-called communal violence over the first 10 months of last year for which statistics are available.
Sethi, Hashmi and others suggest that most of these incidents are not spontaneous eruptions of anger, but orchestrated by right wing political groups like the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Those charges have not been proven, and RSS national spokesman Ram Madhav categorically denied that the organization encourages violence of any kind.
“Allegations of Sangh groups trying to stir up communal tensions are false and [politically] motivated,” Madhav told GlobalPost via email. “We appeal for calm and we want [the government] to act tough with terrorists and their sponsors.”
But whether orchestrated or spontaneous, a series of terrorist incidents, violent altercations and police reprisals hints at a disturbing disintegration of religious harmony in India.
Over the past several months small-scale riots have flared up across India in Faizabad and Kosi in Uttar Pradesh, Gopalgarh in Rajasthan and Dhule in Maharashtra — with the last incident generating disturbing video evidence suggesting that police may have purposefully targeted Muslims when bullets were fired to disperse the rioters.
Meanwhile, from Delhi to Hyderabad, local Muslims and activist groups say police have arbitrarily rounded up, detained and even tortured young Muslims in the wake of bombings or terrorist threats, resulting in the further alienation and demonization of the community.
A report by Sethi's JTSA, for instance, documented 16 cases in which the so-called Special Cell of the Delhi police arrested young Muslims on charges related to terrorism, only to see the cases against them collapse for want of evidence — after the accused had spent as much as 14 years behind bars.
Similarly, doubts still linger about the killing of two young Muslims in a supposed shootout with police in the “Batla House encounter” following five serial bomb blasts in New Delhi in in 2008.
And in Hyderabad itself, blame for the 2007 Mecca mosque bombing, which killed 14 people, shifted from local Muslim boys allegedly affiliated with a foreign terrorist cell to members of a homegrown, Hindu nationalist group called Abhinav Bharat when a former RSS activist named Swami Asseemanand allegedly confessed to the crime. (He later recanted).
“We consider the allegations as baseless,” said RSS spokesman Madhav. “All the cases are still at the investigation level. Initially more than 100 Muslim youths were arrested for the terror acts. They had confessed to their involvement too. But later the investigators started claiming that Hindu youths were responsible.... The RSS neither supports, nor sponsors violence and terrorism.”
But the idea that both Hindu and Muslim groups might gain from terrorist attacks — and from the associated intercommunity tensions and violence they engender — could bode ill for next year's campaign.
“The point is that any such strike only allows the cementing of a jingoistic hardline ‘nationalism’,” said Sethi. “It’s anybody’s guess who this helps.”