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India- secularism and dirty politics

NEW DELHI - India's secular pretensions lie in tatters. More so because of the way the so-called secular parties are conducting themselves. The Hindu fundamentalist government in the western state of Gujarat has been orchestrating a genocide of Muslim minorities. But it is doing so with the help of its so-called secular allies in the central government.

Just one of the 22 so-called secular parties supporting the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government voted for the mildest of censure motions that had been brought by a member of the Lower House of parliament, Ramji Lal Suman of the opposition Samajwadi Party, even though the censure would not have brought the government down if passed.

It would have only been an embarrassment and probably an additional pressure to stop the continuing series of massacres that have already cost Muslims heavily in Gujarat - at least 1,000 dead (government figures), 2,500 missing and presumed dead, 420 mosques and other
Muslim shrines destroyed and scores of them converted into temples. At least 140,000 Muslims are now refugees, unable or too scared to return to their homes.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission has condemned the Gujarat atrocities and said that they were as bad as - if not worse than - what happened in Nazi Germany, where Hitler and his men killed millions of Jews in carrying out his "Final Solution". Two former prime ministers of India, Chandra Shekhar and H D Dev Gowda, made the same Nazi reference during the debate on the censure motion.

A sister organization of the BJP, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP- World Hindu Forum) has already called for "the final settlement" of the question of Muslim and Christian minorities. Media opinion is firming up that the BJP will continue the massacres until elections in Gujarat, which may be held in September, and if the experiment does bring electoral dividends, as it is widely expected to, it will be conducted on an even bigger scale at the national level. If Muslims
start retaliating or, unable to do so in the absence of police support, start engaging in terrorist acts, this will make the task of Hindu militants even easier.

The leader of the opposition, Sonia Gandhi, in parliament reiterated calls for the immediate
dismissal of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and launched a personal attack on Vajpayee and his party for their handling of the crisis. She highlighted the apparent discrepancy between Vajpayee's initial appeals for communal harmony in BJP-ruled Gujarat and later remarks that Muslims were incapable of living in peace with other communities. "One day he offers sympathy, the next day he condemns the whole community," she said."When the prime minister himself engages in such double-speak, what can the nation expect from his government?" Warning that the unabated violence in Gujarat had tarnished India's image "the
world over", Gandhi appealed to Vajpayee's "nobler instincts" to rise above party considerations, bring the guilty to book and sack Modi for failing in his constitutional duties.

In a report published on Monday, the US-based Human Rights Watch said that BJP members were directly implicated in the killings of hundreds of Muslims in Gujarat and accused the state government of engaging in a "massive cover-up". The embassies of Britain and other Western countries as well as the European Union, whose reports have been leaked to the press, have also made the same accusations, using terms such as "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide".

The atrocities are said to have begun as revenge for an attack on a train bring Hindu militants back from Ayodhya, a temple town in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), where they had demolished a mosque in 1992 and are now trying to build a temple on the site, in defiance of the orders of the country's highest court. The attack was allegedly made by Muslims, though official investigation is still going on and even after two months police say they do not know who was responsible. Fifty-eight passengers, innocent men, women and children were burned to death. Curiously, not one of the Hindu militants is said to have died in the arson.

In alleged retaliation, hundreds of Muslims in Gujarat were systematically butchered. According to independent reports based on eyewitness accounts prepared by judges and NGOs, there is evidence that the pogrom had been planned several months in advance. Hindu mobs were incited and the killings were orchestrated by the BJP government itself.

The more it is examined, the worse it looks, said the British weekly Economist this week. It added, "At the time, the rioting, arson, rape, looting and murder that erupted in Gujarat at the end of February appeared appalling enough. But even worse is the evidence that has mounted ever since that this was not, as the state government pretended, a spontaneous response by the majority Hindu population to an atrocity committed by a Muslim mob. Rather, as the issue is debated in parliament in Delhi, a more sinister interpretation has gained currency: that the
attacks on Muslims were long-planned. They seem to have been conducted with what Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the opposition, called the 'deliberate connivance' of the state government."

Calling the ruling BJP "shameless", it said, "The BJP has for several years seemed to treat its Hindu nationalist ideology as a political liability. Now, when that ideology is showing its dangerous and shameful side, the party has suddenly chosen to reaffirm it."

Ironically, it was Defense Minister and convener of the coalition, George Fernandes, a life-long socialist and votary of secularism, who had brought down the Janata Party government in 1979 on the question of Hindu fundamentalist links of Vajpayee (then foreign minister) and Lal Krishan Advani (then information minister), who rose to defend the Vajpayee government's unabashed support for anti-minority pogroms in a state ruled by the BJP alone.

Fernandes said, "Opposition leaders are making it out as if an anti-Muslim progrom is being conducted for the first time. They are giving such graphic details of pregnant women having their wombs pierced, fetuses taken out, mutilated and thrown into bonfires, young girls being gang-raped in front of their mothers on the roads till they die, their dead bodies chopped
into pieces and then burnt and so on. But what is the big fuss? Has all this not been happening since independence? There have been 15,000 massacres in the last 55 years since independence. Big deal."

While the BJP and other secular parties in Vajpayee's coalition are pleased with his performance in defense of the indefensible, women's groups and social activists are up in arms. They accuse him of monumental insensitivity. Many found Fernandes' speech unbelievable. Noted film star, social activist and member of parliament Shabana Azmi told a TV audience
she had to check her earphone several times to make sure her hearing was not impaired.

Brinda Karat of the Women's Federation was aghast. Along with many others she thinks that the need of the hour is to give a healing touch to the victims, see to it that at least FIRs (first information reports) are registered at the police stations - only three FIRs involving rape cases have been recorded so far and that, too, without the name of the rapists, even though the victim was able to identify them as they were senior functionaries of the governments, including BJP ministers, office bearers of the VHP and Bajrang Dal and police officials. The few FIRs that have been recorded only accuse a faceless Hindu tola (mob). Even Star television's celebrity anchor Burkha Dutt was not able to persuade a police officer to record a rape FIR giving specific names of three of the four rapists whom the victim could identify.

But Fernandes does have a point. Civil society is indeed making a big fuss. FIRs would only add to the workload on the hapless, overworked police. Have enough victims of rape or murder received justice in the past 54 years of independence to make one expect them to get justice now?

Secularism is not quite dead, however. Coal and Mines Minister and dalit (untouchable) leader from Bihar, Ram Vilas Paswan, quit the Vajpayee cabinet in protest against the handling of the situation in Gujarat and voted for the censure motion. Paswan's Lok Janshakti (People's Power) Party, which has four MPs, also severed its association with the ruling National Democratic Alliance . Cynics say that his unhappiness with a change in his portfolio and the BJP's alliance with another dalit party, Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), was the real trigger. While he may have been unhappy with these developments, one would rather believe that he sacrificed his ministry on the altar of secularism.

Another offer of resignation came from the junior Minister for External Affairs, Omar Abdullah, son of Kashmir's chief minister Farooq Abdullah, on the plea that his party's national conference had decided to abstain from voting on the censure motion. But he was to leave in a month's time anyway. His father is fed up with militancy-infected Kashmir and wants him to take over the family business - Farooq himself is the son of the great Sheikh Abdullah - of running Kashmir's administration with the blessings of the center, no matter who is ruling there. Elections are due in a few months and a little secular posturing in a Muslim-majority state would do no harm, particularly if you are no longer sure if the center wants you to win there again. The party, however, could not go the whole hog and vote for the censure motion as Farooq Abdullah is lobbying for the nomination to the largely ceremonial post of India's vice president, if not president itself.

Worried about losing his Muslim vote bank, and yet not finding it easy to let a lucrative relationship with the government go, a terrified Telgu Desham Party (TDP) leader and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandra Babu Naidu nevertheless mustered the courage to ask his party to walk out of parliament. But it has already cost him dearly. The BJP no longer wants a TDP member as speaker of the Lower House, a slot that was with the party until its nominee died in an accident a couple of months ago. Secularism does have its price. According to the BJP spokesperson, this post should only go to some party that is fully with the BJP.

Like Fernandes, Vajpayee, too, was angry at the mention by opposition leaders of so many public rapes, calling the numbers an exaggeration.

Meanwhile, the anti-Muslim pogrom continues - in "small, sporadic incidents" as the state government describes it. Mobs continue their premeditated attacks on "minority areas". A senior police officer was quoted as having said, "The problem ceases to be purely that of law and order. We have spent practically every night in the past 60 days preventing such mobs from burning women and children to death. A solution must be evolved, and fast. This madness has to end." But the state government is not cracking down on the mobs.

A debate in the Upper House of parliament on Thursday is likely to see the BJP censored as the opposition has a majority there. But given the brazenness with which the BJP is functioning it need not feel any embarrassment. The opposition has accused Vajpayee's coalition, which has fewer than 100 members in the 245-member upper house, of destroying the secular foundations of mainly Hindu India by failing to protect Muslims.

Nevertheless, the parliamentary debate on Gujarat, whatever its caliber - some found it more like a sordid street-side brawl - has underlined the possibility of the BJP turning once again into the pariah that it was before 1998. It has definitely dented its credibility as an alliance which before Gujarat looked like standing on a sound footing.

For the moment, however, it has merely shown the strength of opportunism in Indian politics over commitment to any kind of principles. It has completely exposed the so-called secular allies of the BJP, making it perhaps even more difficult for them to move away from the alliance. Those like Mamta Banerjee of the Trinamul Congress and Chandrababu Naidu (TDP), who tried to eat their cakes and have them too, will probably suffer more in the coming days as their credibility lies in tatters.