Last week’s bomb blasts in Bombay
have increased tensions between the Hindu majority and India’s large
Muslim minority. During a recent visit to Bombay, VOA’s Zlatica Hoke
discussed India’s ethnic tensions and other issues with local writer
and scholar Kannan Srinivasan.
author and scholar Kannan Srinivasan.
Q: Mr. Srinivasan, India by constitution is a secular
democracy, guaranteeing equality and justice to all its many ethnic
groups. Yet lately we have seen attempts by the government to
introduce a federal ban on beef slaughter, which is supported by
many Hindus, but is worrying those minorities who depend on beef for
food and cowhide for industrial production. What is happening to the
secular character of the Indian state?
A: That’s changing very fast because there is a party in
office, the BJP, which is a party dedicated to making religion a
central feature of Indian public life public life and Indian
government. So in a number of different ways, t he secular character
of the Indian state is being lost.
Q: How is that affecting India’s minorities, such as
Muslims and Christians?
A: It’s making them resentful and frightened. For example,
the chief election commissioner is somebody who was born Christian
and he is often attacked by members of the government because he is
upright and fair. He is often attacked as being a Christian agent.
In fact, he is an atheist. He doesn’t believe in any religion at
all. But the public perception is created by the government that
anybody who opposes it is an agent for a foreign religion in one
fashion or the other. So there is a strong anti-Christian and
anti-Muslim push in the government’s behavior.
Q: In your opinion, what
government actions may have specifically upset the minorities?
Prime Minister Vajpayee belongs to the BJP, a
A: The BJP and its paramilitary wing the RSS have been
agitating on two issues. One: they have been agitating about the
conversion of many tribal (people)s and people in the northeast of
India in general to Christianity. And the other issue they have been
agitating about is the Muslims in India. (The BJP and RSS are)
saying that they (the Muslims) are in effect a sort of ‘fifth
column,’ virtually Pakistani agents.
Q: But many of these minorities, including Muslims and
Christians, say they are proud and loyal Indians. What do
politicians who use such tactics expect them to do to prove that?
A: Well, they would like them to become more aggressively
Indian and announce that they support Hindu values, and that they
minimize their Muslim identity – one. Two: they would like the
Christians In India to become much more discrete in their worship
and they would like missionaries in India to stop converting people
to Christianity. I think all these are actually fantasies. The pace
of conversion to Christianity has not increased significantly.
Q: Does this apparent attempt of the majority Hindus to
impose their values on minorities cause others, such as Muslims, who
are the largest minority, to become more intensely religious, maybe
A: Oh, definitely, that’s
definitely happening in this country as there are attacks on
Muslims. What it does is to encourage the fundamentalists and
extremists within the community who are saying: ‘Look, this proves
what we say. You can’t trust the Hindus and you can’t trust the
Indian government.’ and therefore it provides the basis for poor
Muslim youths to turn to more fundamentalists’ paths.
hardliners have urged government action against Muslim and
Q: Is there a danger of Indian Muslims turning to
fundamentalism in large numbers?
A: I wouldn’t say it is happening of Muslims as a whole,
or Muslims as a majority, but what is true is the following things:
as a result of this sort of persecution and harassment, one is that
the fundamentalists within the community get strengthened. The
second is: because of an absence of any government responsibility in
education in particular, it’s these Muslim schools, the madrassas,
which are providing some education to many of the poor. Muslim rich
never got to madrassas. It’s only the poor who go to those
madrassas. So then there is the fact that people turn to a more
conservative path. And third is that many of the people who are
attacked, like families which were attacked during the pogroms
against the Muslims in Gujarat and in Bombay, those families are
more willing, they are a recruiting ground for any terrorist
Q: Muslims also constitute the poorest population in many
parts of India. Why has India’s economic boom left them out?
A: The situation is that when India and Pakistan gained
independence and were partitioned, the Muslim middle class, which
provided some leadership, went to Pakistan. So what stayed behind in
India was a small number of landed families – aristocracy, because
the aristocracy always stays where the land is. And a large number
of Muslim very poor who were earlier working in areas where there
was some employment for them, like artisans -- manufacturing
activities, which were cottage industry really, and which have
tended to die out with the advent of industrialization. For example,
people in textiles people in printing, people in furniture making
and professions like these, have been significantly Muslim people.
And these people have been increasingly unemployed. Thy are often
illiterate and therefore ill-equipped for the modern competitive
market and therefore there is a tendency now to blame the Muslims in
India for the increasing poverty in this country.
Q: So despite the economic
boom, between 30% and 40% of people in India, depending on how we
measure, remain below the poverty line. Ethnic and religious
tensions seem to be on the rise and the war over Kashmir is not
over. In your opinion, what policies would help solve India’s
security forces patrol in Kashmir on election
A: I think what India needs is a focus on welfare in terms
of feeding its people, in terms of educating its people, and in
terms of being able to provide them basic medical services and other
things of this nature. And for doing this, I think it needs to
abandon its current free-market-at-all-cost, its shock-therapy
economic policies and focus on social welfare. The second thing is:
it must abandon this crippling arms race with Pakistan and it must
come to some sensible policies over Kashmir which can make a big
difference. And the third is, I think, it should treat its
minorities more fairly because there have been large-scale pogroms
against the Muslims in particular in the last fifteen years. I think
they must uphold the value of the system of justice and punish
people who have been involved in these killings and must protect the
minorities from this sort of attack in the future. This is the way,
I think, to a better India.