AMHERST, Mass.--Nine days ago there was an alarming indication of
upheaval in Pakistan -- a crackdown on the press. According to the
Committee to Protect Journalists, the government pressured the owner
of an influential English language newspaper, the News, to fire four
journalists. One of them, the paper's editor, Shaheen Sehbai, said
the trouble started after his newspaper reported a link between the
prime suspect in the killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel
Pearl, and recent attacks on the Indian parliament in Delhi and in
the Kashmiri capital, Srinagar. When Sehbai asked the paper's owner
to identify who wanted to sack them, Sehbai said he was told to see
officials at the ISI, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Instead he resigned and left for the United States.
I suspected that the crackdown on the media was associated with Pearl's kidnapping and murder. Even from the United States, where I am right now, I could tell that Pearl's slaying was more than an indication of a new level of political violence. It was also a stark reminder of the tenuous position of journalists in Pakistan -- especially when they tread on the delicate topic of the country's mysterious intelligence service, its link to Islamic groups and its power over the government of Pakistan.
For the past month, as a former reporter for Pakistan's Dawn newspaper, I have been sifting through the evidence trying to figure out what Pearl's murder was really about. It was not just a matter of his being an American and a Jew, though that was certainly part of it. In setting out to investigate the possible connection between alleged shoe-bomber Richard Reid and the Islamist groups in the region, Pearl had entered dangerous ground.
It was ground that few Pakistani journalists would even attempt to cover: exploring the complex ties between the militant Islamist groups and the many intelligence agencies. Local news organizations are so infiltrated by intelligence agents that they can do little independent reporting on this subject. Moreover, as the latest crackdown on the press illustrates, Pakistani governments, past and present, have been using intelligence agencies to twist the arms of publishers, editors and journalists who dare to expose their dirty secrets.
I don't know how much Pearl found out. But I know full well how likely journalists are to become the targets of the intelligence agencies. I found out the hard way in September 1991. It had been only two years since the country had returned to democracy and a free press was only barely tolerated by then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. I began writing about the tactics his government was using to coerce opposition politicians to change their loyalties and indict their leader, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
My investigative reports led me into a maze of competing intelligence agencies. One day in late September, we journalists in Karachi rallied against the stabbing of Kamran Khan, one of the reporters under fire at the News, who is known for using sources among the intelligence agencies and who also works as a special correspondent for The Washington Post. That night, as I reached home, I saw two men -- knives glinting in their hands -- approaching my car. Sensing danger, I raced back to the office. Coming after a spate of attacks on journalists, the incident generated new protests -- with rallies and demonstrations by media organizations throughout the country culminating in newspapers suspending publication for one day.
The latest crackdown suggests that the Pakistani government may be hiding some of the facts on the Pearl case. For Pakistan, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have forced the military government to begin the very difficult process of disassociating itself from the Islamic militants with which it has traditionally kept close ties. These linkages were strengthened during the Cold War when the Reagan administration and the Saudi government used Pakistan's military dictator, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, to funnel billions of dollars' worth of arms and ammunition to the Afghan resistance through Pakistan's Islamic parties. At home President Zia promoted conservative Islamic officers to generals in the army. As a result, the ISI grew powerful enough to sideline the subsequent civilian governments of Sharif and Bhutto and become the chief architect of the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
Even after Pakistan got on board with the U.S. anti-terrorist coalition, the intelligence agencies did not sever ties with the Islamic parties. Then, as the United States stepped up pressure, the agencies began reducing their support for these parties. In December, I saw a pro-Taliban demonstration in Islamabad that attracted fewer than 100 people. Only a month ago earlier, thousands of violent pro-Taliban demonstrators had rampaged through the streets, even though they failed to find support from the masses. In fact, Pakistan's Islamist parties have never won more than 2 percent of the vote in any democratic election -- and have therefore looked to the military to capture power. In turn, the military -- and their multiple intelligence agencies -- have found the parties useful for reining in opponents.
As Pearl's kidnapping and murder show, Musharraf's task of quelling Islamic militancy is a daunting one. To recognize that challenge requires not only understanding the anti-Western, anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Islamic extremists, but also the flash point of Kashmir. That is a grievance that can unite Muslims who believe the disputed territory should be freed from Indian control, and it provides a battleground for fundamentalists. It is clear that Pearl's suspected kidnappers have taken that cause to heart.
Remember the Indian passenger airline that was hijacked from Kathmandu, Nepal, in December 1999 and made a series of stops in Pakistan and Dubai before finally landing in Kandahar? There, the Taliban surrounded the plane and gave safe passage to the hijackers. They were demanding that India release three members of a Pakistan-based Islamist group, which was launching attacks against the Indian military in Kashmir. The Indian foreign minister traveled to Kandahar and handed over the political prisoners, who included Masood Azhar and Saeed himself.
Once freed from jail in India, Azhar and his entourage returned to Pakistan and remained untroubled by government security forces. I well remember how, with their long beards and turbans, they swaggered into the Karachi Press Club in March 2000 for a news conference. They told the assembled journalists how they had been carrying out jihad against the Indian military in Kashmir. Azhar announced that they were changing the name of the group from Harkat ul-Ansar to Jaish-i-Mohammed -- which literally means "Army of Mohammed." Harkat ul-Ansar had by then been declared a terrorist organization by the United States.
We journalists were curious why Azhar -- the newly appointed chief of Jaish-i-Mohammed -- had chosen this moment to make a public appearance. President Clinton was about to visit Pakistan on a stopover from India. Three months beforehand, Musharraf had taken over Pakistan's government in a military coup -- and this had not sat well with the U.S. administration. Hinting at a rift in Pakistan's intelligence agencies, one reporter asked Azhar if his appearance was intended to embarrass Musharraf before Clinton's visit. I asked the same question more bluntly: "Are you being supported by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence?" Azhar answered both questions with a curt "No." It was the answer we expected, but it did little to allay our suspicions.
Since their release from Indian jails, Azhar, Saeed and their supporters have moved freely in and out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Azhar was put under house arrest last fall only after the United States put pressure on Pakistan to curb jihadi groups. Pakistan turned down a U.S. request to extradite Saeed, despite his known role in kidnapping Western tourists in New Dehli in 1994. Soon after he turned himself in in January, Saeed confessed to his role in Pearl's abduction -- though he later denied it. Many other Kashmiri and Sunni militant groups are still operating freely in Pakistan, and the latter have intensified sectarian killings inside the country.
The U.S. war on the al Qaeda network has signaled a new phase for the reorganization of militant Islamic groups in Pakistan. As the United States bombed Taliban targets, the Pakistan-based Kashmir militants began slipping home through the porous Afghan borders. Among them were the Harkat ul-Mujaheddin, some of whose members were killed by the U.S. bombing in Kabul last October while holding a meeting. When the bodies of the "martyrs" were brought to a mosque in Karachi, thousands of people attended the funeral processions -- and promised revenge against the United States.
That revenge came in the form of an innocent victim, Pearl, whom the shifting militant forces saw primarily as an American and a Jew. The militant groups now identify Western journalists with the enemy. Traveling with a group of Western journalists to the Afghan border in December, I witnessed firsthand the anger of the defeated Pakistan supporters of the Taliban as the U.S. troops bombed Kandahar. Our convoy was making its way from the winding hills of Chaman in Pakistan (about two hours from Kandahar) when our vehicle was pelted with stones from angry Pashtuns. A BBC film crew traveling with us was also attacked. But the worst hit was British print journalist Robert Fisk, who appeared the next morning at our Quetta hotel with his head swathed in bandages.
As Saeed's ties with intelligence agencies become exposed, there are growing concerns among Pakistani analysts that he could be killed in custody in order to destroy evidence of his linkages. In fact, Saeed is being moved from one place to another -- reportedly to prevent him from being killed. Another cause for concern is the widespread corruption in Pakistan -- where police alternately fabricate and destroy evidence, depending on pressure from above. The net result is that even prominent murder cases have dragged on for years in the courts without leading to any convictions.
A decade ago, it was the unity of journalists that enabled me to put the frightening knife attack behind me and to focus on getting out the truth. At that stage, I'd been predicting that unless we maintained unity, journalists could be killed for investigative reporting. Pearl's murder came as a blow to independent reporting in Pakistan. His brave wife, Mariane, has spoken about how his case highlights the importance of joining hands to fight terrorism. Whether this is achieved through the extradition of Saeed and his accomplices to the United States or through monitoring the court process in Pakistan, it is imperative that the culprits be punished. The frightening fact is that Pearl's murder has uncovered the tip of an iceberg. The challenge now is to continue the work he began -- and investigate how terrorist forces are realigning in the region to threaten civil society.
Nafisa Hoodbhoy, who worked for 16 years for Dawn newspaper in Karachi, Pakistan, teaches at the University of Massachusetts with a focus on women, politics and the media in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.
If the belligerence of BJP's Information Minister were to be taken as an
indication of the mood in New Delhi vis a vis Islamabad, hostilities
continue indefinitely. In Islamabad -- via Dubai, because of the
flights ban between India and Pakistan for each other's carriers -- for
SAARC Information Ministers' Conference, she was interviewed live on
Pakistan Television on March 8. The interview provided a study in
contrast -- a restrained Newsnight host Talat Hussain vs. the
smug, articulate and supremely arrogant Sushma Swaraj who summarily
dismissed each and every one of Mr Hussain's questions as false,
misinformed, or mal-intentioned.
Ms Swaraj's modus operandi is well illustrated by her response to the hundreds of lives lost in Gujarat: incredibly, she took the moral high ground by baldly stating that she would not get into counting bodies, since even one death in a riot was a smear on India. Well said, and well avoided. No question of touching upon why the carnage took place, or the collusion of the state authorities with the rioters. Talat Hussain's comment on Gujarat Chief Minister Modi was similarly dismissed: India, she said, has seen violence and carnage before but, came the stunning assertion, Mr Modi has done a wonderful job in controlling the situation with unprecedented speed.
She asserted that the Agra Summit had failed because of Pakistan's refusal to discuss cross-border terrorism and insistence on including Kashmir as the 'core dispute' in the agenda. Mr Hussain produced an unsigned draft which he said included both contentious points, but an angry Ms Swaraj refused to even consider that the document could be authentic.
On whether the Agra Summit was sabotaged by Indian hawks, she audaciously retorted that there was no division. Hawks and moderates alike, she said, were in agreement - a statement that flies in the face of observations by independent Indian analysts and reporters at the time. Her insistence on the homogeneity of views in India is far from the truth, as is evident to anyone with independent access to views that are not given much space in the mainstream media.
Nor do Ms Swaraj's belligerence and her insistence on arguing from a 'position of strength' reflect the mood in India as much as she would have people believe. For all the Indian hawks who since September 11, and particularly since December 13 have been wanting to attack Pakistan, there are many more who want peace. As always, those fired by hate and bigotry are more forceful in pushing their views, but this does not mean that they should be allowed to prevail.
Sushma Swaraj's insistence that only those with proven strength can talk peace echoes Ariel Sharon's recent outrageous statement that heavier casualties should be inflicted on the Palestinians before they can be allowed at the negotiating table. The similarity of course goes deeper. Sharon has used post September-11 events to step up on his aggression against the Palestinians - which has triggered off further violence by Palestinians (although CNN would say it the other way round). Led by the right-wing BJP government, India too has seized the opportunity afforded by the world's only superpower's insistence on might is right, to up the ante with Pakistan.
To hear Ms Swaraj tell it, New Delhi has only ever taken the first step towards peace - she countered a query about India's initiating a nuclear race in South Asia with Atal-ji's 'bus yatra' to Lahore, and his visit to the Minar-e-Pakistan. For this, she rightly reminded us, he was repaid with Kargil. What steps can Pakistan take to mend fences? Ms Swaraj literally smirked as she replied that Pakistan knows the answer very well. And if they do take these steps, what then? The venerable information minister refused to say. In other words, bow or be broken. With this attitude, her contention that every peace initiative in the region has emanated from the BJP stretches the truth.
If that is the case, one wonders, why does Atal-ji not accept the offer of the Pakistani president (even if he is a self-appointed one as Ms Swaraj reminded us, like we need reminding) to withdraw troops from the border and remove the restrictions on overland flights? Perhaps some kind of softening is in the air though. Saturday's newspapers reported that India has reduced the number of troops on its border, and that its airforce has stepped down from the ready-to-strike position. If so, this is welcome news.
In stark contrast to Sushmita Swaraj's swaggering stand, is the attitude of ordinary people, activists, people of all faiths who are struggling with what has happened in Gujarat. A recent letter to Indian President K.R. Narayan by the Citizens' Initiative for Justice & Peace (March 5) demands compensation not just for victims of the Godhra tragedy, but also to victims of the violence that followed. It also demands that the President himself, as the Constitutional Head of the Indian State, make a generous contribution.
The hard-hitting, anguished letter is signed by MP Shabana Azmi and her writer/poet husband Javed Akhtar, senior jurist Girishbhai Patel, journalists Teesta Setalvad, Javed Anand of the magazine Communalism Combat, and activists like Rajendra Prasad,Vivan Sundaram and Shabnam Hashmi of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT). Several other human rights and civic rights organisations have also endorsed the letter, including Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation, National Bank Employees Federation, Movement for Secular Democracy, and others.
They accuse the state of first indulging "in direct and systematic acts of murder, terror and targeting of economic properties of the minority community in Gujarat". It is now, they say, "actively preventing relief and rehabilitation from reaching the affected areas; relief camps in the city that are being treated like concentration camps". The signatories, who have visited affected areas at risk to their own lives, estimate that the number of casualties "may touch a staggering figure of 2,000". Fifteen make-shift camps in different parts of Ahmedabad house at least 35,000 internally displaced persons, and it is feared that this figure may touch 50,000 in Ahmedabad alone, once a complete survey is carried out. Many of the survivors are in a desperate situation, suffering from burns and other serious injuries; even the bodies of the deceased "lie in the most de-humanised state and the State is refusing to look into this."
Meanwhile, we in Pakistan can hardly afford to be complacent about the strife in India. Our own citizens are not safe from sectarian violence. Our mosques have to be protected by armed guards. Our doctors are picked off and killed for no reason other than their faith. If only the pain that is routinely expressed here for the 'oppressed' Indian Muslims was also visible for Pakistani citizens - Muslims and non-Muslims - we might be head towards some kind of progress and peace.
An acclaimed Indian Muslim "secularist" recently lambasted Mohammad
Ali Jinnah as "the man who single-handedly divided India in 1947".
That is not true. While Mr Jinnah certainly created Pakistan
single-handedly, it was Mr Jawaharlal Nehru and Mr Vallabhbhai Patel
who jointly presided over the division of India by compromising with
the Hindu communalists within the Congress party and pushing Mr
Jinnah out of their fold. The sad irony was that it was Mr Gandhi who
had to pay the price of their folly with his own life by insisting on
a secular ideal for India. That lesson remains lost on many Indians
Since 1969, over 10,000 people have died in communal clashes in Ahmadabad, which fact bemoans the passing of Mr Gandhi's dream into a sectarian nightmare. Last week, over 600 innocent Muslims died in Gujarat and at least 30,000 were rendered homeless. Nearly 30 mosques in Ahmadabad were razed to the ground. Ten years ago, Hindu militants ran amuck in Ayodhya and sparked communal riots which left over 2000 people dead.
Well meaning secular Indians rightly berate Pakistan for being an "ideological and authoritarian state", proudly pointing to their own country's "secular and democratic" moorings. Yet they overlook the frightening similarities between the fundamentalists of the two countries, those in Pakistan who have declared war on Hindu India and the infidel West and those in India who talk of protecting or strengthening the "Hindu nation", those who wield the trident, stick and firetorch in India and those who carry automatic rifles and advocate an Islamic state for the "Muslim nation" in Pakistan. Both may be minorities within their faiths but both have powerful political supporters in the civil and military hierarchies of their own countries.
The impulse of Hindu-Muslim communalism is rooted in the politics of medieval Indian history. Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism emanated from within the soul of ancient India and therefore didn't lead to violent conflagration. But Islam arrived from outside India as a "conquering" force through the sword of the "temple breaking" Muslim hordes or on the back of "liberating" Muslim saints and mystics. Later the British imperialists aggravated religious tensions by politicizing the divide. The birth of Pakistan followed because Indian secularists couldn't comprehend the nature of the communal challenge posed by the Hindus communalists within their fold rather than as a result of Muslim League belligerence in quest of a Muslim "nation". But just as Pakistani Muslims should have stopped their search for a "Muslim nation" after the formation of their state in Pakistan in 1947 (as Mr Jinnah had advocated) but didn't do so to their everlasting disarray, so too the Hindus should have stopped clamouring for a Hindu "nation" in India (as Mr Gandhi had pleaded) but didn't do so to their recurrent dismay. Indeed, if many of Pakistan's post-independence woes can be laid at the door of its "Muslim ideologues", some of India's problems have been accentuated by its Hindu revivalists who seek to define and enlarge Hinduism in the same erroneous manner of Islamism in Pakistan.
Of course, the rise of Islam as a "civilisational" force following the eruption of oil politics in the 1970s has hurt both countries. In Pakistan it fertilized the ground for the emergence of Ziaism and provided the impetus for the Saudi-American sponsorship of jihad in Afghanistan. In India, it laid the seeds of a counter-civilisational response in the form of Hindutva. The articulation of this "civilisational" behaviour was manifest in India by the advent of the "smiling Buddha" in 1974, a reference to India's "peaceful nuclear explosions", and in Pakistan by the launching of plans to build the "Islamic bomb" subsequently. Pakistan now came to be cast in the mould of an Islamic state while India began to shed its secular leanings in favour of a Hindu Rashtra. In Pakistan the process of Islamising the state was fed by the ambitions of the military while in India the BJP could not have scaled the heights of the state without the democratic votes and financial power of civil society. Over time, the failed authoritarianism of Pakistan and the successful democratization of India have led them to the same ideological cul-de-sac. In trying to disprove the political legitimacy of each other, both countries have mirrored the compulsions and concerns of the religious impulse in the other.
The most indelible memory of Partition is of railway carriages filled with mutilated corpses of Hindus and Muslims. Five decades later, the blood lust of both communities in India was fanned by exactly the kind of circumstances that fueled the slaughters in 1947, making India's orgy of secular self-immolation look like some hoary fantasy. The irony is that it is General Pervez Musharraf who wants to liquidate fundamentalism and separate religion from politics in Pakistan today while India's prime minister in waiting, Mr L K Advani, remains a staunch supporter of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad which seeks a "Hindu Rashtra". The truth is that if India and Pakistan want to be stable and prosper together, they must be more like each other in secular outlook and less like each other in religious terms.
In the center of the biggest traffic circle of every major city in
Pakistan sits a craggy, Gibraltarish replica of a nameless peak in
the Chagai range. This mountain is the home of Pakistan's nuclear
test site. The development, in 1998, of the "Islamic Bomb," intended
as a counter to India's nuclear capability, is Pakistan's only
celebrated achievement since its formation, in 1947. The mountain
replicas, about three stories tall, are surrounded by flower beds
that are lovingly weeded, watered, and manicured. At dusk, when the
streetlights come on, so do the mountains, glowing a weird molten
Islamabad's monument to the atomic bomb occupies a rotary between the airport and the city center. Nearby stand models of Pakistan's two classes of missile: Shaheen and Ghauri. The Islamabad nuclear shrine stands at a place where the city is dissolving into an incoherent edge town of shabby strip malls and empty boulevards and rows of desolate government buildings. A little farther in one comes to the gridded blocks of gated homes. The neighborhoods are called sectors. The streets are numbered, not named.
Late last year, after nearly two months in Pakistan, I paid the last of many visits to house No. 8 on street 19, sector F-8/2, a modern white mansion known as Zardari House. The house has been used by Asif Ali Zardari, the imprisoned husband of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's exiled former Prime Minister. Neither Zardari nor Bhutto has been there for a long time. Zardari has been confined for five years, most recently in Attock Fort, a medieval fortress perched over the Indus River between Islamabad and Peshawar. He is charged with a slew of crimes: large-scale corruption; conspiracy in the murder of Bhutto's brother Mir Murtaza; conspiracy to smuggle narcotics. Bhutto, who also faces corruption charges in Pakistan, lives in Dubai with their three children. Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf, has promised to have her arrested and tried if she ever returns to Pakistan. Outside the gate to the empty Zardari House sits a man with his back to the wall, a sawed-off shotgun across his knees.
I had been going there to consult with Brigadier Amanullah, known to his friends as Aman. Aman, in his early fifties and now retired, is lithe and gentle-natured and seemed to me slightly depressed. He works in a small office behind Zardari House, where, as the secretary to Benazir Bhutto in Islamabad, he coordinates Bhutto's efforts to return to Pakistan and regain its prime ministership. He also keeps in close touch with old colleagues, who include many powerful people in Pakistan. Aman was once the chief of Pakistan's military intelligence in Sind Province, which borders India. Pakistan's biggest city and a cultural center, Karachi, is in Sind. That put Aman squarely in the middle of things, his finger near many sorts of buttons. Today Aman is believed to act as Bhutto's liaison with the armed forces, and he maintains contacts with serving army officers, including senior generals. When I wanted to speak to someone in the Pakistani government, I asked Aman. When I wanted to speak to someone in the Taliban, or in military intelligence, or in the political opposition, I asked Aman. His replies were mumbled and monosyllabic. He never offered opinions. He would simply hear me out and, most times, tip his head and say, "Why not?" Within an hour after Aman and I parted, I would receive a phone call from his secretary. References would be made to "that man" or "that matter," and I would be given a phone number and a time to call. Having spoken with Aman, I was always expected.
On the day of my final visit Aman seemed more sullen than usual. He ushered me into a room adjoining the office. The room was long and spare. There was an oil painting on the far wall. The other walls were empty and lined with cushioned chairs. Aman sat across from me. We had tea and spoke about the latest events.
As we were wrapping up our conversation, I looked at the oil painting. It was a strange picture, a horizontal landscape about four feet across, with overtones of socialist realism. In the foreground a youthful Benazir Bhutto stood in heroic pose on an escarpment overlooking the featureless grid of Islamabad. Beside her stood her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a Prime Minister who in 1977 was ousted in a coup and two years later hanged. On the other side of Bhutto was Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the long-dead founding father of Pakistan. Their postures were exalted, their expressions a combination of pride and awe. Jinnah's arm pointed to the vast plain beyond the city, where a rocket was lifting out of billowing clouds of vapor and fire into the sky.
Aman noticed me looking at the painting and followed my gaze. I asked him if Benazir Bhutto had commissioned it, and Aman said no. He told me that one day when she was still Prime Minister, an unknown man, an ordinary Pakistani citizen, had come to the gate of Zardari House with the picture and told Aman that he'd painted it for the Prime Minister and wanted to present it to her as a gift. Aman said that he was immediately transfixed by the painting. He called to Bhutto inside the house, but she refused to come down to see the man. Aman was persistent, and eventually she came down.
"I insisted Benazir accept it as a gift," Aman told me.
We both looked up at the painting in silence. "A rocket ship heading to the moon?" I asked.
Aman tipped his head to the side. A smirk tugged at the corners of his mouth. "No," he said. "A nuclear warhead heading to India."
I thought he was making a joke. Then I saw he wasn't. I thought of the shrines to Pakistan's nuclear-weapons site, prominently displayed in every city. I told Aman that I was disturbed by the ease with which Pakistanis talk of nuclear war with India.
Aman shook his head. "No," he said matter-of-factly. "This should happen. We should use the bomb."
"For what purpose?" He didn't seem to understand my question. "In retaliation?" I asked.
"Or first strike?"
I looked for a sign of irony. None was visible. Rocking his head side to side, his expression becoming more and more withdrawn, Aman launched into a monologue that neither of us, I am sure, knew was coming:
"We should fire at them and take out a few of their cities-Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta," he said. "They should fire back and take Karachi and Lahore. Kill off a hundred or two hundred million people. They should fire at us and it would all be over. They have acted so badly toward us; they have been so mean. We should teach them a lesson. It would teach all of us a lesson. There is no future here, and we need to start over. So many people think this. Have you been to the villages of Pakistan, the interior? There is nothing but dire poverty and pain. The children have no education; there is nothing to look forward to. Go into the villages, see the poverty. There is no drinking water. Small children without shoes walk miles for a drink of water. I go to the villages and I want to cry. My children have no future. None of the children of Pakistan have a future. We are surrounded by nothing but war and suffering. Millions should die away."
"Pakistan should fire pre-emptively?" I asked.
"And you are willing to see your children die?"
"Tens of thousands of people are dying in Kashmir, and the only superpower says nothing," Aman said. "America has sided with India because it has interests there." He told me he was willing to see his children be killed. He repeated that they didn't have any future-his children or any other children.
I asked him if he thought he was alone in his thoughts, and Aman made it clear to me that he was not.
"Believe me," he went on, "If I were in charge, I would have already done it."
Aman stopped, as though he'd stunned even himself. Then he added, with quiet forcefulness, "Before I die, I hope I should see it."
The defining image of the week, for me, is of a small child's burned
and blackened arm, its tiny fingers curled into a fist, protruding
from the remains of a human bonfire in Ahmadabad, Gujarat, in India.
The murder of children is something of an Indian specialty. The
routine daily killings of unwanted girl babies . . . the massacre of
innocents in Nellie, Assam, in the 1980s when village turned against
neighboring village . . . the massacre of Sikh children in Delhi
during the horrifying reprisal murders that followed Indira Gandhi's
assassination: They bear witness to our particular gift, always most
dazzlingly in evidence at times of religious unrest, for dousing our
children in kerosene and setting them alight, or cutting their
throats, or smothering them or just clubbing them to death with a
good strong length of wood.
I say "our" because I write as an Indian man, born and bred, who loves India deeply and knows that what one of us does today, any of us is potentially capable of doing tomorrow. If I take pride in India's strengths, then India's sins must be mine as well. Do I sound angry? Good. Ashamed and disgusted? I certainly hope so. Because, as India undergoes its worst bout of Hindu-Muslim bloodletting in more than a decade, many people have not been sounding anything like angry, ashamed or disgusted enough. Police chiefs have been excusing their men's unwillingness to defend the citizens of India, without regard to religion, by saying that these men have feelings too and are subject to the same sentiments as the nation in general.
Meanwhile, India's political masters have been tut-tutting and offering the usual soothing lies about the situation being brought under control. (It has escaped nobody's notice that the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or Indian People's Party, and the Hindu extremists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), or World Hindu Council, are sister organizations and offshoots of the same parent body.) Even some international commentators, such as Britain's Independent newspaper, urge us to "beware excess pessimism."
The horrible truth about communal slaughter in India is that we're used to it. It happens every so often; then it dies down. That's how life is, folks. Most of the time India is the world's largest secular democracy; and if, once in a while, it lets off a little crazy religious steam, we mustn't let that distort the picture.
Of course, there are political explanations. Ever since December 1992, when a VHP mob demolished a 400-year-old Muslim mosque in Ayodhya, which they claim was built on the sacred birthplace of the god Ram, Hindu fanatics have been looking for this fight. The pity of it is that some Muslims were ready to give it to them. Their murderous attack on the train-load of VHP activists at Godhra (with its awful, atavistic echoes of the killings of Hindus and Muslims by the train-load during the partition riots of 1947) played right into the Hindu extremists' hands.
The VHP has evidently tired of what it sees as the equivocations and insufficient radicalism of India's BJP government. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is more moderate than his party; he also heads a coalition government and has been obliged to abandon much of the BJP's more extreme Hindu nationalist rhetoric to hold the coalition together. But it isn't working anymore. In state elections across the country, the BJP is being trounced. This may have been the last straw for the VHP firebrands. Why put up with the government's betrayal of their fascistic agenda when that betrayal doesn't even result in electoral success?
The electoral failure of the BJP is thus, in all probability, the spark that lit the fire. The VHP is determined to build a Hindu temple on the site of the demolished Ayodhya mosque -- that's where the Godhra dead were coming from -- and there are, reprehensibly, idiotically, tragically, Muslims in India equally determined to resist them. Vajpayee has insisted that the slow Indian courts must decide the rights and wrongs of the Ayodhya issue. The VHP is no longer prepared to wait.
The distinguished Indian writer Mahasveta Devi, in a letter to India's president, K. R. Narayanan, blames the Gujarat government (led by a BJP hard-liner) as well as the central government for doing "too little too late." She pins the blame firmly on the "motivated, well-planned out and provocative actions" of the Hindu nationalists. But another writer, the Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul, speaking in India just a week before the violence erupted, denounced India's Muslims en masse and praised the nationalist movement.
The murderers of Godhra must indeed be denounced, and Mahasveta Devi in her letter demands "stern legal action" against them. But the VHP is determined to destroy that secular democracy in which India takes such public pride and which it does so little to protect; and by supporting them, Naipaul makes himself a fellow traveler of fascism and disgraces the Nobel award.
The political discourse matters, and explains a good deal. But there's something beneath it, something we don't want to look in the face: namely, that in India, as elsewhere in our darkening world, religion is the poison in the blood. Where religion intervenes, mere innocence is no excuse. Yet we go on skating around this issue, speaking of religion in the fashionable language of "respect." What is there to respect in any of this, or in any of the crimes now being committed almost daily around the world in religion's dreaded name? How well, with what fatal results, religion erects totems, and how willing we are to kill for them! And when we've done it often enough, the deadening of affect that results makes it easier to do it again.
So India's problem turns out to be the world's problem. What happened in India has happened in God's name. The problem's name is God.
Salman Rushdie is a novelist and author of the forthcoming essay collection "Step Across This Line."
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