Indian media and public have been ecstatic over Washington’s rhetoric against Islamic fundamentalism and its declaration of war on terrorism in the wake of Sept. 11. “We too have been the victims of terrorism perpetrated by Taliban allies trained in Kashmir,” my father said in a recent phone call. This reaction is hardly surprising. For, we Indians have had a treacherous connection with Islam and in particular with Afghanistan, that goes back a thousand years.
The one name that no child who went to school in India ever forgets is that of Mohammed of Ghazni. He was the first conqueror to come roaring through the Khyber Pass around 1000 A.D. to destroy the magnificent Hindu temple at Somnath.
Because of its polytheistic, pacifist, and non-proselytizing nature, Hinduism became vulnerable to the onslaught of Islam. The first Turkish-Afghani rulers of India were soon followed by other dynasties, all with connections to Afghanistan. The Muslim invaders ruled India until the early 1600s, when the British took over.
Many Hindus were deeply offended at the country’s partition in 1947 to form the Islamic State of Pakistan. The Muslim invaders of India destroyed temples, levied religious taxes on Hindus, and promoted practices like purdah, or the wearing of veils by women.
The atrocities of Islam, and later, the intolerance of Christian missionaries, gave rise to a defensive response from one of the most peaceful cultures in the world. A religion that traditionally had no means to convert others, and no history of holy wars, finally began to formulate itself in a different paradigm in the early 20th century.
“Hindutva,” or the Hindu fundamentalist movement, originally began in the back alleys of my own hometown of Nagpur in 1926 in the wake of India’s struggle to become free of British rule. Hindu fundamentalism was history’s anomalies, the term itself is an oxymoron; with thousands of gods and hundreds of sects, Hinduism is one of the most individualistic and democratic religions in the world. Later, the birth of the separate Islamic state of Pakistan as a condition of independence from the British rulers, left a bitter legacy that remains today in the form of India’s continued conflict with its neighbor over Kashmir.
Still, after independence, the movement had become marginalized, but America’s support of Pakistan and the latter’s institution of a nuclear program, gave it a new impetus. What was once a minority-based movement gained broad support in the wake of U.S. geopolitical gamesmanship.
After 50 years of obscurity, Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in India. The fundamentalists have predictably been gleeful over the Bush administration’s recent friendly overtures towards India vis-a-vis its firm stance with regard to Pakistan.
But the U.S.’s self-serving partnership with India in the wake of 911 may prove to be short-lived. For, many Hindus remain skeptical of America’s long-term intentions towards India. They have not forgotten that for the last 50 years since the end of colonial rule in the region, the U.S. has supported military dictatorships in Pakistan in order to further its own “geopolitical” interests, while ignoring India, the biggest democracy in the world.
If the U.S. does not promote political harmony and a martial plan of sorts subsequent to the current action against the Taliban, Hindus will be deeply mortified. The downturn in Silicon Valley and the large scale reductions in immigrant and worker visas as a result of U.S. security concerns are likely to add to centuries-old insults many Hindus were able to set aside in the wake of the high tech boom of the last decade.
Such frustrations could come to haunt the U.S. if it continues to follow its narrow, oil-centered geopolitics in the region. India’s old wounds are still raw and the nation is a sleeping giant, ready to awake at the slightest hint of international slight.
If the international community does not participate in a resolution of the Kashmir issue and the creation of long-term economic and political stability in South Asia, consequences could be dire indeed for two third-world nations who have the capability to conduct nuclear war.
But history shows us another way. For, just as some of the Islamic rulers of India, like Aurangzeb, were fanatic, despotic, and brutal, others were benevolent. Emperor Akbar, for example, married Hindu royalty, created a secular religion called Din-E-Elahi, and appreciated Hindu music and art. The interaction of Islam with Hinduism in fact brought about a cultural renaissance in medieval India, giving birth to the music of the ghazal, creating an amalgam of Hindi and Persian called Urdu, and leaving an indelible influence on Indian architecture.
After the advent of the movies, Bollywood romanticized Islamic culture in timeless classics such as Mughal-E-Azam and Mere Mehboob. The Muslim chic they created is popular even today in various strata of Indian society.
Some historians claim that without the British policy of divide and rule, Islam and Hinduism would have co-existed forever. It is time for America and the West to pay attention to history’s lessons.
It is unfortunate that America’s narrow view of India resulted in waking the sleeping giant of Hindu fundamentalism in India. With Pakistan divided over the issue of Taliban, America’s failure to chart a new course in South Asia could prove tragic.