Acid test in the face of acid attacks

By Sandhya Jain, August 2001

The acid attack on four young Muslim women in Srinagar last Wednesday by an unknown militant outfit, and the swift compliance by women of all ages on the issue of wearing the chadar (head-dress) in public, has introduced a new menace in the Valley and the country. The Centre, state government, and secular intellectuals owe an explanation for their shocking silence over the incident, which should not be dismissed as an isolated occurrence. Indeed, the international community, which is increasingly dismayed at the plight of women and civilians in Afghanistan, should view the event as a dangerous extension of conditions in that country.

The attempt by Pakistan-sponsored Sunni mercenaries to terrorise J&K's civilian Shia population by imposing a "pure Islamic lifestyle" has added a grim new dimension to its law and order problems. But there are larger implications for the secular state. Notwithstanding formal denials by some of the militant groups, the incident betrays a bid to establish religio-totalitarian control over the Muslim population, and to deny the State the right to secure the secular rights and freedoms of subjects of a particular faith.

This forced Islamisation can only be harmful to the interests of the Muslim community, and to the country's sovereignty and integrity. So-called Muslim liberals would do well to recognise the menace; they may themselves be affected if the scope of the 'Islamic way of life' is extended to other parts of the nation. For if the heavy deployment of security forces in J&K could not prevent the acid attacks, how much more easy will it be to impose the code in areas with a sizeable Muslim population and little police deployment?

The Dark Ages beckon the Muslim community; it remains to be seen if it can rise to the challenge. In a fundamental sense, the community's resistance to modernisation, suspicion of joining the national mainstream, and insistence upon privileging itself in the political sphere, has come home to roost. Its leaders must fight the temptation to demand personal security for themselves, and stop raising issues that empower fundamentalists. The obsession with a "distinct" identity has painted the community into a corner, and made it prey to self-serving leaders, and anti-social, underworld and anti-national elements. To resist, it must be brutally honest with itself and the nation.

The acid attack is a signal that Indian Muslims will not be allowed to enjoy freedoms associated with a secular nation, and will be forced to live slavish, backward lives in communal ghettoes. Looking back at Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini, one can safely conclude that the "Islamic way" will bring untold misery to Muslim society. Press reports suggest Kashmiri men have been directed to grow beards. Going by the Afghan experience, we can expect women to be denied access to schools, colleges, jobs (ie, education and economic emancipation), even medical care. They will not be allowed personal grooming, or to travel without a male escort. No doubt, avenues of education and employment for men, too, will be restricted.

Sadly, when lunatics take over a society, they usually demonstrate their power on the weak, as an educated Afghan woman, Saira Shah, discovered when she returned to her ravaged country: "The villagers took us to a courtyard ... a wall of grief hit us like a physical blow. Three little girls were hunched under their colourful scarves, in a row, like broken birds. Their father, a wild-eyed old man, sat staring into space ... they had been like this for weeks ... the middle sister, a little girl of 12 called Fairuza, said that the Taliban had shot their mother in front of their eyes. While her body lay in the courtyard, the soldiers remained alone with the girls for two days. When I asked what the Taliban did in that time, her 15-year-old sister wept, silently" (The Guardian, June 26, 2001). It was precisely incidents such as this that caused the population to
force J&K's accession to India during the so-called tribal invasion after independence.

Unfortunately, the Centre appears oblivious of its duty to exert itself on behalf of ordinary Muslims and to stop pandering to clerics and so-called liberals. In a recent meeting with a group of Muslims at his residence, the Prime Minister strangely invoked the two-community, two-nation theory by asking them to tell Pakistan that Indo-Pak disputes should be resolved through negotiations, not terrorism!

We need to know on what basis the Prime Minister appointed undistinguished Muslims as India's interlocutors with Pakistan. It was Indian Muslim intellectuals and clerics who provoked the violence that resulted in the negotiated settlement (sic) of Partition by the British in 1947. India (Congress) always rejected the Muslim League contention that it was the spokesman for all Indian Muslims; it also rejected the League premise that different religions constitute different nations. Mr Vajpayee must explain his departure from this position, particularly his tacit acceptance that Pakistan has an interest in the well being of Indian Muslims. He must also explain his tacit assumption that Hindu leaders cannot represent Muslim subjects in a democracy!

The Prime Minister lost a valuable opportunity to discuss an honourable exit for the Muslim community from the growing spiral of violence and criminalisation fuelled by Pakistan, the ISI, and its Taliban army. He should have told his guests that their single-community population makes Kashmiris especially vulnerable to terrorist diktats. He should have pointed out that in 1947, Pundits comprised seventeen per cent of the J&K population; this dwindled to six per cent in 1989-90; and the ethnic cleansings thereafter further reduced the state's Hindu population. While this increased the vulnerability of the remaining Hindus, as witnessed in the Doda outrages, it equally made local Muslims sitting ducks before the terrorists.

There is no reason why, once they impose their writ on J&K, the Pak-sponsored goons backed by mushrooming ISI-funded madrasas, should not extend their dominion to Muslim-majority localities in Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Maharastra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, indeed the entire country. It would be difficult for the over-stretched security forces to prevent the mercenaries from targeting members of their own community, in the name of religious purity. Effective resistance must come from the community itself; but, as the Iranian experience shows, this will be a long haul, with opposition from organised clergy every step of the way.

In the meantime, however, India's secularism would undergo further transformation. Since 1947 this has entailed Hindus living under increasingly progressive laws, while Muslims stagnated under self-serving leaders who used the community as a captive votebank to bring a preferred political formation to power (Congress, United Front, etc). Muslim obscurantism reached its pinnacle in the Shah Bano case, when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi buckled under an orchestrated chorus by the clergy and politicians and denied indigent divorcees access to secular justice. Subsequently, despite a decade of efforts by activists, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board ignored pleas to amend archaic divorce laws, let alone tackle the issue of multiple marriages. Now, another Muslim woman has challenged the legality of triple talaq; it will be interesting to see how the courts and Government respond.

In my view, notwithstanding the constraints of the NDA Government, this is the time to initiate debate on the common civil code and Article 370. Even a simple modification of the clause that prevents outsiders from buying property in J&K could have a salutary effect on the psychology of the citizens, and the sluggish economy.