Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Delhi Bombings - Terrorising Tolerance

The latest terrorist attack on Delhi represents yet another assault on innocent civilians. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by an extremist group claiming to act in the name of Islam.

The “Islami Inqilabi Mahaz” (Islamic Revolutionary Group) is a relatively unknown group. AFP reports Indian police stating they have known of the group’s existence since 1996. The group claims to have carried out the attacks in support of Kashmiri independence. But after the devastating earthquakes in Kashmir, one wonders whether politics is really on the minds of the millions struggling to survive winter.

It is feared this latest attack will spark a wave of communal rioting and violence that will claim yet more lives. The violence is even more tragic occurring in a city which has always prided itself on religious tolerance and harmony.

India is no stranger to communal violence. In 2002, the state of Gujarat was the scene of fierce rioting which saw the deaths of some 15,000 innocent civilians, most of them Muslims. The complicity of the Gujarat Chief Minister and government officials was widely reported by human rights organisations, with rioters carrying official printouts of government records showing which homes and shops were owned by Muslims.

The Gujarat attacks came in the immediate aftermath of an attack on Hindu pilgrims aboard a train. The attack was believed to have been carried out by Muslim militants. It is feared that similar scenes could be repeated in Delhi.

The attack on Delhi could hardly be described as a legitimate act of Islamic devotion, coming as it does during the last days of the sacred month of Ramadan. This year, the religious festivals of Divali (or “Deepavali” to South Indian Hindus) and Eid al-Fitr occur within days of each other.

Divali is a time when Hindus celebrate the victory of Lord Rama over the Demons responsible for the kidnap of his wife Sita. That victory represents the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Eid (also known as “Beyram” and “Hari Raya”) is a festival during which Muslims celebrate the completion of the fasting month of Ramadan.

For Indian communities across the world, both festivals are celebrated by members of all faiths. Celebration of each other’s religious festivals is one means by which Indians maintain their communal harmony.

For me, the violence is particularly tragic. Delhi is my ancestral home, the city both my parents were born in. My ancestors were Mughal Turks, who established perhaps the wealthiest empire of its time. Delhi is a city of many ethnic and religious groups, but it carries special significance to the descendants of the Mughals.

Few cities in Asia have carried as much fascination to Western writers and travellers as Delhi. Scottish writer and journalist William Dalrymple devoted an entire book (entitled City of Djinns) to the history and politics of Delhi.

Dalrymple’s basic thesis was that there has always been something about Delhi which has conspired against all forces seeking to impose intolerance upon its people. The spirit of this city is perhaps best personified by the tomb of Delhi’s patron saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya. Despite the Muslim religion of the tomb’s occupant, the tomb continues to draw crowds of people from all religious backgrounds.

Delhi is one of the heartlands of Sufi Islam. The city is dotted with tombs and hospices where Sufis practise a form of Islam seeking to inculcate the love of God through service to God’s creation. Sufi hospices attract the poor, the distressed and those attracted by the rhythms of the Indian Sufi music known as the “qawwali”.

But most important, Delhi is the political heartland of India, the capital of one of the world’s fastest growing economies and a country of strategic importance to the West. At the last federal elections, Indian voters turned their backs on the divisive government led by the Hindu-chauvinist BJP. Indians had had enough of sectarian wedge politics, and sought a more secular open government.

The terrorist attacks perhaps represent an attempt to undermine the new government, which has been in power for hardly 18 months. The present Congress Party government is far more favourably inclined toward a peaceful resolution to the Kashmir issue. When in government, the Congress Party has also protected the interests of religious minorities more effectively than other parties. The current Indian Prime Minister is himself from a religious minority.

The terrorists could not have struck at a worse time. They have spilt blood during the holy seasons of Hindu and Muslim Indians, and their actions may raise communal tensions which could spill into violence. Once again, the terrorists have proven their complete moral bankruptcy. Sadly, innocent civilians must pay the price.

The author is a Sydney lawyer and occasional lecturer at the School of Politics at Macquarie University.

© Irfan Yusud 2005