A renewed hate campaign

Print edition : May 26, 2001

Anti-Muslim chauvinism gets a new impetus in Punjab, thanks to the activities of some fringe fundamentalist organisations.

AFTER the end of the Partition riots, no one at the Hall Bazaar Jama Masjid in Amritsar had ever felt the need for guard outside its gates. Until, that is, the morning of March 21. At 11-30 a.m. that day, half a dozen activists of an obscure communal organisation, the All-India Hindu Suraksha Samiti (HSS), burnt a copy of the Koran outside the building, and then pushed their way inside, throwing raw pork as they did so. HSS activists left behind signed pamphlets proclaiming that the attack was intended to avenge the slaughter of cows by the Taliban in Afghanistan, as part of sacrificial rituals after the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas. The attack on the 150-year-old masjid was the most visible among half a dozen communal incidents in Punjab this summer, all but one of them directed at the State's tiny Muslim community.

In Amritsar, a scene on the road outside the Golden Temple - a file picture.-V. SUDERSHAN

Punjab Police guards were soon posted outside the masjid, but a similar attack took place in Patiala. This time HSS activists set on fire a copy of the Koran at the crowded Arya Samaj Chowk. Again, HSS pamphlets were distributed to the crowd that gathered to witness the March 22 protest. On March 27, residents around Bhagat Singh Chowk in Jalandhar discovered more HSS pamphlets, wrapped in red cloth and left outside a local mosque. These called on Hindus to unite and avenge the sacrifice of cows by the Taliban. The Jalandhar incident constituted the fourth attack against Muslim institutions since January 14, when Hindu Shiv Sena cadre demolished a section of a mosque in Dhariwal near Gurdaspur. On that occasion a Siva idol had been installed amidst the ruins of the mosque.

Other communal organisations have been joining in. Amritsar almost saw Hindu-Sikh violence on April 1, for the first time in years. Cadre from Amritsar fundamentalist leader Surinder Kumar Billa's All-India Shiv Sena and the local Bajrang Dal set up a marquee for an all-night religious celebration on the road outside the Channi temple. Sikh leaders objected to the location of the marquee, pointing out that it blocked access to the Golden Temple. Billa, who controls one of the two groups responsible for running the Channi temple, refused to relocate the marquee. Almost a hundred Punjab Police personnel had to be posted there to prevent rioting, and negotiations to resolve the stand-off continued through the day. Billa finally agreed to relocate the marquee inside the temple, but not before scoring points among his constituency.

On the face of it, Punjab is an improbable location for anti-Muslim violence. Hatred of Muslims is entrenched among Punjab's Sikhs and Hindus, and this is propagated through popular literature and religious texts, but the ethnic cleansing carried out during the Partition riots left few Muslims behind to hate. Amritsar has an estimated Muslim population of just 70,000, while Jalandhar has 50,000 - the bulk of them migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Haryana. Bar the odd clash in Malerkotla, the only Punjab town with a significant Muslim community, the State has seen almost no anti-Muslim violence after 1948. Conflict between Hindus and Sikhs has been more common, particularly during the 1980s, but even the Khalistan insurgency failed to provoke any generalised confrontation.

Harish Sharma spends his time at his father's small, hand-operated printing press, tucked away in Amritsar's Chaurasti Attari area. Having secured bail just two weeks after the Hall Bazaar Masjid attack, the 27-year-old district head of the HSS is only too happy to hand over a lurid red visiting card, and to discuss what led him to commit the outrage. "When the Taliban leader Mullah Omar said they would sacrifice a hundred cows, we knew we had to retaliate." But why attack the Hall Bazaar Masjid? "Aren't they Muslims? The Muslims support the Taliban." What about the cows slaughtered for meat all over the world? "Whoever kills cows is our enemy. We will take action against them all."

While Hindu communalism in the old city area of Amritsar is rooted in the antagonism that preceded the Khalistan insurgency, Sharma's politicisation seems to have followed a different path. He joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as a teenager, when the Khalistan conflict was all but over. Two years ago, Sharma says, he felt frustrated that the RSS "was not actually willing to take action to protect the rights of Hindus. They were cowards. I joined them because they brought down the Babri Masjid, but then their leaders pretended to have nothing to do with it." Around the same time he saw HSS posters calling on Hindus to take direct action to protect their faith. Sharma contacted its Patiala-based president, Sanjeev Bharadwaj, and then set up a cell in Amritsar. "Hindus are surrounded by enemies," he says, "and we were ready to do anything, even take up guns, to protect our religion."

MAULVI HAMID HUSSAIN QASMI has lived most of his life in the Hall Bazaar Masjid. "The real problem," he says laconically, "is that no one wants us. Those who wanted Pakistan have gone there. We chose to stay here, but people do not trust us." Qasmi believes that the series of anti-Muslim attacks that have taken place in Punjab this year form part of a larger process. Hindu and Sikh communal bodies, he argues, have been using resentment against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism to defame Muslims. "When the Indian Airlines jet was hijacked to Kandahar," he recalls, "hundreds of young men stood outside this masjid, shouting slogans against Pakistan. I would have liked to tell them, though I could not, that they would have been better off walking to the border, which is not very far from here."

Anti-Muslim chauvinism is driven by factors other than India-Pakistan conflict as well. In Amritsar, anti-Muslim and anti-economic migrant sentiment go hand in hand. Local jewellery artisans, for example, have faced competition from migrant craftsmen from West Bengal. Successful Muslim entrepreneurs in Amritsar who are active in the fruit, carpet, and shawl trades, are often subject to their competitors' jealousies. Then the growing rate at which land is purchased by Gujjar migrant herdsmen from Jammu and Kashmir, many of whom now live in Punjab through the year, has again seen economic rivalries take communal form. "Businessmen who trade across the border," notes Qasmi, "are the most vulnerable. They are sometimes given fake hundred rupee notes. If they get caught, the police here ask for bribes. Over a hundred are in jail now. I should not say this, but a Hindu never spends so much time in jail when he is caught with a fake note."

Border policemen are not the only ones in search of a quick buck. The demolition of the Dhariwal Masjid in January is widely believed to have been the outcome of a land feud. Local residents say that the Shiv Sena's local vice-president, Pawan Tandon, wished to take over the land on which the masjid stood, land adjoining his own. In mid-2000 the Sena had coerced village Muslims into not carrying out urgently needed repairs on the mosque, presumably hoping that it would fall of its own. And Hindus are not the only players in the cash-from-communalism game. On April 22, Sadiq Shah, the head of a Muslim shrine in Takhanvadh village near Moga, reported that a copy of the Koran had been set on fire. Punjab Police investigators later discovered that Shah had burned the book himself in order to discredit a competing group seeking control of the shrine.

It has been little noticed that the rise of Sikh chauvinism in Punjab was mirrored by a mushrooming of Hindu fundamentalist organisations. In 1983, a retired Punjab Police officer, Pandit Kishore Chand, proclaimed that the Hindu faith was in threat, and set up the Hindu Shiv Sena in Amritsar. Part of that organisation, led by Surinder Dogra, joined the better-known Maharashtra Shiv Sena last year, while another faction, led by Billa, formed the All-India Hindu Shiv Sena. Billa has had past affiliation with the Amritsar Congress(I), unlike other fundamentalist leaders based in the city who in general trace their political roots to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Meanwhile, in Patiala, another Hindu fundamentalist leader, Pawan Sharma, set up the HSS. Leaders of these organisations had past RSS linkages, but rejected the established leadership of the Hindu Right.

Feeding on fears fed by the growing power of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, bodies like the Hindu Shiv Sena and the HSS acquired financial support and media visibility wholly disproportionate to their actual extent of influence. Outside their base among the bazaar traders of Amritsar, Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Patiala, these fundamentalist bodies had little mass support, and even less political legitimacy. Nonetheless, the new groups had at least two things going for them. First, the state apparatus, desperate for any allies against the Khalistan insurgency, often provided opportunistic support for these groups. Then, the local Congress(I) sought to use these groups to break the RSS' constituency among urban Hindus.

But, almost two decades on, the political uses of Hindu fundamentalism have changed. Most political analysts agree that there has been a sharp erosion in the level of urban Hindu support for the BJP. Hindus have been incensed by the Shiromani Akali Dal's (SAD) flirtation with the Sikh Right. The State government's soft treatment of Wassan Singh Zaffarwal, who was arrested on April 11, has been the most recent of a series of incidents that has created bitterness. Zaffarwal's Khalistan Commando Force (KCF) faction was responsible for a series of communal killings, notably the massacre of six persons in Dasuya in January 1984. The BJP is blamed for its coalition partner's politics, and the alliance government's record of governance has not helped matters. The attacks on the masjid are clearly designed to bring about Hindu consolidation.

Sharma denies any connection between him and the RSS, or any political motive. "They only talk," he says, "they don't do anything. We have nothing to do with them, or the BJP, or the Congress(I)." But apart from his own RSS and Bajrang Dal background, Sharma's ideological position is indistinguishable from that of the RSS. RSS activists in Punjab are energetically pushing their Sikh front, the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, intended to bring about a Hindu-Sikh communal alliance directed against Muslims. Sharma, in similar vein, insists that "Sikhs are our brothers". "Some of them were misled by Pakistan, but our ties are deep. Our real enemies are Muslims who support Pakistan. They have no right to live in this country." He is acid about Billa's effort to create friction outside the Golden Temple, saying that "it undermines the larger struggle to protect Hindus."

Allied or otherwise, it is impossible to miss the convergence of Hindus between the HSS and the RSS. The SAD-BJP is acutely aware of the growing movement of Hindu voters to the Congress(I), and the consequences this would have for the formation's prospects in the Assembly elections which must be held before February 2002. Of Punjab's 117 Assembly constituencies 30 are in urban areas. Hindu votes are crucial to the outcome here. Another 35 are semi-urban, and Hindu voters again have a decisive say in who wins. On the record, politicians from Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal downwards have condemned the anti-Muslim violence. But the alarming regularity with which these incidents are taking place, and the ease with which Sharma and other HSS cadre have obtained bail, would seem to suggest that the SAD-BJP formation is not particularly unhappy with such events.

If there is reason for hope, it lies in the fact that many ordinary Hindus seem to see the new hate campaign for what it is. For the past 50 years, Tilak Raj Mahajan has made a living selling caps, belts and trinkets outside the Hall Bazaar Masjid. When Sharma and his cadre attacked the masjid, the 70-year-old Mahajan blocked their way, and held on to one of the HSS activists as long as he could. "They're just criminals," he says. "If I'd been a few years younger, I'd have given them what they deserved then and there." On the streets of Amritsar, there seems to be little sympathy either for the HSS or for their Sikh chauvinist counterparts. If this good sense holds until after the Assembly elections, the SAD-BJP could find that the seeds of hate it is sowing may never ripen.

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