Winter 2009, Vol. 11, No. 3

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Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
How to Pray

The Mormon Proposition

No Saints Need Apply

Picturing Palin's Faith

Bishops at Bay

Downplaying Religion
in Mumbai

What is Lashkar?

The Beat Goes On

Riverside's Black-White Divide

Scandalous Days
in the OCA


New books

Downplaying Religion in Mumbai
by Homayra Ziad






Between November 26 and 29, terrorists laid siege to Mumbai, India’s largest city and the capital of the state of Maharashtra. One hundred eighty-three people, among them 22 foreign nationals, lost their lives at the Taj and Oberoi hotels, Nariman House (home to a local outreach center of the Hasidic movement Chabad-Lubavitch), the Chhatrapatri Shivaji railway terminus, and Cama Hospital.

Reaction in the mainstream English-language press—the conservative Times of India, left-leaning Hindu, and middle-of-the-road Indian Express—was determinedly nationalist and avowedly secularist. Anti-Pakistan rhetoric (expressed in nationalist but not religious terms) flared almost immediately after the attacks, and continued unabated as the back story unfolded. Equally present was a focus on the breakdown of intelligence and security and calls to revamp intelligence agencies.

Journalists contemplated the specter of global terrorism, and opinion pieces demanded harsher anti-terror laws. Local politicians—Hindu, Muslim, and secular—were raked over the coals for sowing the seeds of disunity through partisan activities, and taken to task for the “communalization” of politics; that is, for pitting one religious community against the other.

“The first stage was communalization of the mafia,” wrote Kumar Ketkar in the Indian Express November 28. “Then came the legitimacy given to communal politics. That was followed by the nexus between the Muslim or Hindu politician with their respective ‘friendly’ mafia. This divisive politics was further vitiated by the politics of language, caste, and religion. Today, no Mumbaikar swears by the city he lives in. He swears by his ‘identity.’”

According to Express editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta, “Both sides, the UPA [United Progressive Alliance, led by the ruling Congress Party] and the NDA [National Democratic Alliance, led by the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP], were equally guilty, so while one side railed endlessly against ‘jehadi’ terror, the other searched for ‘root causes’ of terrorism.”

The overwhelming press sentiment was to call for closing ranks on issues of terrorism and internal security, while laying stress on preventative rather than punitive measures and military adventurism. Care was taken not to connect terrorism overtly to a specific religion.

For example, a Times of India editorial of November 28, while noting that the attacks were rooted in the “larger war on terror,” made it a point to say: “It’s also time to end the habit of basing one’s stand on terrorism on the particular religious affiliation of terrorists, criticizing or exonerating them using their religion [as] a point of reference. Terrorists have no religion. Political bickering on this issue is divisive; what India needs now is unity.”

This was particularly relevant in light of an article in the same issue that revealed startling results from a probe into another recent terror attack—the explosion of a rigged motorcycle in the middle of a roundabout in the Maharashtra city of Malegaon 200 miles northeast of Mumbai on September 29.

After Muslim groups were accused and a suspect apprehended, the Mumbai Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) discovered irrefutable links between the attack and Hindu extremist organizations with deep roots in the army. As the Times reported, the explosion was part of a much larger plan to infiltrate government departments and “convert India from a secular country into a ‘Hindu Rashtra [polity]’ by 2025, and was an embarrassment to politicians who capitalized on communal politics linking Islam and terrorism.”

In a tragic twist of fate, the lead figure in this probe, ATS chief Hemant Karkare, was killed in the line of duty in the Bombay blasts after a phone call delivered him into the hands of gunmen.

Notwithstanding the Times editorial, the language used by the mainstream press reveals that religion was a clear subtext in the early coverage of the Mumbai attack. Journalists began to imply that the attack was an example of (as the Hindu put it November 28) “religiously motivated terrorism.” Two days later, the Hindu described the attackers as “Muslim” and “Islamic,” and claimed the attack was committed by “fidayeen” (Muslim fighters) representing a transnational movement. In the November 28 Express, Kumar Ketkar claimed that the attacks were connected with “the global Taliban-ISI-Al Qaeda network.”

Writing in the Hindu December 1, Lyla Bavadam assumed that, rather than being driven by an enmity towards the Israeli state, it was the Jewish religion that Muslim terrorists found repugnant: “I imagined the triumph of single-minded young Islamic terrorists successfully carrying through their mission of entering and holding captive deeply religious, conservative Israeli Jews—a tragic end seemed predetermined at that moment.” (The irony, as the London Times reported December 6, was that Mumbai’s Jewish and Muslim communities had long had close ties, living in close proximity “as minorities in a Hindu-dominated land.”)

More telling were the many statements invoking the ghost of 9/11, particularly in the Express. “Posterity will record this as India’s 9/11,” wrote editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta on November 28. In an interview the same day in the Hindu, English Lord Meghnad Desai, a leading figure in the Hindu Diaspora, went so far as to rule out Pakistani involvement and laid the blame squarely on al-Qaeda. On November 29, in an article on the changing tactics and quality of terrorism, the Times also compared the event to 9/11, welcoming readers to “a new age of ‘urban jihad.’”

In a variation of the stock American explanation for 9/11 (“they hate us for our freedoms”), Mumbai became the emblem of the India the terrorists wanted to destroy. In a December 1 editorial, “The Party’s Over,” the Times grieved for “the sensual and dancing body that was Mumbai….Swivelling disco-coloured lights dimmed forever; the exotic hors d’ouevres lying crushed beneath killer boots in speciality restaurants.”

In the same issue, Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, reminisced about a Bombay in which religion was “a personal eccentricity.” Mumbai’s strength, he wrote, lay in liberalism and the free market. “This city understands money and has no guilt about the getting and spending of it…The executives who congregated in the Taj Mahal were chasing this golden songbird. The terrorists want to kill the songbird.”

This vision of Mumbai as a city of great wealth and upward mobility was underscored by a seemingly endless stream of  personal stories and eyewitness accounts of the hostages in the Taj and Oberoi hotels. Largely missing were accounts of the sufferings of ordinary Mumbaikars—inhabitants of city where more than half the population survives on less than a dollar a day, and 85 percent live in shanties and makeshift housing.

Several journalists in India’s mainstream press did criticize both print journalism and TV networks for selective reporting, and particularly for ignoring the Muslim victims. Writing in the Hindu December 4, Siddhartha Deb expressed his surprise at “how quickly this made it a story about besieged hotel guests, mostly westerners and upper-class Indians. The other people who had been killed—some of them Muslims—were faceless, and those who weren’t faceless were on the margins.”

The following day, the Times’ Anil Dharker accused the media of focusing almost solely on the elite hot-spots of the Taj and the Oberoi, and Nariman House, while overlooking the many victims—nearly half the total—who died in Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and Cama Hospital. Chastising fellow journalists for failing to point out that a significant percentage of the dead were Muslim, he singled out “the [Muslim] chaiwala [tea-server] who risked his life to save people.”

In fact, a feature story on the chaiwala, Mohammad Taufeeq Sheikh, was published November 30 by Tehelka, a non-mainstream publication that calls itself “India’s Independent Weekly News Magazine” and “The People’s Paper.” Credited with saving at least 80 people at the terminus, Sheikh was quoted by Tehelka as asking, “Is this killing and bloody violence supposed to be in the name of Islam? I don’t know this kind of Islam.”

In due course, the mainstream press ran a handful of such accounts, such as the Hindu’s front-page story December 5 on a Muslim family killed at the terminus. But these were exceptions. As the novelist Arundhati Roy put it in a December 13 London Guardian article headlined “Monster in the Mirror”: “If you were watching television you may not have heard that ordinary people too died in Mumbai. They were mowed down in a busy railway station and a public hospital….The Indian media, however, was transfixed by the rising tide of horror that breached the glittering barricades of India Shining and spread its stench in the marbled lobbies and crystal ballrooms of two incredibly luxurious hotels and a small Jewish centre….We’re told one of these hotels is an icon of the city of Mumbai. That’s absolutely true. It’s an icon of the easy, obscene injustice that ordinary Indians endure every day.”

No less problematic was the lack of attention given to key Indian Muslim reaction to the bombings. Thus, on November 28, the Hindu carried an item on joint statements by Indian Muslim organizations condemning the terror attacks in its online but not its print edition.

Strikingly, Muslim organizations in Mumbai refused to bury the nine slain terrorists as Muslims, thereby distancing themselves religiously from the perpetrators and virtually declaring them non-Muslim. But this story earned only a tiny box on page 2 of the Express December 1 and one line on page 8 the next day.

A coalition of prominent Indian Muslim organizations nationwide, including the All India Organisation of Imams of Mosques, came out strongly against the attacks, and called for a scaling down of Eid festivities as well as for statements in Friday sermons that Islam decries the killing of innocents. The coalition also asked for decisive action against Pakistan. But again, this news only made page 6 of the Times and page 3 of the Indian Express December 5.

At the same time, the mainstream press appeared reluctant to speak about home-grown terrorism among India’s Muslim community, and almost no one attempted to contextualize the bombings with respect to either the social and political status of Indian Muslims or the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination. This was even more surprising in light of a November 27 email sent to media outlets by a group called Deccan Mujahideen, which expressly referred to the attack as revenge for the unjust treatment of Indian Muslims. 

As published in the Express November 28, the statement read, “This attack is in reaction to what the Hindus have been doing since 1947. Such reactions would keep on happening till we take revenge for each and every injustice perpetrated on us.”

Similarly, two November 27 telephone conversations between the attackers and India TV focused on injustices perpetrated against Muslims in India, and Indian occupation of Kashmir. The attack on Israelis in Nariman House was also framed as retaliation for Israeli army involvement in the Kashmir dispute.

Even if the attack was orchestrated from Pakistan, the alleged involvement of Indian Muslims and the tenor of the email and phone conversations might have been expected to spark some conversation about context. A rare instance of this was a piece in the Hindu December 2 by Hassan Suroor, who declared that “the most disturbing aspect of the Mumbai terror attacks is the perception that Indian Muslims who had, so far, appeared to have escaped the virus of global jihadi fanaticism have finally succumbed to it.”

Suroor contended that, in addition to anti-Muslim bias and Hindu communalism, “Muslim fundamentalism has also been helped by India’s `secular’ political establishment which, barring the Left, has not only made no effort to develop a progressive Muslim leadership but actively prevented it from taking root. Instead, it has relied on a class of Muslim ‘leaders’ whose own political interest lies in keeping the community backward-looking.” His hope was that an emergent Muslim middle class would counteract this tendency.

By contrast, a December 8 article in the Express by Seema Chishti was extremely critical of viewing the bombings in the context of the 2006 Sachar report, the product of a government-appointed committee that catalogued systematic, institutionalized marginalization of much of India’s Muslim population. Herself a Muslim, Chishti criticized Western and Pakistani media for implying that the bomb blasts were payback from a “disgruntled minority.” So far as she was concerned, Indian Muslim experiences of injustice were mere “Indian family” squabbles, and social ills just “sub-plots” in the healthy play of multi-cultural democracy.

By disengaging Muslim extremism from its Indian context and pinning it solely on a monstrous Other with roots in Pakistan/al-Qaeda/Taliban, the mainstream press appeared committed at all costs to the image of a united, secular, and multicultural India free of disaffected religious minorities or home-grown violence. This may help explain the lack of coverage of Muslim victims or joint statements against terrorism—coverage, that is, of Muslims as a community. Attention to homegrown jihadis or non-elite, marginalized Muslim victims may, in addition, have drawn unwanted attention to the more sordid side of the Indian success story, a story the hit movie Slumdog Millionaire tries to address with grace and humor.

At the same time, it is important to be aware that coverage of the Mumbai attacks on Indian television can only be described as hysterical. To this, the sobriety and caution of the mainstream press, despite its shortcomings, served as a useful counter.

 (For more, see What is Lashkar? by Homayra Ziad)


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