India — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:50 pm on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 12:50 pm, 18th December 2008

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on securing the debate and I thank her for introducing it with the passion and conviction that we have come to associate with her. I should also like to welcome my noble friend Lord Paul in his new incarnation. I wish him well, and it is by serendipitous coincidence that he should be presiding over the House on a day when we are debating India.

In the past few years India has been subject to more terrorist attacks at the hands of Islamic militants than any other country, with the exception of Iraq. Terrorist targets have included the Indian Parliament, commercial centres, commuter trains, five-star hotels, crowded railway stations, airports and, even, hospitals. Methods of terrorism have been increasingly brutal. Recently, at the Taj in Mumbai a man was asked to bring water. After he had done so he was shot in his forehead. Another was asked to render a similar service and his throat was slit.

The aim was to kill. According to the Indian newspapers, the target set for the terrorists was to kill no fewer than 5,000 people. When the Indian Government wanted to negotiate and see whether hostages could be released under certain conditions, the terrorists did not want people under their control to be seen as hostages. Even grievances were not stated and were reeled off at random. No clear demands were made and, in the indiscriminate killing, many Muslims as well as Hindus became victims. This was not therefore a case of instrumental terrorism—the point of which one might under some circumstances be able to see—it was, rather, an expression of mindless hatred resulting in cold and clinical execution as part of a mission with no clear goals.

Happily, the Indian response has been most mature. There has been no Hindu backlash in any part of the country, not even in my own Gujerat. In recent state elections, the BJP, the so-called Hindu fundamentalist party, was defeated in some states. Muslims of India unanimously have condemned these attacks. They have issued fatwahs saying that terrorism is incompatible with Islam. They have collectively decided that terrorists should not be allowed burials. Indians, largely, have gone about in a quiet way, asserting life and their own pride. They have confronted death with life and national humiliation with pride. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, spoke about the wonderful example of Tendulkar very quietly scoring a century, knowing in his own mind that it was meant for India and to heal the process of national pain. Every nation comes to terms with its tragedies in its own way. The people of the United States responded in one way to 9/11; we responded in another way to 7/7; and Indians spontaneously drew upon their own cultural resources in order to cope with this process. Surprisingly, although perhaps not so surprising, even in Pakistan there has been some sense of outrage and criticism, in public and in private, of what happened in Mumbai.

The question before us therefore is how do we respond to this litany of terrorist attacks in India? Largely, three causes are responsible for what has happened. First, there is the Jihadee mentality, which is concerned largely to restore the earlier Muslim hegemonic empire. The West is seen as the enemy and India, with its increasing globalisation and close ties with the West, is identified with the West and Israel. Therefore, India becomes a target, more so now than before, partly because of the Jihadee mentality that lies at the heart of the terrorists attacks.

The second factor that has played an important part has to do with the history of Pakistan. Unlike all other countries that defined their identity during the colonial struggle against the colonial masters, Pakistan defined its identity in relation to India. While India defined its identity in relation to Britain, Pakistan saw India as its comparator or point of reference. Large sections of the Pakistani population have never really got over this. This has been intensified by a sense of revenge after Bangladesh, for which India was held responsible, rather than Pakistan's own failure to come to terms with its own diversity. Therefore, there is a certain hard core of opinion, reflected in ISI and in certain circles, that is hostile to India and wants to take advantage of every available opportunity. This is changing, but not fast enough.

A third factor has played a part in India being subject to terrorist attacks. That has to do with India's own limitations and failings, partly in the case of Kashmir and partly in the case of a large number of disadvantaged Muslims.

If we recognise that these three factors have played a part in terrorist attacks, then the response has to be at all these three levels. Terrorists obviously must be fought and subdued, and India needs all the help that we can give it in the form of shared intelligence, pressure on Pakistan, helping with tracking down terrorists and training counterterrorist forces in India. India also has to learn to handle the whole thing professionally, rather than in a lackadaisical way, as it did in Mumbai.

India needs to make sure that its 150 million Muslims are not deeply alienated. As I argued in a couple of articles recently, if even 1 per cent of India's Muslim population felt that it had no stake in the country and resorted to terrorism, the number involved would be as high as 1.5 million.

As of now, despite all that has been said, India's record has been much better than expected, or of most other countries that I can think of, in integrating its minorities, including dalits. Dalits constitute about 14.5 per cent of the population. I cannot think of any other country that has embarked on a programme of massive affirmative action, as India did, long before the Americans, back in 1949. I ran one of India's largest universities several years ago and was responsible for implementing the programme of affirmative action for the ex-untouchables, now called dalits, tribals and other minorities. In sports, in films, in Bollywood, in the economy, Muslims and other minorities occupy important positions. It is also worth remembering that India had a dalit president long before the United States had a black president. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, a dalit, was the founding father and the architect of India's constitution.

Sadly, what has happened in India is that Muslims have increasingly come to be seen either as a vote bank to be pampered, or as a drag on the country's progress. Muslims have suffered—they are one of the most disadvantaged groups in the country—largely because of neglect, rather than positive hostility. Whatever the reason, all minority communities need to be integrated in the national mainstream.

Here I should like to say something about what has happened in Orissa and parts of south India, where I come from, in relation to Christians. India has a long tradition of showing enormous respect for Christianity. It is striking that the founding father of India, Mahatma Gandhi, was more Christian than Hindu. In his ashram there was only one image, Jesus on the Cross, and none of the Hindu gods and goddesses. It is also striking that modern-day Hinduism, which claims to be anti-Christian, is profoundly shaped by Christian ideas of social service and homogeneity. Lots of Christian influences have permeated modern-day Hinduism. Why is it, therefore, that during the past 10 years and not before, a country with a strong commitment to Christianity should have increasingly felt—this does not apply to all parts of the country—anti-Christian?

It is also striking that, as in 1947 and 1948, the constitution of India protects the right to convert. Why, after 60 years, should the country want to limit the right to convert? Unless you understand the politics and, sadly, the economics and commerce of conversion, you will never understand what is going on in India. As somebody who has made an academic study of this, I can tell noble Lords that things are not as simple as they are sometimes made out to be.

Evangelical Christians in the United States have a budget of $2.6 billion in order to bring as many Hindus as possible into the Christian fold. Some of the others have not been lagging behind either, with the result that a large number of Hindus feel besieged and insecure. Many of them are blackmailed, bought, or tempted in all kinds of ways, into changing religion. I am all for the right to convert and I deeply deplore what has happened in Orissa. However, I do not wish just to condemn; I am concerned to trace the causes of that. We must understand that while Hindu fundamentalists are to blame for what has happened, other groups are not entirely innocent. Unless profound changes take place, so that religion is not seen simply as a commodity to be bought and sold, we will not understand what is happening. Why do we want to convert people anyway? That debate took place in India in the 1930s and 1940s. Unless one bears in mind the kind of debate that has taken place, one will not understand why these things are happening 60 years after independence.

The other point to bear in mind is that, as I said earlier, India has not been entirely innocent. Kashmir is one issue. Again, India began well. It gave considerable constitutional autonomy to Kashmir so that no Indian from the rest of India is allowed to buy land or settle in Kashmir. If a Kashmiri were to marry a woman or man from the rest of India, he or she would lose some of his or her social security rights. So India has gone a considerable distance towards accommodating Kashmir, unlike Pakistan in relation to its part of Kashmir. But things began to go wrong in the 1980s when elections were rigged. The army was increased so that today nearly 600,000 Indian soldiers guard a population of 5 million. About 15 years ago, when I was deeply disturbed at what was going on, I said at a meeting in India House that India needed radically to reconsider its position in Kashmir. I was shouted down as deshdrohi, unpatriotic and a traitor. I am glad to say that, increasingly, the space for dissent has opened up in India and more and more people are beginning to question whether India is right to treat Kashmir as it has. But while India can be criticised in that regard, I do not think that Pakistan has any standing in the matter. Its treatment of its part of Kashmir is not particularly exciting. India was not divided on religious lines. Rather, Pakistan was sliced off along religious lines and the rest of India remained a secular and multi-religious country, as it always had been. Therefore, by virtue of what it is, Pakistan cannot claim to have a representative right or status to speak for Muslims in Kashmir. Whether or not Pakistan is justified in taking up the case of Kashmir, India certainly needs to rethink its position in relation to Kashmir.

A similar change is needed in Pakistan. The people of Pakistan need to reclaim their country from the hands of the military and the mullahs. Thanks to what has happened in Mumbai, there is a sense of shame. There is also an increasing brain drain in Pakistan. More and more talented people are leaving the country. If one watches Pakistani television and reads the Pakistani press, one sees some very important debates taking place. One hopes that eventually there will be a very powerful coalition of progressive forces, something like the rose revolution or the pink revolution in other parts of the world. One hopes that there will be a huge peaceful movement in Pakistan wanting to bypass the mullahs and the military. I had hoped, and had suggested to various friends in Pakistan, that it would be wonderful if important groups were to take to the streets and say to the terrorists, "Not in our name". If they had been able to do that, it would have had a wonderful impact on India.

It is very important that we in Britain keep a watchful eye on what is happening in India and Pakistan. We have a role to play, partly due to our historical legacy. We can play the role in two important ways: by encouraging the two countries to control terrorists and, equally importantly, by entering into a dialogue with journalists, trade unionists, politicians, academics and others in places such as Ditchley Park. There people from the two countries drawn from different walks of life can get together, talk and try to work out a common agenda. We cannot wash our hands of what is happening. We must help India to fight terrorists and we must help both countries to stay together in fighting a common enemy.