By Amritjit Singh
On June 2, 2001, The New York Times reported in its New York Report Section (“Two Unlikely Allies Come Together in Hatred of Muslims,” Page A13), that a group of extremist Queens-Long Island Hindus (HinduUnity.org), who presume to speak for all their fellow believers, have joined forces with the Brooklyn followers of the late Rabbi Meir David Kahane (Kahane.org). The two groups have agreed to share their resources and strategies even as they help each other to maintain their hate websites. The Times article by Dean E. Murphy cites a commentary from the HinduUnity website that calls upon Hindus from around the globe “to stand up and take arms against Muslims” in India, urging them to “exterminate and banish” all Muslims.
The emergence of a new alliance between two extremist Hindu and Jewish organizations in metropolitan New York is both sad and disturbing. This self-serving union shares their hatred of all Muslims. According to The Times report, one HinduUnity spokesman stated their case in stark and simple terms, “[T]he roots of the problem for Hindus and Jews is Islam.” The immediate context of their coming together was a demonstration against the Taliban, a group of extremists who deserve our staunchest condemnation. But to attribute Afghanistan’s current treatment of its women, minorities, and pre-Islamic heritage to all Muslims or to some basic tenets of Islam is a leap not of imagination but of profound ignorance.
How can a religion practiced by a billion people around the globe be a problem for the followers of two religious traditions as far apart as Hinduism and Judaism? Like most Jews, a vast majority of Hindus pride themselves on their traditions of tolerance and co-existence. They disavow themselves of such contempt for any religion, including Islam — whose practitioners in India alone number over 125 million, the largest Muslim population in any one country other than Indonesia. Most Hindus recognize the hybrid nature of modern Indian civilization, which Jawaharlal Nehru, in his Discovery of India, rightly described as a palimpsest. One cannot imagine India today without the rich Islamic strands in its cuisine, painting, music, architecture, language and popular culture.
If we have learned anything from the complicitous origins of the Jewish Holocaust in Europe, it is that most decent Hindus could — through their silence — allow fringe groups to define what Hinduism represents at home and abroad. In fact, in the U.S., where knowledge about global geography and cultures outside academia is often shallow, there is serious danger in allowing our faiths — Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, or Sikhism — to be defined by fringe fanatics.
Maybe middle-class Hindus’ silence over such fanatical activities is fed by the oft-expressed notion that because there is no required obedience to a holy text, their faith is immune to fundamentalism. But such an idea flies in the face of many recent events, including the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, and the more recent violence directed at Christians in many parts of India. Is Hindu fanaticism any less offensive or dangerous than the fundamentalism that propelled some Baptists last year to condemn Hinduism as a benighted, Satanic faith? How can South Asians in North America decry attacks on their religions or oppose “racial” discrimination without realizing that women, religious minorities, and “untouchables” back home face similar challenges?
Muslims alone were not responsible for British India’s division into India and Pakistan in 1947 and the massacre of millions that ensued. Many other groups and individuals share that sad burden. The departing English rulers not only encouraged the “two nation theory,” which defined Hindus and Muslims as separate entities forced to share a geopolitical space, but they also did little to prepare for the massive transfer of population necessitated by their hastily conceived partitioning plans. The tensions between Hindus and Muslims predate the British Raj and there is plenty of blame to go around when we examine the history of sectarian ideologies shaped by both Hindu and Muslim figures. Unlike the British, Muslims made India their home and we still enjoy the benefits of civil systems, highways, and social structures that were put in place by such enlightened Muslim rulers as Akbar, Tipu Sultan, and Sher Shah Suri. The Freedom Movement under M.K. Gandhi enjoyed mass support among Muslims and benefited from the visionary work of many Muslim leaders such as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (“Frontier Gandhi”), Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, and Rafi Ahmad Kidwai.
No recent event has demonstrated the “two nation” theory to be more untenable than the 1971 emergence of Bangladesh in erstwhile East Pakistan, whose Muslim residents were culturally very different from West Pakistanis. Obviously, religion could not provide a lasting basis for Pakistani statehood. And yet, the continuing tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, as well as their zero-sum race for nuclear weapons, are being shaped once again by simple-minded confusion of personal faith with nationhood, making it difficult for both countries to concentrate on the much more urgent needs for drinking water, electricity, and literacy. How can we continue to treat Muslim masses in India as permanent foreigners? Nearly two-thirds of Muslims in India today were born after Independence. Quite a few have originally converted from Hinduism to Islam to escape the brutalizing Hindu caste system that still makes it attractive for many “untouchables” to convert to Buddhism or Christianity.
The 20th-century history of the Indian subcontinent undoubtedly holds a lesson or two for Israel and Palestine. Inspired by Thoreau and Ruskin, M.K. Gandhi waged a peaceful and successful struggle against the British occupation; his work has since inspired leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Maybe the current and future leaders of Palestine will take a cue from these historic precedents. If religion failed statehood in South Asia, it is unlikely to succeed in the Middle East. The Zionist dream of a state that offers putative citizenship and psychological wages to Jews around the globe may yet give way to the challenging ideal of creating a single democratic, secular state where Arabs and Jews can learn to live in peace and harmony. At the same time, South Asian nations might at least try to shed their fantasies of reconfigured borders so that they can work cooperatively to further the economic and educational well-being of their citizens, all of whom together represent one-fourth of humanity.
(Originally published in Asian Week (San Francisco) in June 2001. Reprinted with the permission of the writer.)
Amritjit Singh is a Professor of English and African American Studies at Rhode Island College. He has also taught at the Osmania University and University of Rajasthan beofer mvignto US in early 1980s. His most recent publication is (with Peter Schmidt) is Postcolonial Theory and the United States: Race, Ethnicity and Literature (University Press of Mississippi Press, 2000).