DECEMBER 20, 2010
By SADANAND DHUME
Is Hindu radicalism a bigger threat to India than the Lashkar-e-Taiba? Yes, if you are to believe Rahul Gandhi, the ruling Congress Party's 40-year-old general secretary, widely regarded as India's prime minister in waiting. According to a cable released last week by WikiLeaks, Mr. Gandhi had this to say last year in response to a question U.S. Ambassador to India Timothy Roemer posed about the Pakistan-based transnational terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba—responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks: "The bigger threat may be the growth of radicalized Hindu groups, which create religious tensions and political confrontations with the Muslim community."
Predictably enough, Mr. Gandhi's comment has ignited a firestorm of protest. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, a man not best known for his subtlety, accused Mr. Gandhi of giving "inspiration" to the United States's alleged pro-Pakistan tilt. To his credit, departing from his party's initial instinct to dismiss the leaked cable as part of a conspiracy, Mr. Gandhi did not disavow his comments. Instead, his party issued a clarification stating that in Mr. Gandhi's view "terrorism and communalism of all types are a threat to India."
This anodyne formulation does little to reassure those who believe that when it comes to radical Islam, Mr. Gandhi and his party are at best dangerously naïve and at worst calculatingly cynical. Taken together with earlier remarks by Mr. Gandhi and senior Congress Party leaders, the comment to Mr. Roemer is part of a disturbing pattern. In October, Mr. Gandhi likened another terrorist group, the banned Students Islamic Movement of India, to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps), a grassroots Hindu-nationalist organization that provides the opposition BJP with many of its foot soldiers, and much of its ideology and leadership.
Another senior Congress leader, Digvijay Singh, has repeatedly pandered to the most conspiracy-minded elements of India's 140-million strong Muslim population. Earlier this month, Mr. Singh hinted that Hemant Karkare, a top policeman shot by Lashkar-e-Taiba militants during the Mumbai attacks, may have been killed by militant Hindus upset by his investigation into bomb blasts ascribed to them. Mr. Singh has also questioned the official account of a 2008 terrorist shootout in New Delhi that claimed the life of a highly decorated policeman.
Two years ago, he backed the assertion of another Congress leader, Abdul Rehman Antulay, that terrorists "had no reason to kill Karkare." Another leaked U.S. embassy cable from the time described Mr. Antulay's statement as "outlandish": evidence that the Congress "will readily stoop to the old caste/religious-based politics if it feels it is in its interest."
To concur with this view is not to sympathize with Hindu nationalism. Indeed, at a superficial level radical Islam and Hindu nationalism have much in common. Both represent a kind of religious tribalism marked by a sense of victimhood and deep suspicion of outsiders. Both radical Islamists and Hindu nationalists are prone to wild conspiracy theories—that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were planned by the U.S. government, or that Mr. Gandhi, whose mother, Congress President Sonia Gandhi, is Italian by birth, represents a secret Vatican plot to take over India. Both share a deep fascination with Western technology, and an aversion to Western culture. Both place group identity above individual rights.
But the similarities end there. Simply put, the notion that the radical Hindu threat to India is comparable to that posed by radical Islam is ludicrous. First there's the question of scale. Alleged Hindu terrorists—not one of whom has been convicted—are accused of bomb blasts in 2007 and 2008 in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra that killed 17 people. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, the toll in India from about two dozen radical Islamic terrorist attacks since 9/11 stands at more than 950 dead and many hundreds more injured.
The principal Hindu groups accused of the bombings—Abhinav Bharat and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti—are ramshackle outfits with few members and scant popular support. The Lashkar-e-Taiba, by contrast, is part of a powerful international network and has close links with both al Qaeda and Pakistan's notorious military intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence. Despite international pressure following the group's 2001 assault on India's parliament and the Mumbai attacks, Islamabad has been loath to move against Lashkar-e-Taiba. In part this is because the group enjoys popular backing in Pakistan's religion-drenched society.
Nor can radical Hinduism—such as it is—claim anything approaching the ambition or ideological rigor of radical Islam. From Morocco to Mindanao, radical Islamists are motivated by the desire to replace man's law with God's law by ordering every aspect of society and the state by the medieval dictates of Shariah law. In ideologues such as the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) and the Pakistani Abul Ala Maududi (1903-79), they find religious justification for terrorism. In Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, they see the possibility of making their dream a reality. In the oil rich kingdoms of the Middle East, they find deep pockets to tap. None of these is true of Hindu groups. The nature of Hindu society—diffuse, lacking a binding tradition and largely comfortable with modernity—makes the emergence of a Hindu equivalent of the Lashkar-e-Taiba difficult to imagine.
In the end, Mr. Gandhi deserves to be criticized not merely because he's wrong, but because his apparent naiveté hurts India. His comment to Mr. Roemer directly undercut one of New Delhi's main foreign policy objectives—to get the international community to take the threat from Pakistan-based terrorist groups more seriously. More broadly, Mr. Gandhi and his party encourage precisely the kind of conspiratorial mindset and culture of grievance among a section of Indian Muslims that they ought to be working to end.
Finally, they raise the uncomfortable prospect of India being led by a man out of touch with the dominant ethos of the country he seeks to lead, one that may be flawed but remains essentially liberal, humane and resistant to any kind of radicalism. In the long run, it's this ignorance, not a handful of Hindu zealots, that poses the greater threat to India.Mr. Dhume, a columnist for WSJ.com, is writing a book about the new Indian middle class.