Tuesday, 17 November 1998

Supping with the Devil - Fundamentalists must be Shunned

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

Pulp fiction overflows with tales of young ladies seeking to
reform rakes, drunkards and general never-do-wells. Similarly,
leaders of several countries adopt a "reformist" approach to
ideological opposites both in their own and in other countries,
either avoiding the fact that differences exists, or hoping that
sweet words will diminish them.

Such is the minuet being played out between several moderate
states and fundamentalists. Even where the motive was less to
reform than to embarrass an enemy (as in the case of the US
policy in Afghanistan in the l980s), the argument that friendly
contact will temper rough ideological edges is commonly used.
Within countries, leaders whose outlook can be expected to be
secular often don fundamentalist colours, again in an ostensible
effort at lowering the temperature of rebellion against democratic
conduct by endorsing such tendencies rather than opposing

The problem is that such under-playing of the (pardon the
pun) fundamental differences between democratic conduct and
extremist behaviour usually works in favour of the latter, giving
it respectability and legitimacy and enabling it to widen its base
of support. Unless the leaders of democratic parties stress the
contradiction between social calm and militancy, large segments
of the public will be at risk of looking upon such fringe
organisations as legitimate participants in a democratic discourse.

Two Incidents
Two incidents will serve to illustrate this. One was the Muslim
Women's Bill, promulgated by Rajiv Gandhi eight years ago as
a reaction to the Shah Bano judgment. Instead of pointing out
that the judgment, far from being against a particular religion,
merely attempted to protect the rights of women, and that in any
case the proper response for its opponents would have been to
take legal steps to annul the judgment, the Union government
amended the law under fundamentalist pressure. As a
consequence, the moral authority of the regime to fight
fundamentalist tendencies in the majority community got eroded.
The second event was the destruction of the Babri Masjid.

Displaying (an almost unbelievable) naivete in accepting the
promises of a state government whose national masters were
openly calling for the pulling down of the structure, the Union
government declined to take effective steps to protect the
monument, and as a consequence the faith of religious minorities
in its ability—and indeed willingness—to protect their interests
got eroded. Although in secrecy-riddled India, the public is not
privy to the confabulations that preceded the decision to repose
such faith in Kalyan Singh, the argument must have been
advanced that friendly and supportive contact with the then U.P.
government would perhaps reduce the influence of the
'extremists' within the Sangh parivar.

Indeed, this is a common argument that a fundamentalist
organisation is divided into 'moderates’ and ’extremists', and
that support to the former will enable them to eliminate the ,
latter. Such arguments miss the point that the aim of both are
usually the same, and that the differences are present only in the
nuances. Both the ’reasonable’ Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
and the Iranian ’hardliners’ want to make Teheran the political
hub of a world religious movement. Both the ’moderate’ Pakistan
Peoples Party as well as the 'hawks' of the Jamaat-e-Islami are
united in their zeal to enforce religious laws in Pakistan.

U.S. Policy
The United States is another country that has displayed a
propensity to forge alliances with religious extremists. This was
done, for example, in Afghanistan where weapons and manpower
financed by the U.Si are now exported for advancing the
fundamentalist cause in third countries. This is being done in the
case of Pakistan, where the American policy is to support the
'moderate’ Benazir Bhutto to prevent the risk of take-over by
extremists. As a consequence, the denial of rights to minorities
within that country is ignored.

The U.S. - unlike France or Germany - does not as yet face
an internal threat from fundamentalist groups. However, Turkey
does, and it is ironic that one of the strongest supporters of the
terrorists in Kashmir is that country. Evidently, by playing along
with the ISI mujahideen, Tansu Ciller hopes to make herself
more acceptable to the religious fringe, forgetting that not just
her survival but that of Kemalist Turkey depends on the shrinking
rather than the buttressing of this dangerous fringe. However, a
government that swiftly chokes off an Urdu-language broadcast
to reward violent fanatics in Bangalore has little moral authority
to cast stones at her. 

To take the case of Pakistan again, it is in the interests of the
political class in that country to weaken the dominance of the
army over the state. Until this is done, political leaders there will
in effect survive on the mercy of the men in uniform, being
constantly under the threat of being discarded undemocratically
as Bhutto and then Nawaz Sharif recently were. However,
forgetting their common interest in keeping the generals out of
the secretariats, when a Bhutto is unfairly dismissed, a Sharif
exults, only for a Bhutto to repay the compliment when it is her
rival who gets the boot. So long as the political class in Pakistan
takes the help of enemies of democracy in its internal quarrels,
the generals will continue to have the last word, as is evident, for
instance, in the fact that in the ’free’ Pakistan press, criticism of
the army is perforce absent.

The snub administered by president Rafsanjani to this
country—by the last-minute cancellation of his trip—should
make clear the absurdity inherent in a policy of fighting
fundamentalism with the help of fundamentalists. With its
quirky concepts concerning its religious role, Iran is one of the
last countries that should be encouraged to give its views in an
internal matter of India, which is Kashmir.

Indeed, there is a basic contradiction between the Indian
government’s official stand that Kashmir is a domestic dispute,
and its very public efforts at mobilising support within the UN
against Pakistan. Logically, India's public stand should be that
as Kashmir is a domestic issue, the passage of international
resolutions is not relevant. By claiming a 'victory' through
organising the shelving of a particular Pakistani resolution, India
could be exposing itself to the danger of inviting intervention
should another resolution be introduced.

Overt Efforts
Another self-defeating action taken by this country is its overt
efforts at persuading the U.S. to declare Pakistan to be a terrorist
state. Such a step openly acknowledges the American 'right' to
certify a state as being terrorist or democratic, a right that is not
obvious to most. Rather than a reactive strategy that focuses
exclusively on countering Pakistan’s efforts, India needs to work
out a positive strategy of systematically educating international
opinion about the ground realities of terrorism in Kashmir. Proof
of foreign involvement should be freely made available, as also
any facts concerning alleged misbehaviour by Indian troops.

However, rather than evolving out of compulsions based on
ground realities within the state, government policy towards it
appears to be formulated as a response to external or
fundamentalist pressure. A government with a commitment to
defending secularism does not need to be apologetic to the world
outside about the defence of its vital interests in Kashmir. Such
a defence may, for example, involve the use of helicopters to
track down foreign mercenaries operating in the state.

From Ciller to Clinton, the list of democratic leaders believing
in the virtues of alliance with segments of the fundamentalist
fringe is depressingly long. They forget that such a blurring of
the ideological and tactical divide between democracy and its
enemies usually works to the advantage of the more fanatic side.
If the Iranian snub convinces at least some in India of this
dictum, it would have served a purpose.

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