Some questions that I’d like to pose to readers, who are fellow Indians, are –
(a) Which country is India’s closest ally in South Asia (other than arguably Bhutan)?
(b) Which country other than India has the most hostile relations with Pakistan?
(c) Which country has been the biggest victim of ISI-sponsored terrorism? (no, it’s not India)
(d) Which country in the Asia-Pacific region has the highest percentage of people viewing India favourably?
The answer to all these questions is – Afghanistan. Many Indians might find this absurd, since we would tend to imagine that most Afghans would like Pakistan more than India on account of a shared religious affiliation, and the fact is that unfortunately, most Indians subconsciously relate Afghans to the Taliban, though the Taliban was not democratically elected and now with it no longer holding its sway over that country, many of the Afghans are doing things they were prohibited to do under Taliban rule, like listening to music, watching movies and shaving their beards. The Taliban is now a terrorist outfit (backed by the ISI) killing innocent Afghan civilians, even in mosques, and in no way, represents the Afghan people. In fact, I recall how some of my Afghan Muslim friends on Facebook were sharing a post telling people from the Taliban to not send them friend requests, and asserting that they (my Afghan friends) were willing to befriend Hindus, Christians and Jews, but not people from the Taliban, who, in their eyes, are not human! The Afghans’ love for India stems from the development work the Indian government has been carrying out in their country and also the scholarships given to Afghan students to study in India.
Having clarified this, let us proceed to discuss Indo-Afghan relations.
Historically, much of today’s Afghanistan was a part of the geographical and cultural construct that India was, though India was then not a single political entity. The globally acclaimed ancient Indian epic Mahabharat refers to a kingdom of Gandhar, which actually comprised regions in what is today northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. Afghanistan has had a long history of Hinduism and Buddhism, and parts of Afghanistan fell in India’s Mauryan and Mughal empires. Afghanistan still has its Hindu and Sikh minorities, which are well integrated in the Afghan society. Many Afghan Muslims identify with their pre-Islamic heritage and take great pride in the same, lamenting the destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan by the Taliban, believing it to be an un-Islamic act.
During British rule over India (which then included today’s Pakistan), attempts were made to conquer Afghanistan, in which Indian soldiers in the British army were made to fight, but the British could never hold their sway over that country over any considerable period of time (Afghanistan is referred to as the “graveyard of empires”, certainly not without due cause). They did, however, manage to, on obtaining the consent of the Afghan ruler arguably employing coercion, retain their hold over a certain region (known as the North West Frontier Province, abbreviated as NWFP) which became a part of British-ruled India. This border demarcating NWFP from Afghanistan is known as the Durand Line, which has not been recognized by Afghanistan.
India attained its independence in 1947, but partitioned, with the creation of a Muslim-majority country, Pakistan (meant for Indian Muslims), though many Muslims chose to stay on in India and not migrate to Pakistan (many Muslims had very strongly opposed the partition of India), and India’s Muslim population is interestingly numerically comparable to Pakistan’s. NWFP became a part of Pakistan, and it has now been renamed Khyber Pakhtoonwa.
Afghanistan opposed Pakistan’s entry in the United Nations over the Durand Line issue. Interestingly, while some chauvinistic Indian nationalists very loudly support Afghanistan in its claim over NWFP, one wonders if they have ever paused to think that had India not been partitioned, this would have been a thorn in Indo-Afghan relations. Nonetheless, India and Pakistan fought their first war over the disputed territory of Kashmir in 1947-48, and this marked the first major starting point of hostility in Indo-Pak relations. The mutually shared antipathy to Pakistan brought India and Afghanistan closer to each other, and the two signed a friendship treaty in 1950. Of course, the two countries had historic ties as well, but so did the newly created Pakistan with both of them, and foreign policy is ultimately guided by realpolitik.
Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1979, which installed a puppet communist Afghan government. India did not openly take a stand against the same, and even recognized the puppet government, but privately, the then prime minister of India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, conveyed her distaste to the Soviet authorities. India, though technically non-aligned, had since Mrs. Gandhi’s tenure, been tilting in favour of the Soviets, since the Pakistani establishment had, right from its inception, sought support from the United States and later, with considerable skill, even become an ally of the US opponent China, also an opponent of India.
Following the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, the Cold War adversaries, the Americans decided to arm and train rebels to fight the Soviets, and instead of supporting the traditional, Sufism-following Afghan rebels, they instead supported the radicalized Wahabi elements, possibly believing that they, given their rabble-rousing extremist outlook, could make for better crowd-pullers for the cause of the anti-Soviet jihad (this was indeed a legitimate cause of fighting a foreign occupation which had taken away from the people their right to freedom of religion), and not only the United States but the whole world had to pay a heavy price for this horrible policy. The Taliban and Al Qaeda were US creations, and the phenomenon of global Islamist terrorism* can be traced to this fallacious decision by Uncle Sam. The government of Pakistan gave its American counterpart full support in this endeavour, and Muslims from across the globe (but an inconsequential number from India) went to fight the Soviets. Eventually, the Soviets had to withdraw and the notoriously fanatic Taliban took the reins of power in its hands, and came to be seen as oppressive by the Afghan people, especially women and Shi’ites, followers of Sufi Islam as also non-Muslims like Hindus and Sikhs.
The Afghan Taliban acted at the behest of the Pakistani establishment, and the latter supported it all along to gain “strategic depth” against India. Elements in Pakistan have, since 1947, entertained this illusory threat to Pakistan’s existence from India, though India has actually never, on its own, initiated armed aggression against Pakistan, as Asghar Khan, an air force veteran of Pakistan beautifully highlights with remarkable candour in this video, as have many other Pakistani intellectuals.
The Taliban gave full support to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, and both had now turned anti-American, owing to what they perceived as US neo-imperialist policies in Arab and Berber countries where dictators/kings acted at Uncle Sam’s behest, and also because of the US support to Israel. The tragic attack on the WTC twin towers brought the US wrath over Afghanistan and the enormous excesses (which must be condemned in the strongest terms) apart, it was a legitimate move to fight terrorism. The Pakistani establishment claimed to be America’s ally in the war on terror, but was actually being duplicitous, as Osama being found in that country near a military base, clearly demonstrates. The Taliban was defeated by the American forces and so was Al Qaeda, and democracy came to Afghanistan. The people felt genuinely liberated from the Taliban rule.
Afghanistan’s previous president happens to be Hamid Karzai, someone who studied in India and who loves Indian cinema and cuisine, recalling his student-days in India as possibly being the happiest in his life. On the other hand, he deeply detests the Pakistani establishment, believing that it was, in collusion with the Afghan Taliban, responsible for his father’s assassination, given Karzai’s refusal to support the Taliban regime and serve as its ambassador. Indian strategic analyst Radha Kumar has suggested that Karzai was, during his tenure, the best deal-maker in global conflicts.
The Taliban now operates as a terrorist organization, wanting to regain power. It is backed by the ISI.
Thus, while the Pakistani military establishment wants to regain Pakistan’s “strategic depth” in Afghanistan by way of terrorism, India has adopted the approach of supporting Afghans in their quest for economic development respecting Afghanistan’s sovereignty. Certainly, economic development is indeed the Afghans’ primary concern.
Indeed, India has helped Afghanistan in cash (hundreds of millions of US dollars) and kind in diverse sectors such as education (including inviting Afghan students to study in Indian universities on scholarship), health care, telecommunication, security and transport.
Several studies have established that India is extremely popular on the ground in Afghanistan, and I have seen this love for India among Afghans I have interacted with in person and via the social media. A family friend of ours, a film-maker working for UNICEF and a former Indian Army officer, visits Afghanistan often and has mentioned to me how there is tremendous goodwill for Indians there. On social networking sites like Facebook, the Afghans’ love for India and contempt for Pakistan’s military establishment is all too obvious (here is an example), and I’ve met in person Afghan Muslims with such convictions, and Karzai has described India as Afghanistan’s “best friend” and “ally”), and this video is relevant in this context. Indeed, the Afghans’ love for India is primarily due to India’s efforts to develop Afghanistan, but in part, also because of the fond memories of India that Afghans who have studied here carry and even owing to the allure of Bollywood! Prior to the Taliban rule, Bollywood was very popular in Afghanistan and it has now made a comeback (and in private, many of the members of the Taliban enjoyed/enjoy Bollywood movies). In this connection, this video of leading Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan makes an interesting watch.
The victims of ISI-sponsored terrorism in Afghanistan have not only been Afghans, but even Indians. On 26th February 2010, Indians living in a guest house in Kabul were attacked. The only woman from the Indian military contingent present in Kabul, Major Mitali Madhumita, rushed to the spot as soon as she heard of the attack, and skillfully managed to take some of her colleagues to the hospital in the midst of firing, but proved to be the lone survivor. Intelligence reports have suggested that the attack was carried out by militants based in Pakistan. Later, an attempt was made to bomb the Indian consulate in Jalalabad, but the local police foiled the plot and arrested the culprits. The Indian Embassy in Kabul too has been attacked, and another example is the killing of Sushmita Banerjee, an Indian-origin writer based in Afghanistan who had written a book criticizing the Taliban and was married to an Afghan Muslim businessman.
Afghans, like Indians, are indeed very frustrated with the Pakistani government for not reining in terrorism. Here is a video of Afghans taking on Pakistanis in this connection, which is a must-watch.
However, while I have been very critical of the Pakistani state in this piece, and I am not apologetic about the same, I never stereotype the entire Pakistani populace in a negative fashion, as you can see here, here, here and here, and there are intellectually honest people in their state machinery too, especially in the political and diplomatic circles. In connection with Afghanistan, the following excerpt of a newspaper column is worth citing-
“Former chief secretary of Khyber Pakhtoonwa, Khalid Aziz, has tweeted: ‘Pak must abide by the UN Charter to protect Afghanistan`s sovereignty and integrity and not what other guys may wish’. He also says that proxies created by Pakistan are disrupting the political process in Afghanistan. This unlikely mainstream view advocates non-interference across the Durand Line and if it prevails it augurs well for bi-lateral relations and the region.”
However, India and Pakistan are certainly not the only entities competing for influence in Afghanistan. China too has now entered the game, and it happens to be Pakistan’s ally. China has adopted the Indian way of exerting influence in Afghanistan, by way of investing in infrastructure projects. To quote from an article dating back to June 2009-
“…as of 2008 Chinese companies had 33 infrastructure projects valued at close to $500 million under way in Afghanistan. They are mainly building roads and railroads. In the past, Chinese companies also built hospitals, other government buildings, irrigation canals and digital telephone installations.
But the biggest project China has undertaken in Afghanistan so far is of course the Aynar copper project. In 2006, the China Metallurgical Group and Jiangxi Copper Group outbid Russia’s Strikeforce, Kazakhstan’s Kazakhmys consortium and America’s Phelps Dodge and won the tender for the development of Aynak for $3 billion.
Due to years of war and factional fighting, Aynak’s copper deposits have remained largely untouched since Soviet geologists first surveyed the area in the 1970s. It is in a relatively secure part of the country, the Logar province, south of Kabul. By some estimates, the 30-square-kilometer copper deposit could contain up to $88 billion worth of copper ore. However, there is no power plant in the area that can generate enough electricity for mining and extraction operations. On top of that, there is no railroad, needed to haul away the tons of copper ore that could be extracted.
For this reason, the Chinese copper project includes the building of a 400-megawatt coal-fired power plant and a freight railroad passing from western China through Tajikistan and Afghanistan to Pakistan, together with an open rail route to the north from the mine. As part of the deal, Chinese companies will also build schools, clinics, markets, mosques and other facilities.
This highly risky project would not only help Afghanistan in many ways but also would contribute immensely to the development of western China and its regional links. In fact, this factor may have played a crucial role in the decision to develop the Aynar deposits because in terms of China’s great western development program, cross-border connections to Central Asia, South Asia and Iran as well as new energy resources and mining resources are very important.
Afghan foreign minister Rangin Datfur Spanta visited China to generate interest in oil, natural gas, and iron ore concessions. He and his Chinese counterpart agreed to look into these matters and also to study ways to open up commercial traffic along their 60-kilometer shared border, which is located in a largely inaccessible remote mountainous region. Building a road through this difficult area is, course, the most viable choice. Given their experience and resilience, Chinese infrastructure companies can overcome the inherent obstacles, mainly security threats, to build this road. In fact, Chinese workers and engineers have been killed by insurgents, but apart from some temporary suspensions the Chinese companies continued to work on their projects, in some regions protected by US troops on the ground, which shows some aspect of the interesting relationship between the two powers in Afghanistan.
All of this clearly shows that China is determined to consolidate its commercial base in Afghanistan with further gains in mining and infrastructure projects because it can take more risks than others in these areas.”
However, the copper deal has not had a smooth journey, for the Chinese investors wanted a renewal of terms. Also, as has been mentioned above, Chinese people face serious security hazards in Afghanistan. While regular criminals engaging in this would be another story, if the ISI-backed Afghan Taliban is involving itself in such activities, then that can have a serious bearing on Sino-Pak relations, which in Nawaz Sharif’s words are in general “sweeter than honey”. In any case, support to Uighur rebels by some Pakistani non-state actors has been problematic to the Sino-Pak relationship. As recently as in August 2013, three Chinese citizens had been found dead in Kabul and two missing. In November, Afghanistan’s mining mister said about 150 Chinese workers had returned to the mine after earlier fleeing because of rocket attacks on the project.
In fact, the following excerpts of an article from leading Pakistani newspaper Dawn, published in October 2013, is worth citing-
“China is desperate for Afghanistan’s mineral resources. It is investing $3.5 billion in the Mes Aynak copper field, south of Kabul. The project had started in 2008 and it is likely to go into production in the coming months as the biggest ever foreign investment in Afghanistan’s history. China is also investing in exploring gas and oil in the Amu River Basin area.”
“The Chinese contract might be dwarfed by the one that will be signed by a consortium of Indian public and private companies next year. The consortium has won the bid to develop the Hajigak iron ore mines in the Bamyan province for more than $10 billion. India is believed to have given Afghanistan $2 billion in aid over the past decade.”
The Pakistani establishment is already unpopular in Afghanistan (and hopefully, the nefarious elements in that country will not succeed in destabilizing Afghanistan and Talibanizing it again, and some Afghans are considering seeking asylum in India if that were to happen), but India and China are competing for influence across South and Southeast Asia, and India has a soft power edge in Afghanistan, but one, viewed from the standpoint of its own interests, it shouldn’t fail to capitalize on, as it did by confused and clumsy handling in Myanmar, for example.
India had its general elections in 2014, in which Narendra Modi was elected as our new prime minister, his victory not really being a product of India’s Hindus suddenly having turned ultra-rightist, but owing to a very justifiable anti-incumbency sentiment against the UPA regime for a variety of reasons, including a weak foreign policy.** He invited the heads of government of all SAARC countries for his swearing in, including then President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan. Around a week before Sharif came to India, the Indian consulate in the town of Herat in Afghanistan was attacked, this apparently being an ISI operation, which was repulsed by the Afghan security forces, for which Modi did rightly thank the Afghan government. If the Afghan government is to be believed, the ploy was to start a hostage crisis, which would make it difficult for India to welcome Sharif with open arms. More recently, an Indian working with an NGO in Afghanistan had been abducted (he was a Christian priest and social worker, who was eventually rescued with the joint efforts put in by the Modi government in India and the Afghan government), this possibly being yet another ISI operation.
This may come as a surprise to many people in the West, who perceive Afghanistan as a theatre of conflict between the Americans and Al Qaeda, but as noted commentator on South Asian affairs, William Dalrymple, points out in a remarkably well-written essay (which has been subjected to what is in my opinion much unjustified criticism by some Indian ‘intellectuals’), that war is now, more or less over, and Afghanistan is now primarily a theatre of conflict between Pakistan and India.
Subsequently, Afghanistan too had elections, and Afghanistan’s new president Ashraf Ghani started out by trying to mend fences with Pakistan, going a little too far in even ceding strategic autonomy according to many Afghan and non-Afghan observers, but all his attempts at outreach in order to prevent ISI-sponsored terrorism on Afghan soil failed (India’s experience hasn’t been very different), and the Afghan parliament was attacked. Thereafter, Ashraf Ghani gave up on trying to build bridges with Pakistan and sought to purchase arms from India. Karzai had also tried purchasing arms from India but India’s then UPA government had also refused to oblige, taking a moral high ground of not letting Pakistan feel threatened! On this front, Modi made the right decision to enter into arms deals with Afghanistan, and he has continued the UPA policy of training Afghan civil servants and military personnel and giving their students scholarships. Ghani has even sought to engage with the Pashtuns of the disputed Khyber Pakhtoonwa directly, which is bound to rile up Pakistan, just as Pakistan interacting with Hurriyat leaders riles up India.
More recently, Modi went to Afghanistan to inaugurate their new parliament building, for the construction of which India had provided aid (the visit was apparently very fruitful, India having walked the talk according to several Afghan commentators, and while I share the stand that Modi is investing more time on foreign trips than he should, having strong ties with Afghanistan is indeed important for our strategic and even business interests), and thereafter, he made a surprise visit to Pakistan, where Modi, among other things, declared Pakistan to be a bridge between India and Afghanistan, not very long after ISI-backed terrorists had tried to attack a guest house in Kabul, thinking it was housing an Indian envoy and some had even plotted to kill Modi, which was thwarted by Afghan security personnel! Leaders of the Congress party rightly protested against this bizarre statement that was obviously meant to placate and even appease the Pakistani establishment, which has expressed bizarre objections to Indian friendship with Afghanistan. However, Modi’s visit to Pakistan was soon followed by terror strikes not only in Pathankot in India, where brave Indian security personnel laid down their lives fighting for our country, but even in the Indian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan, where Afghan security personnel defended Indians, and even the provincial governor risked his life by coming at the site with a rifle to fight the terrorists!
Modi has done well to convey to Ghani that this attack will not deter India from giving Afghanistan military aid, but the lesson should be loud and clear for everyone to hear – political engagement with the democratically elected leaders of Pakistan bears no results, and any kind of appeasement even in words bears no fruit, and appeasement of the kind Modi engaged in, even if in words, was followed by terror strikes. My pointing this out is not jingoistic Indian nationalism, this is not sentimentally driven drivel, but realism, and has been discussed in some detail in this previous article of mine. As the gentle but pragmatic personality Dr. Kalam pointed out, strength respects strength. Therefore, India must extend its strategic footprint in Afghanistan and other neighbours, and utilize our foreign policy geared towards giving our citizens as safe and terrorism-free a climate as we can so that we can advance economically. The Pakistani military establishment needs to know that it can neither dictate foreign policy to India nor coercively gain Kashmir by resorting to terror, and India, without harming innocent civilians, can indeed hit back, the way we did in the times of Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi. As for our Afghan friends, may our friendship blossom into a long-standing partnership for development based on peace in South Asia.
*Terrorism, even terrorism citing a theological basis, is not a Muslim monopoly. As you can see here, very many instances of terrorism globally, even in the name of religion, have been carried out by those identifying themselves as Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus and even Buddhists, the victims of the acts of terrorists from each of these religious groupings not always being Muslims. However, just like most people of these religious groupings are not terrorists or supporters of terrorism, and they do not believe that their religion preaches terrorism, the same is the case with most Muslims (and not supporting terrorism applies to even most of those Muslims with other regressive and not-so-liberal attitudes on issues like gender and homosexuality).
It is possible to quote any scripture (allegedly out of context according to its liberal adherents) to justify malpractices, like some verses in the Bible namely Deuteronomy 13:12-15, Samuel 15:3, Leviticus 24:16 and Matthew 10:34 seemingly advocate violence against “non-believers” and the Purusha Sukta of the Rigved, an ancient Hindu scripture, is taken by some to justify caste discrimination, but these verses do not define the entire religion. This article mentioning an anecdote from the British parliament does make an interesting read in this regard, as does this video make an interesting watch in this connection. There are Quranic verses like 2:256, 5:2, 5:8, 5:32, 6:108, 6:151, 10:99, 49:13, 60:8 and 109:6 preaching peace, religious tolerance and human brotherhood, as does the letter from Prophet Muhammad to the Christian monks of St Catherine’s monastery and there are episodes from Prophet Muhammad’s life, as per Islamic lore, indicative of such an approach too, such as his allowing a woman to throw garbage at him daily and his succeeding in ideologically, winning over her by way of humanitarian affection. Those suggesting that peaceful verses in the Quran are superseded by violent verses (which the vast majority of practising Muslims globally regard as contextual) would do well to note that verse 109:6 appears towards the end of the book, and preaches nothing but peace, and the Quran and Hadiths devote considerable space to talking about honesty (there’s an anecdote of Prophet Muhammad punishing a Muslim for stealing from a Jewish gentleman’s house), kindness, forgiveness, humility and striving for socioeconomic egalitarianism.
Very many mainstream Muslims do indeed believe that Islam is the only religion that can lead to God since the advent of Prophet Muhammad, as mainstream Christians believe the same for Christianity since the advent of Jesus, but that doesn’t entail intolerance towards those of other faiths. To explain this with an analogy, if a certain coaching centre (analogous to Islam or Christianity, going by the mainstream interpretation) claims it is the only one that can get students admitted into say, IIT (analogous to heaven), and even encourages its students to get students of other coaching centres and those not taking any coaching to join that particular coaching centre, it cannot be equated with forcing others to join their institute or killing those not willing to do so. In fact, both the Bible and the Quran preach the message of peaceful coexistence with other religious groups (the relevant verses in the context of the Quran have already been cited, and Rom. 12:18 and 1 Tim 2:2 may be cited in the context of the Bible).
Speaking of apostates of Islam (“ex-Muslims”) criticising their former religion, there is a fairly well-known website run by an apostate and basher of Islam who has even offered a cash prize to anyone who can disprove his allegations against Prophet Muhammad (but there are books by apostates of other religions criticizing their former religions too, the most famous one being ‘Why I Am Not a Christian’ by Bertrand Russell, and there’s also ‘Why I am Not a Hindu’ by Kancha Ilaiah, levelling very strong allegations), but practically, he is the judge of the debate, or to go by what he is saying, the “readership” of the website, a rather non-defined entity. In fact, he has acknowledged that he came across a Muslim who “intelligently argued his case and never descended to logical fallacies or insults” and while that Islam-basher “did not manage to convince him to leave Islam”, that Muslim earned his “utmost respect”, which implies that practically, the Islam-basher is the judge of the debate. Likewise, that Islam-basher has mentioned with reference to a scholar of Islam he debated with, that the latter was “a learned man, a moderate Muslim and a good human being” and someone he (the Islam-basher) has “utmost respect for”. So, that Islam-basher’s critique of Islam, whether valid or invalid, has no relevance in terms of making blanket stereotypes about the people we know as Muslims or even practising Muslims. By the way, that Islam-basher bashes Judaism too. And it is worth mentioning that I have encountered several practising Muslims on discussion groups on the social media, who have, in a very calm and composed fashion, logically refuted the allegations against Islam on such websites. Indeed, as you can see here and here, there are several other apostates of Islam who have stated that while they personally left Islam thinking that the extremist interpretations are correct and moderate ones wrong (as is the case with apostates of many other religions), they have equally explicitly emphasized that that does not in the least mean that they believe that most people identifying themselves as practising Muslims support violence against innocent people.
And in fact, even speaking of the West, a report submitted by Europol, the criminal intelligence agency of the European Union, showed that only 3 out of the 249 terrorist attacks (amounting to about 1.2%) carried out in Europe in 2010 were carried out by Muslims. Even in the United States, most terrorist attacks from 1980 to 2005 were not carried out by Muslims. And no, I am not in the least seeking to undermine the heinousness of the crimes committed by some in the name of Islam by pointing to others having committed similar crimes under other ideological banners, for a more highlighted wrongdoing is no less of a wrongdoing than a less highlighted wrongdoing, but only to point out that viewing only Muslims as villains, and that too, all or even most of them, would indeed be grossly incorrect. However, despite jihadist terrorists being a microscopic minority of Muslims, Islamist terrorism has become a bigger global threat for its well-coordinated international network since the 1990s. And, let us not forget that when we had the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the victims included Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim police officer who died fighting the terrorists (and by the way, there are more French Muslims in the local police, including those who have died fighting jihadist terrorists, than in the Al Qaeda unit in their country), Mustapha Ourad, a Muslim who was one of the magazine staff members killed in that attack and there was Lassana Bathily, a Muslim shopkeeper who gave sanctuary to many innocent civilians during the hostage crisis in Paris that followed. Even in the context of the more recent attacks in Paris, a Muslim security guard Zouheir, risking his own life, prevented one suicide bomber from entering a packed football stadium. More recently, Kenyan Muslims very laudably protected fellow bus commuters, who were Christians, from jihadist terrorists.
It’s not as though communalists under any banner, except arguably those actually resorting to killing innocent civilians, should be dehumanized or can never be logically made to modify their views, as the must-watch movie Road to Sangam, based on a true story, demonstrates, and to draw an analogy, you can see this video of a Muslim who initially wanted to become a terrorist wanting to blow up Jewish civilians but changed his standpoint about Israel for the better after visiting that country. It is not as though Muslims are another species that can’t be rationally engaged with, the way some extreme anti-Muslim rightists almost make them out to be, portraying Muslims in general as cruel, slimy, backstabbing and aggressive (many Muslims whom the non-Muslim readers would know personally would not exhibit such traits if the non-Muslim readers were to analyze dispassionately, rather than making baseless presumptions, and indeed, most Indian Muslims are of Hindu ancestry and so, they share the same genes as the Hindus – Hindu religious lore also refers to treacherous human beings like the Kauravas wanting to burn the Pandavas in a wax palace; so, treachery was not unknown to India before the advent of Islam, as royal family feuds among the Nanda and Gupta rulers also demonstrate, and some of the worst atrocities in history have been committed by the likes of Hitler and Stalin, who were not Muslims, nor was Chengiz Khan who was an animist), but like many people in other communities in different contexts, some (not all) Muslims are in the stranglehold of anachronistic ideas like a global pan-Muslim fraternity and the upholding of Islamic law, other than having prejudiced notions of an exaggerated sense of victimhood, and I have dealt with how to ideologically combat Muslim extremism in some depth in this article.
Sacrificing animals as a religious ritual is indeed not exclusive to Muslims, and ‘bali’ has existed among Hindus too, something Gautam Buddha (who lived centuries before Jesus and Muhammad) had opposed (and even Emperor Ashok the Great consumed meat of peacocks, which he stopped after embracing Buddhism, though interestingly, Buddhists in China, Japan, Bhutan, Vietnam etc. do consume meat, as do most Sikhs, Christians, Jews and Parsis, and what is halal for Muslims in terms of dietary regulations and the mode of slaughtering some animals is identical to what is kosher for Jews and several sects of Christians, and that is true for the practice of circumcision for males as well, which even has health benefits), and still continues in many Hindu temples across India, especially in West Bengal during the Navratri season. Also, it may interest some to know that the story of Prophet Abraham associated with Id-ul-Zuha is found in the Old Testament of the Bible too, which the Jews and Christians also believe in (those regarded as prophets by the Jews are regarded as prophets by the Christians too, with the addition of Jesus, and those regarded as prophets by the Christians are regarded as prophets by the Muslims as well, with the addition of Muhammad). And obviously, not all of Arab cuisine is non-vegetarian either, with Arab vegetarian dishes like strained yogurt using labneh cheese and sweet dishes like zlabia, popular in South Asia as jalebi!
And yes, historically, while many (not all) Muslim rulers have a historical record of intolerance to Hindus, so do many ancient Hindu rulers like Mihirakula and Pushyamitra Shunga have a historical record of intolerance to Buddhists (of course, there can be a debate on the historicity of these allegations, but the point is that religious intolerance wasn’t unheard of even in pre-Islamic times in India). One may add in this context that there is this totally incorrect notion that Muslims are the only ones who stop non-Muslims from entering some of their holiest places of worship like the Kaba in Mecca, but actually, several Hindu temples, like the Pashupati Nath temple in Nepal, too bar non-Hindus from entering them, while many mosques and Sufi shrines have absolutely no problem with non-Muslims visiting them or even praying there. Also, the conspiracy theory about the Kaba being a Shiv temple have their basis in the writings of one Mr. Oak, who was not even a historian, and he is actually not even taken seriously even by those historians, Indian or of other nationalities, who have saffron or other religious right-wing leanings, and in fact, some votaries of this theory claim that Lord Shiv has been ‘imprisoned’ by Muslims, which refutes the logic that God is all powerful! Oak also said that Christianity is Krishna-Neeti (though ‘Christianity’ as a term does not exist in Hebrew, and came about much later in history!) and many other such ludicrous things! There are websites making claims about non-existent Arabic texts to prove their point. While such propaganda (except the bit about Lord Shiv being ‘imprisoned’!) may please the Hindu chauvinist who desperately wishes to imagine ancient India to be the only centre of human civilization, impartially speaking, one ought to thoroughly dissect it before taking it seriously. These are just completely baseless rants being circulated on the social media that don’t have the backing of any serious historian, not even the most right-wing ones. These conspiracy theories are typical of loony religious rightists, including Muslim rightists in Pakistan attributing 26/11 to RAW and many genuine liberal Muslim intellectuals in Pakistan are dismissed by conspiracy theorists as agents of the CIA, RAW and/or Mossad!
There are also misplaced notions of Muslims potentially outnumbering Hindus in India, though the Muslim population growth rate is declining (not the population itself, which cannot decline usually for any community), and the population growth rate of Keralite Muslims is less than UPite Hindus, for instance, and yes, even otherwise, if someone sees Muslims potentially outnumbering Hindus in India as a real problem, they should appeal to the Indian government to legally impose a two-child norm for all Indian citizens, irrespective of religion, rather than just generate unnecessary hatred for an entire community and divide the nation. Many Hindus criticize Muslims for having many children because they practise polygamy as permitted by their faith (though census reports have established that Hindus are more polygamous than Muslims, even though it is illegal for the former, and I myself know a Hindu electrician in Delhi who has engaged in bigamy), even though that actually doesn’t make a difference to the number of children as long as the number of reproductive women remains the same. Four women would respectively give birth to the number of children they would, irrespective of whether they are married to one man or four different men! In fact, polygamy is not prohibited by Hinduism as a faith (and, in fact, it was outlawed for Hindus only after independence, and Nehru faced stern opposition for the same from orthodox Hindus). The Puranic lore is full of multiple marriages by a single man – to quote some prominent examples, Krishna had thousands of wives, prominent among whom were Rukmini, Satyabhama and Jambvati; his father Vasudev had two wives, Devki (Krishna‘s mother) and Rohini (Balram‘s mother) and Ram‘s father Dashrath had three wives, besides even Bheem having a wife other than Draupadi (Gatodkach‘s mother) and Arjun too had several, including Krishna‘s sister Subhadra. In fact, the law mandating monogamy for Hindus was introduced only after independence! Also, Islam mandates a limit of four wives and a responsibility of the husband to look after his multiple wives (if he has multiple wives in the first place) equally well, though I do agree that even this is anachronistic today. As for harems, these too have not been a monopoly of Muslim rulers, and the practice has existed among Hindu rulers too, such as in South India, and even among Buddhist rulers in Sri Lanka. And there are indeed many Hindus too, particularly in rural areas and in several cases, even among the urban educated class, who have several children even if they are monogamous. As Khushwant Singh has pointed out in his famous autobiography, many educated Hindus who have been public figures, like former president V.V. Giri, former prime minister Narasimha Rao and our very own Lalu Prasad Yadav have all had many children, and even Narendra Modi is the third of his parents‘ six children.
Also, there are some who accuse Muslims of being the only community that carries out inter-cousin marriages, but that is true for Parsis as well and Hindu lore mentions Abhimanyu marrying his maternal uncle Balram‘s daughter (though this is a South Indian folk adaptation not to be found in the Puranic lore, it shows that the idea hasn‘t always been abhorrent in Hindu societies) and Rajasthani folklore has it that Prithviraj Chauhan too eloped with his cousin and while even this is contested by historians, he has never been looked down upon for the same, and even today, this practice exists in South Indian Hindu societies.
And for those suggesting any marriage between a Hindu boy and Muslim girl as amounting to “love jihad”, they may note that many Muslim women too have married Hindu men, like Katrina Kaif, Sussanne Khan, Zohra Sehgal (formerly Zohra Khan), Neelima Azim (Pankaj Kapoor’s wife), Nargis and leading Mumbai cyclist Firoza, and some have even converted to Hinduism upon marriage, like famous sitarist Annapurna Devi (formerly Roshanara Khan), fashion model Nalini Patel (formerly Nayyara Mirza), Maharashtra politician Asha Gawli (formerly Zubeida Mujawar), South Indian actress Khushboo Sundar (formerly Nakhat Khan) and Bollywood actress Zubeida.
An allegation often leveled against Islam and Muslim societies is sexism. It should be noted that Prophet Muhammad’s wife Khadijah was a successful businesswoman, and the world’s oldest existing university, which is in Morocco and dates back to 859 AD, was set up by Fatima al Fihri, a well-educated Muslim woman. Prophet Muhammad is even believed to have mandated education for all, irrespective of gender, as you can see here and here, and in fact, the education cutting across gender lines even includes physical education. Interestingly, Prophet Muhammad himself is believed to have said that children (he did not specify only boys) must be taught archery, horse-riding and swimming. In fact, a woman, Nusaybah bint Ka’ab, fought in his army, just as Hindu lore refers to Arjun’s wife Chitrangada as an ace fighter and how Kaikeyi and Madri were ace charioteers. This article discusses in some detail the freedoms accorded to women by Islam and early Muslim societies, and how they partook in war, diplomacy, business and several other fields of life, and how the veil came in later as a norm in Muslim history. Currently, many Kurdish Muslim women are bravely fighting the ISIS, and there was news of an Iraqi Kurdish woman, Rehana, killing over a hundred ISIS terrorists. Major Mariam Al Mansouri, a female fighter pilot from the UAE, has also been involved in anti-ISIS operations. While one would not assert that Islam or any other major global religion (and in this, we include the oriental faiths as much as the Abrahamic religions) is completely free from patriarchy (with all due respect to everyone’s religious sentiments), this mindset of prohibiting girls’ education represents a deeply patriarchal mindset among these ultra-conservative terrorists hailing from tribal Pashtun communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but has no basis in Islamic theology, and very many people across the globe who have identified themselves as Muslims have educated their daughters.
No Muslim-majority country (but for parts of them ruled by militias like the Taliban and ISIS), not even Saudi Arabia, has legally imposed wearing burqas (though only Iran has imposed headscarves; however, as regards wearing burqas, it must be noted that the Quran does not ordain it, nor do quotations attributed to Prophet Muhammad of undisputed authenticity), or prohibited women from driving (though only Saudi Arabia, other than militia-ruled regions, has imposed a ban on women driving, but a Saudi cleric also declared that there was nothing in the Islamic texts that prohibits women from driving. In Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, another Islamic state which largely follows the same Wahabi sect of Islam as Saudi Arabia, there are women-run family taxis, and Laleh Seddigh, an Iranian Muslim woman, is among the best car-racers globally, competing with men.
**I may also clarify that while I agree with Amartya Sen and others on Modi not having been a deserving PM-candidate owing to what happened in Gujarat in 2002, I also feel that those particular Muslims and left-leaning non-Muslims of the subcontinent who shy away from condemning Jinnah for the Direct Action Day riots (before which Jinnah said he wanted India divided or destroyed and after which he said he didn’t want to discuss ethics) or are willing to give him the benefit of doubt, those who shy away from condemning Kashmiri separatists like Yasin Malik for killing and driving away the Kashmiri Hindus (also known as Kashmiri Pandits) or are willing to give them the benefit of doubt (as for the conspiracy theories and rationalizations offered about the exodus of the Kashmiri Hindus from their homeland, have a look at this piece, and it is noteworthy that none of the Kashmiri Muslim perpetrators have been convicted, unlike hundreds rightly convicted in connection with the Gujarat riots for the massacres in the Best Bakery, Ode, Sardarpura and Naroda Patiya, and the Kashmiri Hindus haven’t even been rehabilitated the way the Muslims driven out from the village of Atali have, and while the media has rightly consistently supported the Muslims of Atali, it has actually been biased against the Kashmiri Hindus on some occasions – so much for our national media, on the whole, being supposedly biased against Muslims) and those who shy away from condemning Azam Khan for the riots in Muzaffarnagar and Sahranpur (it is noteworthy that he has not even been “chargesheeted” in spite of sting operations suggesting his involvement, while Maya Kodnani was rightly convicted, and my point is not with respect to how much evidence is available in which case for what sentence, but whether the narrative of “Hindu riot-instigating politicians always go scot-free and Muslims are only victims, not perpetrators of riots” is true, and I believe that the issue should be ‘powerful vs. non-powerful’, ‘vote-bank politics vs. the spirit of democracy’ etc., rather than ‘Hindu oppressors vs. Muslim oppressed’, which would actually be half-true or even false in many contexts) or are willing to give him the benefit of doubt (and I emphasize that I am not stereotyping all Muslims – there are many of them who condemn the likes of Jinnah, Yasin Malik and Azam Khan in unambiguous terms) have no business to be spitefully critical of those shying away from condemning Modi or those who give him the benefit of doubt for what happened in 2002.