Hindu terrorism charges force India to reflect on prejudices against Muslims

By Simon Denyer and Rama Lakshmi
Sunday, March 13, 2011

IN DEWAS, INDIA When a series of bomb attacks ripped through Muslim neighborhoods, mosques and shrines in India in recent years, suspicion fell firmly on a familiar culprit: Islamist terror. After each incident, scores of Indian Muslims were rounded up, and many were tortured. Confessions were extracted, the names of various militant "masterminds" leaked to the media and links with Pakistan widely alleged.

Never mind that most of the victims were Muslims; it seemed natural to many people, from New Delhi to Washington, to assume the attacks were the work of extremist Pakistani militants and their Indian Muslim sympathizers, intent on fanning religious tensions in India and disrupting the peace process between the nuclear-armed rivals.

But those investigations, and the assumptions behind them, were turned on their head early this year by the confession of a Hindu holy man. Swami Aseemanand told a magistrate that the bomb makers were neither Pakistani nor Muslim but Hindu radicals, bent on revenge for many earlier acts of terrorism across India that had been perpetrated by Muslims.

His statement, subsequently leaked to the media, alleged that a network of radicals stretched right up to senior levels of the country's Hindu nationalist right wing. It also exposed deep-seated prejudices within the police against the country's minority Muslim population.

Ironically, the charges may also have helped India and Pakistan to get back to the negotiating table last month after relations broke down in the wake of the 2008 attacks on Mumbai.

A string of attacks

Like many Indians, Aseemanand was furious with terrorist attacks in the country carried out by Muslims. "We should answer bombs with bombs," he told a small group of Hindu extremists in June 2006, only to discover a plot was already well under way.

In the ensuing 18 months, bombs were placed on bicycles in a Muslim cemetery in the western town of Malegaon, hidden under a granite slab in a mosque in Hyderabad and left in a tiffin lunchbox in an important Sufi shrine in Ajmer, all targets Aseemanand said he suggested.

In another attack, 68 people, most of them Pakistanis, were killed when suitcases packed with explosives were placed next to gasoline bottles on a train headed from western India to Pakistan. Many of the victims were unable to escape the inferno because of bars on the train windows, and their bodies were burned beyond recognition.

Evidence that radical Hindus, including an army colonel who is suspected of supplying the technical expertise and the explosives, were behind several of these bombings began to surface more than two years ago, and several people were arrested, including Aseemanand.

But his statement is the first clear evidence that Indian Hindu terrorists were to blame for the deaths of Pakistani Muslim travelers on the Samjhauta, or Friendship, Express.

Pakistan reacted to the news with ill-disguised glee, arguing that the botched investigations and the subsequent confession confirmed its suspicions that India "lacked the courage" to prosecute radical Hindus.

In India, there was sober reflection in some quarters about prejudices against Muslims. The Hindu right's old adage, that "while not every Muslim is a terrorist, every terrorist is a Muslim," could no longer be trotted out with a straight face.

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