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India terrorism, India sectarian violence, United Liberation Front of Asom
Dar Yasin/AP
Paramilitary soldiers patrol on a deserted street in Srinagar, India, Monday, Nov. 17, 2008.

Sectarian Violence Roils India Before Elections

November 20, 2008 09:56 AM
by Anne Szustek
Arrests made in connection with terrorist attacks in India may affect voter sentiment ahead of state and general elections.

Terrorism Affects India’s Elections

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India has seen a spate of terrorism and interreligious violence this year—so much, that as Time magazine puts it, “Indians have almost stopped reacting to terror incidents with shock and horror.”

A series of nine coordinated bomb blasts shook the northeastern province of Assam in October. Authorities blamed the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) for the attacks, although the group claimed no responsibility.

But of greater contention in India’s discourse over shifting political religiosity is the rise in violence allegedly at the hands of Hindu fundamentalists. In August, violence erupted after supporters of radical Hindu group Vishwa Hindu Parishad blamed Catholic missionaries for the assassination of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, the group’s leader.

The same month, a confrontation over territorial rights near a significant Hindu shrine has erupted into a new wave of deadly protests between devout Hindus and the Muslim majority population of Jammu-Kashmir.

Jammu-Kashmir’s seven-part election is set to get underway on Monday. But separatist leaders against Indian rule are initiating a boycott of the elections, suggesting the region is to see a low turnout.

For years, Indian authorities have categorically blamed “Islamic fundamentalists” for the interreligious violence that has rocked the country, reports Time magazine. The fundamentalists were allegedly abetted by what the government would call “foreign elements,” usually Pakistan and China.

So the arrests of 10 conservative Hindus, by the Anti-Terrorist Squad of India’s Maharashtra state, including a retired army major and a current lieutenant colonel, perhaps marks a turning point—namely, one that concedes that elements of the country’s Hindu majority could be instigators of sectarian violence.

Yet while the government stews over the contested role of Hindu nationalists, political parties associated with similar movements have been busy ramping up votes ahead of state and national elections, the latter of which has to happen by next May at the latest.

The threat of terrorism has already marred voting in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, where elections were held Friday. Police officers were seen carrying away ballot boxes harmed by bombs planted inside of a food container, allegedly by Maoist rebels.

In addition to concerns over terrorism, rising food prices and employment are considered major issues of contention during this round of Indian state elections, and could possibly be issues during India’s general elections next year.

Opinion & Analysis: The Bharatiya Janata Party

Religiously based politics pose a threat of social polarization in the secularly governed country. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a member of the majority Congress party, wrote in Indian newsmagazine Outlook that one such group, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), “claims to be a mainstream political party—with its direct members and associates directly linked to terrorism.” The BJP vehemently denies the accusations. “A terrorist is a terrorist irrespective of his religion or caste. The BJP objects to the term ‘Hindu terrorists.’ By condemning the majority, one seeks to gain the minority vote,” Yashwant Sinha, BJP vice president, was quoted as saying by Time magazine.

India’s eastern provinces have long had problems with Maoist insurgents, and the BJP could make gains against the Congress Party there. BJP is the majority party in three of the six Indian states due to have elections before the end of the year. In the other three, these state elections are considered an indicator of the approval of Congress. “If the Congress party does well, it could call general elections as early as February,” syndicated columnist Neerja Choudhury told Agence France-Presse (AFP). “On the other hand, if the BJP does manage to beat the anti-incumbency factor and does well, it will emerge as a strong alternative to the coalition present government.”

Background: Recent violence in India

According to the Associated Press, relations are generally calm among the country’s Hindu majority and its religious minorities: Muslims account for 14 percent of the country’s population of 1.1 billion, and Christians make up about 2.5 percent of the population. But there is a history of violence between Hindus and Christians in Orissa. Last year, some 20 churches were burned down and four people murdered during an outbreak of violence in that region.

The publication Indian Catholic reported that Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of the Cuttack-Bubaneshwar diocese said that “the attacks are rooted in the radical ideology that wants to make India a Hindu nation. The radical slogan is: one nation, one culture, one religion for India.”

Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena raised eyebrows when it published an unsigned editorial this summer, cited by Time magazine, saying, “Islamic terrorism is on the rise in India and in order to counter Islamic terrorism, we should match it with Hindu terrorism.”

Related Topic: Turkey: nationalism and religiosity

On the night of Jan. 26, Turkish authorities arrested 13 ultranationalists suspected of planning assassinations of dissidents and plotting a coup against the Islamist-leaning but Western-backed ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Members of the now-much larger group on trial, which includes former members of the military, lawyers, academics and apparent members of the mafia, face charges ranging from possessing firearms to running an armed terrorist organization.

In August, the AKP, on trial for charges of contravening secularism, missed judicial closure by a one-vote margin. The AKP has been heralded in some Turkish circles and by many Western governments for economic liberalization.

Within the country, however, the party has instigated moves interpreted by some to run counter to the secular ideals instituted by national founder Atatürk at the country’s inception. 

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