Wiki-washy

Speaking at the plenary session of the All-India Congress Committee in New Delhi this past weekend, the Congress President Sonia Gandhi clarified that the party made no distinction between majority and minority communalism. That this truism had to be specifically stated did indicate the Congress leadership had taken the WikiLeaks controversy seriously.
As revelations of United States embassy cables had made apparent, in August 2009 the American ambassador in India reported a meeting with Rahul Gandhi. At the meeting, the Congress general secretary seemed to suggest “radicalised Hindu groups” posed a “bigger threat” than Islamist mobilisation on behalf of the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) and similar entities.
The WikiLeaks controversy is likely to die down soon. One cannot see it surviving to become a major issue in elections, though political rivals of Mr Gandhi may choose to bring it up from time to time. Nevertheless, the remarks attributed to the Congress’ prospective leader — and future prime minister — offer a window to his thinking. This is not without significance. Mr Gandhi has offered few opportunities to judge his position on policy, the economy and external relations, security concerns. His political interventions have been well-meaning — “End income inequality”; “Don’t let the rich exploit the poor”; “Narrow the divide between the two Indias” — but anodyne. As such a private, unguarded conversation could potentially provide rich evidence of what really defines his worldview.
Equally, it is important to see the comments in context, and to guess the possible impact they left on Mr Gandhi’s interlocutor. Mr Roemer and Mr Gandhi met on July 20, 2009. This was three days before Mr Roemer was formally sworn in as US ambassador to India and three weeks before he presented his credentials to the President of India (on August 11, 2009). He was absolutely new to this country.
Before being appointed to the ambassadorial job in New Delhi, the most important public position Mr Roemer had held was that of member of the 9/11 Commission. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States — to give it its full name — was a bipartisan commission comprising both Democrats and Republicans. It was set up following the World Trade Centre attacks to study intelligence and security lapses that allowed the worst terrorist assault on the American homeland.
July 2009 was only eight months after the 26/11 Lashkar-triggered terror attacks in Mumbai. As such, given his 9/11 Commission background and given fresh memories of the Mumbai massacre, Mr Roemer was probably seeking a serious homeland security assessment from a senior parliamentarian he felt was part of the ruling establishment in New Delhi and sufficiently clued in. The answer he got — at least the answer that has been reported — would probably have disappointed him or at any rate taken him by surprise.
Rather than insights into the Lashkar challenge to India and the country’s post-26/11 security preparedness — which were obviously what Mr Roemer was seeking — the US ambassador received wishy-washy political opinion. To put it politely, Mr Gandhi’s response must have seemed amateur.
A counterfactual may be in order here. It is May 2002, eight months after 9/11. The Indian ambassador in Washington, D.C., is having lunch with a top-ranking member of the US Congress, one who has the ear of the administration.
The ambassador asks the member of Congress about Al Qaeda’s “activities in the (North American) region and immediate threat” to the US. The Congressman retorts by saying that the “bigger threat” — bigger than Al Qaeda — is probably white Christian supremacist groups. In his wisdom, these groups — whether acting suo motu or retaliating against 9/11 — are more dangerous than Al Qaeda’s transnational threat or, if one is to go by the most charitable explanation offered in the light of the WikiLeaks expose, than any Islamist sleeper cells that may exist in the US.
It is nobody’s case that deviant gangs of politically violent Hindus don’t exist. Some of these people — and frankly “Hindu terrorists” or “Hindutva terrorists” is not an unreasonable label for them — may have been responsible for bombings in Malegaon, Maharashtra, and a few other locations in recent years. They deserve punishment.
Yet, the threat perception from them and from Islamist private armies such as the LeT, the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Indian Mujahideen is of an entirely different order. There has to be a sense of proportion. In 1996, the Atlanta Olympics saw a terror bombing triggered by a far-Right white American nutcase who was protesting against the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality and, additionally, considered the Olympic movement a conspiracy of “global socialism”.
It is possible — probable — that a few thousand Americans share the politics of the Atlanta bomber. Some of them could even be willing to inflict violence to get their point across. However, do they constitute a threat as lethal as Al Qaeda and the various factions of the Taliban?
To be fair, Mr Gandhi was not resorting to political grandstanding. He said what he did not at a public meeting in Uttar Pradesh but in a quiet chat, presumed to be confidential, with a foreign diplomat. This leads to the portentous conclusion that he actually believed in his argument. How should one understand this?
There is a school of thought in sections of the West, particularly in Britain but in parts of the US too, that holds Al Qaeda and its affiliates do not represent a supremacist adversary that wants to conquer the world and convert it to a particular, and perhaps distorted, interpretation of Islam but are, rather, a reaction to oppression by global and domestic right-wing forces. In this reading of the war on terror, the Islamist militia are a manifestation of the New Left, with Zionism and American imperialism as provocations and Palestine and Afghanistan and the inequality between the West and the West Asia as just causes.
There have been attempts to impose this “Islamism as the New Left” template upon India, with the Hindu Right as the provocation and the socio-economic inequality between Hindus and Muslims as the just cause. Occasionally, Kashmir, Ayodhya and Gujarat are thrown into the mix. Has Mr Gandhi bought into this argument? At some stage he needs to tell people — and not just the US ambassador.

Ashok Malik can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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