India’s ‘Other’ Terrorism*

The terror attacks on Mumbai made headlines around the world. When the dust settled, we found ourselves asking the same questions, “How did this happen?” and “What could we have done to prevent this?” But while
India and the world contemplates the causes and consequences of these attacks, we ignore India’s “other” terrorism: From late August through October, organized Hindu extremist groups committed systematic attacks
killing more than 100 people, mostly Christians, in the eastern India state of Orissa. Most worrying, the terrorists responsible for Orissa’s violence remain at-large and have explicitly threatened to repeat their attacks on Dec. 25.

Three Hindu extremist groups: the RSS, VHP, and the Bajrang Dal are responsible for this autumn’s violence, destroying some 4500 homes and burning 147 churches. The dead are mostly Christians and some moderate Hindus. Father Akbar Digal, a Christian, was beheaded after three  times refusing to convert to Hinduism. Gayadhar Digal, a Hindu, was hacked to death and his wife and son nearly killed for appearing sympathetic to Christianity. Others have been burned alive and beaten then buried alive. Some 40,000-60,000 sought refuge in the forests where they were further hunted. Hundreds remain missing. Over 11,000 remain displaced, and the attackers have threatened to kill them upon returning if they do not convert to Hinduism.

The attacks have been alarmingly systematic. Repeating tactics used by these groups in similar attacks last year, the August attacks began with cutting down trees to block the roads and cutting phone lines to block communications. Mobs led by these extremist groups were armed with guns and machetes, shouting slogans such as “Christians must become Hindu or die. Kill Them. Kill Them. Kill Them.” The same groups have organized related attacks across the country, the best known being in Gujarat in 2002 where some 2,000 Muslims were killed.

In each of these cases, violence continued for weeks without intervention by the state, and the perpetrators have enjoyed impunity thereafter. Six years after the Gujarat killings, there has been only one conviction. There were no convictions after the December 2007 violence. Without any punishment, we can expect these extremist groups to continue terrorizing civilians as a tactic to impose their will on the state and drive out minority religious communities.

In fact, threats of renewed violence in the coming weeks are so clear that if we ignore them and violence escalates, nobody can say we “didn’t know.” The extremists remain at-large and have demanded that the Orissa government pass several laws to further suppress Christianity. Failure to impose these laws, they threaten, will result in more violence through a ban on all public activity on Dec. 25 enforced by club-toting members of these groups effectively prohibiting Christmas festivities.

Responsibility for preventing further violence lies with the Indian government. The attacks in Mumbai have shown that when terrorists strike at Westerners and expensive hotels, Indian security forces can react and kill or arrest the terrorists within days. In Orissa, by contrast, two months into the violence, victims were still being burned alive.

Orissa’s chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, does not appear to be a Hindu nationalist zealot. But he is politically beholden to parties that use this violence to rally votes. At the national level, federal security forces finally came to stop the violence after two months. However, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has not banned the parties responsible despite calls from advisers to do so, perhaps because doing so could be bad for politics in this Spring’s election. This element of government sympathy and political hedging make international condemnation all the more important. The international community should do its part to ensure that banning violent extremists and ending impunity for them is to India’s political and economic advantage. However, if the West is to speak more loudly on this issue, it must do so in the name of counterterrorism, religious freedom, and the fundamental human right, not because it is Christians who were attacked this time.

The U.S. public response has been almost entirely the result of mobilization by Christian groups with close ties to churches in Orissa. But the public coalition that can and should unite behind this is much larger. Darfur’s atrocities provoked an unprecedented American constituency for stopping genocide. While this constituency continues pressing for peace and protection in Darfur, situations like Orissa that are more tractable and still in their formative stages offer an opportunity to achieve the most important goal of fighting genocide and atrocity: prevention.

This issue must not be swept aside in the aftermath of Mumbai’s attacks, but raised as an important part of India’s role in fighting terrorism within its borders. The U.S. government should consider naming the individuals responsible for leading these groups as terrorists by adding them to the U.S. list of “Specially Designated Nationals.” It should also began investigating American charitable organizations that appear to be providing funding for these groups, and ask that India investigate terror financing on their side in

U.S. President George Bush and President-elect Barack Obama should end their silence on India’s “other” terrorism. Every U.S. government official whether in Congress or the administration, should raise Orissa in the course of their other dealings with Indian officials, and ask what their plan is for ending impunity for domestic terrorism. How will they investigate and punish those who plan and lead these attacks? How will the state and federal government ensure that next time it does not take two months to stop the killing? It is not too late to head off mass killing in Orissa this Christmas, and to prevent it elsewhere in India where it is sure to recur if it again goes

* Chad Hazlett has lived and worked in India and is currently director of protection at the Genocide Intervention Network, a nonprofit focused on preventing and ending genocide and mass atrocity. (23.12.2008)


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