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Why didn't the Indians do it?

Unlike the Arab-Islamic world, other colonised peoples have reacted to oppression by looking forward, not backward, writes Abdel-Moneim Said*

I hope the reader will bear with me as I continue to discuss the problem of terrorism in Arab and Islamic countries. I stress, here, that I am speaking of Muslim human beings, not Islam. I am also speaking of all people who have fallen victim to terrorism everywhere in the world, whether in Islamic or non-Islamic countries. So if I bring up the London underground bombings, for example, that is not to attribute any greater value to that tragedy than those that struck Sharm El-Sheikh, Riyadh, Bali, Casablanca, Baghdad or anywhere else that has experienced mass murder and ritual executions perpetrated in the name of Islam. Our ultimate purpose is to find a remedy to the terrorist phenomenon and such a remedy will remain out of reach until we identify the causes. Specifically, we must determine whether the phenomenon is a product of a sense of injustice and persecution felt by some Muslims in response to certain events and circumstances in the Arab and Islamic world, or whether it is a manifestation of a specific ideology that sanctions killing as part of its mission to establish a system of rule and social organisation that achieves deliverance in this world and the next.

India offers a prime example of a country with a history steeped in colonialist oppression, economic subjugation, colonialist settlement expansion and geographic partition. Nevertheless, not a single Indian is to be found among the groups that bombed London, New York or Madrid, among the ranks of the "resistance" in Iraq or Chechnya, or anywhere else in the known arenas of the "jihad".

Since Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and headed to India, the history of that country would be inexorably altered. European adventurers, pirates and evangelists began flocking to its shores, commencing the systematic plundering of the subcontinent that would continue over subsequent centuries. In the 17th century, the British began to dominate the field and used their infamous "divide and conquer" tactics to play off the various ethnic and religious groups against one another. By the mid-19th century, Britain controlled 60 per cent of Indian territories, and in 1877 Queen Victoria declared herself Empress of India. At no point before or afterwards did Britain cease its exploitation of the wealth of that country to the detriment of the Indian people. During the course of 100 years, between the mid-19th and mid-20th century, India suffered the ravages of 25 major famines, claiming between 30 and 40 million lives. Between three and four million Indians died in the last of these famines alone, which occurred in 1943-44.

Mahatma Gandhi famously said, "poverty is the worst form of violence." He could not have more succinctly encapsulated the Indian condition and its affect on all sectors of the population: Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and others. Yet -- and here comes the surprise -- his response was to launch a campaign of pacifist resistance, not to kill people in London or elsewhere. And when some Indians did commit acts of violence against the British, who themselves had perpetrated horrendous massacres, Gandhi's response was to condemn these acts in no uncertain terms and to regard them as having tainted the Indian national movement as a whole.

British colonial oppression was both economic and demographic. Large segments of the British populace settled in India, where they carved out colonies and urban quarters governed by laws that set Westerners above all indigenous peoples in terms of rights and obligations. In 1857, groups of Indian Muslims and Hindus learned that the British used rendered pork and beef fat to grease the new Lee Enfield rifle. The discovery triggered mutiny, which the British did not hesitate to suppress with excessive force and violence, just as they had mercilessly crushed all resistance forces irrespective of religious or sectarian affiliation. Ultimately, the British only left India after that country was severed into India and Pakistan, creating a gaping wound in the Indian subcontinent, the volatile repercussions of which can still be felt today in the flare-ups between the two states over Kashmir.

However, the partition of India has also yielded a most interesting and perplexing phenomenon. While Pakistan backed the extremist- fundamentalist Taliban movement in Afghanistan and was among the countries to feed Al-Qaeda with manpower, and while persons of Pakistani origin perpetrated the London bombings of 7 July, the Muslims of India (with 150 million Muslims, India has a larger Muslim population than any other country) went another direction entirely. They gave India its current president and several speakers of the Senate. Moreover, not only in the past did they give India many of its great national independence leaders, today they are supplying many of the intellectual and political pioneers in India's project for the future.

The Indian response to the injustices and tragedies of the past was to build a modern democratic state that commands the respect of all nations, large and small. After a half century of independence, India became a nuclear power. It produces its own satellites, its own military and commercial ships, some of its aircraft, a lot of steel, not to mention the computer software and hardware that have made it a major player in the third industrial revolution. After a period of flirting with socialist economic policies that yielded an average growth rate of 3.6 per cent between 1950 and 1979, India shifted course, as a result of which it has attained annual growth rates that, today, range between seven and eight per cent, or almost as high as those of China. The Indian solution to its historical problems was to work to create a universal consensus that India should not only be accepted as a member of the nuclear club  and it had to fight staunch resistance and penalties from the US and the West to win this membership but also as a permanent member of the Security Council.

The Indian response was not that different from the response of China to the historical injustices visited upon it, or from the response of the indigenous inhabitants of North and South America to the successive waves of European encroachment and colonisation, or to South East Asia where colonial armies trampled the peoples underfoot, partitioned their nations and spread colonies and settlements and even -- as was the case with Japan -- dropped atomic bombs on them. In all these cases, the solution was to build a multi-faceted economic, political, technological and academic project for the future that would enable them to compete with the Western project and interact constructively with the world. In none of these nations do we find that morbid sense of isolation and that destructive desire to be rid of the world, which has long inflicted pain on other human groups, both Muslim and Christian.

This is not to suggest that other nations, ethnic groups and religions do not have their fanatics and even terrorists and suicidal martyrs among them. However, their anger is directed against their own countries and no one in those countries celebrates them or even tries to excuse or justify their actions. The difference between this part of the world and elsewhere is not just that we have projects that our trapped in the past whereas others have projects that look to the future, but also that we have organised political groups who dictate that our future resides in a return to the past. Perhaps this is where the problem really lies.

* The writer is director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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