Lifestyle & Belief

In Indian ethnic controversies, consider the source

Supposed ethnic controversies ranging from an effort to bar Salman Rushdie from visiting India to an official diplomatic objection to a joke from Jay Leno made headlines this week in India. But a couple footnotes to the stories provide a good warning.  When it comes to ethnicity- or religion-based controversies in India, consider the source.

First, Jay Leno. The Tonight Show host showed a picture of the Golden Temple (the Vatican of the Sikh religion) and joked that it was Mitt Romney's future summer home.  Who got angry?  Well, eventually it was Sikhs (supposedly), and India's overseas affairs minister Vayalar Ravi.  But neither Ravi nor many Sikhs took notice of the skit in the beginning, according to the Times of India:

In fact, two major Sikh activist organizations -- United Sikhs and Sikh Coalition -- which have campaigned successfully for more sensitive treatment of Sikhs at US airports and their rights to bear religious articles, took no note of the purported offense. A turbaned Sikh was recently elected mayor of the historic city of Charlottesville. Some publicity-hungry campaigners in the US, including self-professed Hindu activists, routinely invoke religious sensitivity and outrage on behalf of their community to generate headlines.

Which brings us to the outrage over the raising of the Pakistani flag in Karnataka earlier this week, which resulted in rioting that spread to several towns, damaged a lot of property and caused a fair number of injuries to ordinary folks.  According to popular wisdom, Indian Muslims are always raising the Pakistani flag -- especially after India loses to Pakistan in cricket. But these Muslims who love Pakistan are actually more difficult to find on the ground, which was apparently why, according to Open Magazine, a far right Hindu organization saw fit to raise the flag in their name.

On 1 January, members of the Sri Ram Sene hoisted a Pakistani flag on a flagpost in a government office compound after bringing down the Tricolour in Sindagi town in north Karnataka, which has a sizeable Muslim majority. On that day, residents of Sindagi in Bijapur district woke up to a Pakistani flag fluttering in place of the Indian one at the taluka office compound’s flag mast. As news of the ‘desecration’ spread and the hand of Muslim fundamentalists was suggested, the town erupted in violence, which quickly spread to other towns nearby. Six state-owned buses and some private vehicles bore the brunt of mob violence. The flag was quickly brought down, and police teams tasked to trace the culprits.

Not much has been made of the incident yet, apparently -- perhaps because it's trivial compared to some of the Sri Ram Sene's past exploits, which include beating up women found drinking in bars and even more nefarious alleged crimes:

There are two cases already under investigation where their complicity is suspected—the Malegaon blasts in Maharashtra and Samjhauta Express blasts, in which Sadhvi Pragya and a serving Army intelligence officer, Lieutenant Colonel Srikant, are allegedly involved. The flag incident has raised new concerns and shown to what extent the [Rashriya Swayamsevak] Sangh (RSS) outfits can go.

For the record, the RSS -- India's largest Hindu nationalist organization, and a kind of umbrella outfit for other groups -- disavowed the Sri Ram Sene over the flag incident, and has also distanced itself from the alleged incidents of terrorism. But it has hardly done enough to sever its links or to stop this group, or the Bajrang Dal, a similar group of thugs, from perpetrating violent and offensive acts in its name.

And that's what Indians -- both here and abroad -- should really be incensed about.