THE BLOG
12/31/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Kashmiri Perspective on the Mumbai Attacks and Communal Relations

Dr. Amit Wanchoo is from Srinagar, a town of half a million people that is the capital of India's fractious Kashmir region. Just 28, Dr Wanchoo can seem boyish at times, but has an underlying seriousness beyond his years.

He comes from a prominent Hindu family of the Kashmiri Pandit community, and his grandfather was murdered by Muslim militants in 1992.

Despite this, and the climate of separatist violence in the 1990s, his family did not join the Hindu exodus from the region; his grandfather had always stood for being a Kashmiri over and above his community, and their emotional bonds were too strong.

Today, Wanchoo is a medical doctor - with a particular interest in psychiatry and oncology - and heads his family business, Eaton Laboratories, Kashmir's only pharmaceutical manufacturing plant.

He founded the Rotary Club of Kashmir in 2003, which is very active in education and health care charitable work. He has been a Commonwealth Fellow and a Yale World Fellow.

But he is most famous - a household name throughout Kashmir - for bringing together the different communities through the arts. He is the founder, leader, and songwriter of Immersion, the only rock band in Kashmir; the members include three Muslims (one of whom is a woman), a Sikh, and himself. Their music blends Western pop and rock with the Sufi music of Kashmir, and is enormously popular.

I spoke to him on Thursday in Singapore, and what was originally meant to be a general conversation about the state of Hindu-Muslim relations in India took on a tragically specific slant, as the coordinated terrorist attacks in Mumbai had taken place the night before, and hostage situations were still ongoing.

What is your reaction to these latest attacks?

"It's very unfortunate. Anywhere that people get killed is the biggest tragedy. And what happened in Bombay (Mumbai) is very different from before. There has never been firing, there have only been blasts. This [the teams of gunmen] is a new development, and it is very dangerous. We must address the underlying issues, and they have to investigate this seriously and properly."

How do you address these issues?

"We must have more intercommunity dialogue. You've got to involve people from different communities. You can never associate terror with one particular people. But in every religion, in every community, there is a particular class of people who are there to create confusion and disturbance."

What class of people is that?

"Whenever there is any incident, if it happens along religious lines, people are always emotional, but actually, at heart, people never want to hurt another community.

"But there are always people there who want to get mileage out of the violence, whether it is a vote bank, or some of them want colonies for certain communities in particular areas, or they want to project themselves as people who care about their community.

"These are they guys who are the brains and networkers behind such acts."

Do you think this violence is a genuine expression of grievance on the part of India's Muslims?

"Violence is never genuine. If you start thinking like that, then the whole world will kill each other. Whatever differences, there are always ways of expressing it. But you must involve people in dialogue, and carry on doing it.

"After any incident, like the Gujarat riots [in which more than a thousand people - mostly Muslims - were killed in communal violence in 2002], there are people on TV talking for 15 days, and then nothing.

"You must address these things, and keep on talking among the affected communities. We have to involve Muslim intellectuals in dialogue with other religions, and set up a task force. Otherwise the country is going to break one day."

I'm surprised that you say intellectuals should be part of the process.

"Everyone has a role to play. The thing about intellectuals is that they have their own following, their own influence, but we have failed them, they are not followed, they are not given a space or a platform."

What are the things that they have been saying that haven't been followed?

"For example, after any rioting, such as the Babri Masjid [the 16th century mosque destroyed by Hindu nationalists in 1992], they had recommended that those involved be punished at once, but also to start a campaign to reach out to the minority (Muslim) community to state that this was not an attack on the community as a whole by another community, but rather it was the handiwork of a few people.

"The poor people, the uneducated people, you need to reach them through TV or radio to build tolerance, but instead what you see are ads that will subtly attack one community, campaigns that mobilize to target one community."

You're saying we have to use the media to create dialogue?

"Yes, use the media, but you have to build your task force. And it must be very active, not just meet this year to say, 'Okay, we will meet again next year'. There must be many activities. And you have to be harsh on those who are trying to create wedges between different communities."

But what do you do if the violence is instigated or directed by, for example, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, as the Indian Government has alleged in the past?

"I don't want to question [the assessment of India's] intelligence agencies, but as far as violence is concerned, it is our own people. It is not outsiders coming. In any state, it is not just Pakistanis coming and doing it, it is the local people doing it and every passing year the involvement has increased.

"We must ask: Why are your own countrymen becoming more attracted to this thing rather than contributing towards the country?"

What do you make of the statement of one of the Mumbai attackers to the Indian media - something along the lines that they love their country as much as anyone but India must treat its Muslims better?

"Grievances can always be addressed by talking not by attacking. As I said, it's always personal interests that cause communal tensions to flare up. Minorities always have a fair psychosis - you always feel unsafe, vulnerable - but that is applicable to any place in the world.

"There are many good Muslim leaders that have addressed these issues and told the government and the media that we need to address these issues. We need to take them seriously.

"But we should not tolerate violence, from any community. Policing must be active and it must be effective. But if you have to implement your anti-terrorism measures, such as something like Pota [the controversial and draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act], you have to do it in a very realistic, targeted way, not excessively, because then you get a backlash."

Do you think that your point of view is common? As someone whose family was affected by violence, was there a temptation to retreat into hatred, with your grandfather having been killed by Islamic terrorism?

"First of all, I think that is really a wrong word. There is no such thing as Islamic terrorism. There is no 'Islamic' violence, there is no 'Hindu' violence. Religion has nothing to do with terrorism and violence.

"The problem is that people who have taken up preaching, go on preaching things out of context. The ordinary people don't read the books, or they read them superficially, they don't go deep into it. So they follow these preachers blindly, especially rural people, from the backward areas.

"What I would like to see is an exam for preachers, like a Civil Service exam, where religious teachers are assessed by a board that includes people from other religions as well. Because the preachers are the ones who are going to have the most impact on uneducated people, whether it's five times a day, or two or three times a week, depending on the community. So you have to make sure preachers play a positive role, because they are the most influential.

"My view may not be that common, but for anything with substance you must start somewhere, otherwise we are going to wind up in a very negative world. There are bad and good people in every community. There is a particular percentage of bad people in every community. They actually all belong together in a community of hatred.

"But we have to look on the positive side. There are fantastic people in every community. They all belong together in one community. So we have to get them together, and get them talking. "

[This article was first published yesterday in Malaysia's Sunday Star.]