NEW DELHI, India – Dozens of anti-US protests shook Indian-administered Kashmir Friday, as thousands took to the streets to express their anger – marking what could be the largest demonstrations in Asia following the recent attack on the Libyan consulate.
Meanwhile, stone-throwers in India's deep south broke windows and smashed security cameras at the US consulate in Chennai.
With news outlets lumping these incidents together with outbreaks of violence in the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is tempting to see the protests in India as more evidence that the world is growing ever more hostile to Americans and American interests. But that's an alarmist interpretation of street action that has long been routine in this protest nation.
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“If you compare the current protests with the protests against President Bush's visit in 2008, those were far more widespread,” said Mujibur Rehman, a professor at New Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia University. “This is really, really insignificant, compared to that. And of course it's not happening in the manner reflected in Middle Eastern countries.”
With the US State Department warning American citizens of another demonstration in New Delhi on Tuesday, and opting to close the American Center and United States-India Educational Foundation (USIEF) for the day, that could very well change. But it would be stunning if serious violence broke out.
Street protests have been the primary form of political mobilization in India since the days of Mohandas K. Gandhi. And although the burning of effigies looks frightening on camera, it's hardly more unusual here than a rush hour traffic jam. The only thing that changes is the flag and the sign around the effigy's neck. And more often than not the demonstrations — or even riots — better reflect the efforts of political parties to drum up local enthusiasm than a spontaneous outpouring of anger.
On the same day that one mob was throwing rocks at the US consulate in Chennai, another group formed a human chain, standing neck deep in the sea off the coast of Tamil Nadu, to try to block the loading of atomic fuel at the Kudankulam nuclear reactor.
A few days before, police had dragged another group of protesters out of neck-deep water in Madhya Pradesh, where they were resisting a move to raise the height of the Indira Sagar dam. Repeatedly over the past year, anti-corruption protests have brought tens of thousands onto the streets in New Delhi and various other cities.
And on Thursday of this week, opposition parties and recalcitrant allies of Manmohan Singh's United Progessive Alliance (UPA) government alike plan to stage massive, country-wide demonstrations against the prime minister's moves to hike diesel prices and allow foreign retailers like Walmart into the market.
“Whenever the parties head toward major national elections, they try to whip up this kind of frenzy,” said A.K. Pasha, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University's Center for West Asian studies.
“Whether it is Mamata Banerjee in [West Bengal], or Mulayam Singh Yadav for Muslim votes in Uttar Pradesh, or the communist parties or other groups who feel they can pander to this overall feeling of resentment.”
To be sure, there is anti-American sentiment among Indian Muslims – who account for around 11 percent of the world's Islamic population, though they make up only around 15 percent of Hindu-dominated India. So here, as well as everywhere else, the State Department should continue to work to dispel the (widespread) impression that the US is fighting Islam.
At Friday's protests in Srinagar, demonstrators mixed their outrage at the “Innocence of Muslims” — the film that sparked attacks on the US embassy in Egypt and other protests across the Muslim world — with anger at America, chanting, “Down with America! Down with Israel! Long live Islam!” One demonstrator held up a placard describing Barack Obama as the “real terrorist.” And the crowd erupted when a young protester, his face covered, appeared at the gates of the historic Jamia Mosque, and set fire to a mockup of the stars and stripes.
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Meanwhile, in Chennai, as many as 4,000 protesters reportedly returned to the streets on Saturday, following the arrest and subsequent release of about 600 people for illegal assembly and the remanding of 18 people to 15 days in judicial custody for vandalism and violence, according to a police spokesman.
“It is a highly religious attached [issue],” S.N. Seshasai, joint commissioner of police for Chennai's eastern zone told GlobalPost by telephone.
“People are coming out on their own, not for any money [from the political parties] or anything like that. They are spending their own money and coming here.”
Nevertheless, it is important to see this anger in context, to recognize it for what it is, and to understand its limited potential impact.
There are two ways that Muslim anger can affect the US. Radical groups can target US citizens and assets for attacks, such as happened in Libya. Or a groundswell of political opposition can influence government policy to hurt US interests.
Neither is likely here. Such events are unpredictable and Tuesday's protest here in New Delhi will provide a clearer thermometer reading about where things are headed. But even in Kashmir there have been no attacks on Americans since the kidnapping and subsequent murder of two Americans, along with four other western tourists, in 1995. And despite the scary pictures, separatist leaders have denounced a call issued by a local cleric warning American tourists to leave the region immediately (which the US government has also advised would be wise).
Meanwhile, neither of the national parties which depend most heavily on Indian Muslims, the Uttar Pradesh-based Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party, has taken to the streets or issued inflammatory statements related to the “Innocence of Islam.” Nor has the Darul Uloom Deoband, the religious school that is the ideological center of Indian Islam, taken a stance of any kind on the film or subsequent protests – though it issued a fatwa banning Salman Rushdie from attending the Jaipur Literary Festival last January.
The bottom line is, these are political protests by fringe parties, with only local relevance.
Despite Seshasai's assertion that protesters have not been paid (a frequently used tactic), the demonstrations in Tamil Nadu were largely the handiwork of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TNMMK), a minor player looking to pull Muslim voters away from the dominant Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). And it appears that all of the protesters who engaged in violence at the US embassy were TNMMK workers.
Similar factors came into play in Kashmir. A militant separatist struggle that cost thousands of lives in the 1990s, together with the presence of as many as 500,000 Indian soldiers many locals consider an occupying force, has made Kashmir by far the region of India most influenced by pan-Islamism. Yet local politics likely played a crucial role in spurring and spreading the protests — as the weaker, separatist parties rely on street action to remain relevant despite the electoral dominance of the more moderate National Conference and People's Democratic Party.
“Kashmir's narrative of America's relationship with Islam is more driven by the narrative in Pakistan than in India,” said Jamia Millia Islamia's Rehman, referring to the Kashmiri separatist movement's long reliance on support from across the border.
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“In the case of Kashmir, because of the constant political turmoil, there are professional protesters, who are looking for opportunities, or whenever there is an opportunity they jump into it,” Rehman said.
Meanwhile, local observers say Kashmir these days is a tinderbox waiting for a spark. The authorities have been imposing curfews and similar measures at even the hint of a political march since more than a hundred people were killed in government action to put down massive anti-India protests in 2010.
In other words, anti-American feelings are indeed running hot in the disputed region, because of the perception that the US has backed away from pressuring India to resolve the Kashmir issue as Washington has drifted from Islamabad toward New Delhi. But any protest, whatever the provocation, is seen as an opportunity to mobilize, and eventually transforms into, a demonstration against the government of India.
And that's why the Indian authorities—not Americans—have reason to worry. Muslim rage has a way of sparking Hindu rage, even as both fires are stoked by irresponsible politicians and radicals.
Already this weekend, a riot broke out near New Delhi after some miscreants littered a railway station with torn up pages of the Koran, suggesting that some local actors may see an opportunity in the Muslims' heightened anger. Unlike the protests in Chennai and Kashmir, it made the front pages of most major newspapers here.
But there's no doubt you haven't heard about it. No Americans were involved or targeted.
– Additional reporting by Parvaiz Bukhari in Srinagar.