For thousands of years, the empire from Afghanistan in the west to modern day Pakistan and India in the centre, and Sri Lanka in the east was collectively called India. At the zenith of the Mughal rule, in modern Gross National Product (GNP) equivalence, India was the greatest economic superpower of the time. Though after the decisive Battle of Plassey in June 1757, the East India Company took over the rule of this economic juggernaut of the Middle Ages. The shares of the company were owned by private individuals with no direct control from the British Government.
In comparison, there is no present day private company that has a whole country as its asset, let alone, the asset being the greatest superpower in the world. The East India Company had a 250,000 strong private army in India. In 1835, East India Company issued its own Indian currency – effectively becoming the dejure state of the land. Around 200,000 strong of the East India Company private army were sepoys, local Hindu and Muslim soldiers. The rest of the 50,000 officers and soldiers were British.
In 1853, new “Enfield” rifles were introduced. To load the rifle, sepoys had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder. The cartridges were pre-greased with tallow. This was supposedly either derived from beef or lard (pork): offensive to the Hindus and Muslims respectively. Thus rumours started circulating that the British sought to destroy the religions of the Indian people. The narrative went as follows: as a way to ensure the destruction of religion, the East India Company is forcing the native soldiers to become unholy by biting the bullet. The hired guns of a mercenary army chartered by a private company were fine with murder of their brethren on the behest of faceless stock owners but not so comfortable with biting the bullet first.
This was an instance of the political entrepreneurs whipping up religious frenzy to gain specific objectives. A revolt spread throughout the expanse of India to reinstate the Indian aristocracy to power. From Bengal in the east to Punjab in the west, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims started militant rebellion. Though the rebellion lasted for a good many years, it did not yield intended consequences. The rebellion leaders were all captured and killed, and the British Crown dismantled East India Company and began the 100 year direct government rule of India. Everyone who supported the rebellion and their communities were completely disenfranchised, starved of all opportunities and lived in insolated poverty for the next 50 years.
The rumours of religious dishonour or breach of holiness have become much more frequent in the last two decades. In September 1988, the Indian writer of Kashmiri Muslim origin, Salman Rushdie, published his second novel, Satanic Verses. The novel took a swipe at arch angel Gabriel and questioned whether he was transferring revelations with the highest possible fidelity. The novel led to immediate controversy. A fatwa and a bounty were issued by the Iranian supreme spiritual leader. This played into the sectarian dynamics of Islam. The Muslims are divided between two large competing sects: Shiite and Sunni. Iran is a Shia theocracy. In response to the Shiite fatwa, the Sunni Islamic world responded in hurried catch-up with global riots and protests. Also as a reaction to the fatwa, a blanket ban was placed on the book in several counties.
Surely, the fatwa was not all about the novel’s apparent fairy tale humor in obvious bad taste. The Iranian Qum elite, through this carefully orchestrated move, achieved a definite upper hand in Political Islam, gaining a grudging endorsement of the new Shiite regime in the Muslim world. In the midst of heated reaction to the recent YouTube videos the long dormant fatwa on Salman Rushdie Iran has reissued with a raise in the bounty money on his life to USD 3.3 Millions.Even though Salman Rushdie has declared the video to be outrageous and doesn’t have the remotest link with the recent violence.In quick succession, Hafiz Saeed of Lashkar-i-Taiba (Army of the Righteous) has threatened to close down the US consulates in Pakistan.
However one looks at it, this is not a considerate and coherent response to the YouTube video. Slapping fatwa’s right and left of the issue will not stop the problem. Neither would threats from the likes of Hafiz Saeed shore up the image of Muslims everywhere. The YouTube video is the lowest imaginable instance of cyber bullying by an obviously deranged individual. A rational response would be to use this unfortunate instance to explain the great faith of more than a Billion people, reach out across faith lines, send out clerics to the western media forums and provide a counter narrative to those who have no other reference point to the Islamic world than news of Muslim rage. This uncontrollable rage is not helpful.