A week ago, I returned from a long, fast trip that ended up in Bangalore and New Delhi, where I had the sobering opportunity to discuss religion writing in the context of modern India with several audiences of journalists, old and young, and a collection of academics and politicos. I say the experience was sobering for a simple reason. I learned that it is much, much harder to "get religion" in one of the world's most complex religious cultures, in a "secular" nation that is also built atop fault religious fault lines that crack and shift on a regular basis.
To cut to the chase: Many journalists in India believe that it is impossible to openly discuss religious issues in the mainstream press there -- especially covering what is consistently called "communal violence" -- because doing so will only create more violence. You get the story wrong and people could die. You get certain stories right and even more people could die. It's hard for American journalists to understand when professionals make a case for incomplete and inaccurate journalism on religious issues, but I could hear their point -- loud and clear.
As part of my lectures there, I kept digging into U.S. coverage of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai and the difficulty that American journalists had admitting that the Islamists clearly set out to kill Jews, Americans, Brits and Hindus, roughly in that order. Click here for a flashback on that subject.
What I heard from many Indian journalists was fascinating. The Mumbai case was so drenched in religion that even the Indian press had to admit it and cover that angle. In particular, it was crucial for journalists to explore the complex reactions of Muslims in India to this massacre -- especially the reactions of the millions of Muslims who were just as appalled as everyone else by what happened. In effect, the Mumbai massacre required journalists to openly admit that the terrorists were Muslims and then to say that they were only one kind of Muslim, thus allowing for the exploration of the views and beliefs of other Muslims in India.
Now, I bring this up for a simple reason. Yesterday, I read a Washington Post account of the trial of Pakistani-born Ajmal Amir Kasab, an alleged Mumbai gunman whose image was recorded by a surveillance camera (see the image with this post). Having just returned from India, I plunged into the story.
So I read and I read and I read. I know that this is simply a trial story. I also know that the big idea of this story is how emotional this trial is and how important it is to modern Indians.
But, folks, there has to be more to the religion side of this event and its aftermath than THIS:
Pakistani-born Ajmal Amir Kasab, 21, is accused of being one of the two assailants caught on film at the train station, where 48 people died. He is also the only alleged gunman captured alive during the terrifying three days beginning Nov. 26, when 10 men arrived in Mumbai by boat and attacked 10 sites, including two five-star hotels and a Jewish outreach center, killing more than 170 people. His trial, on charges of terrorism, criminal conspiracy and waging war against the state, began two months ago, and the stakes could not be higher for India.
For years, the government in New Delhi has accused Pakistan-based Islamist militant groups of fomenting terrorist attacks in India. But this is the first time a Pakistani national has been arrested and brought to justice after police said he was caught on camera engaging in terrorist activities.
That's it. This is simply a matter of India and Pakistan? Is that how people discuss this case in one of the most complex and fervent religious cultures in the world?
Frankly I was amazed. Is it now easier to talk about the religion ghosts in this story in India than it is in America? Just asking.