NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Reports that Hindu militants may be involved in bomb attacks first blamed on Islamists may open a Pandora’s Box for India’s beleaguered security services and become a key voter issue before general elections next year.
At least 10 people, including a serving army officer and a Hindu monk and nun, have been arrested over alleged involvement in blasts in the Muslim-dominated town of Malegaon in Maharashtra that killed four people.
The same Indian army officer is being investigated over a bomb attack in February 2007 that killed 68 people on the Samjhauta Express, a train between Delhi and Lahore, police said. The attack killed mostly Pakistani passengers.
The reports have proved an embarrassment for the main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as it prepares to take on the Congress-led government in both state elections this year and general elections in early 2009.
The BJP has been quick to criticise the Congress-led government for being soft on terrorism when it involves Muslims or Pakistan, but critics say it has been less willing to call for a clampdown on Hindu groups in the face of the latest allegations.
“In the wake of daily arrests of... (Hindu)... terror outfits, the BJP stood exposed,” senior Congress leader Veerappa Moily told the Mail Today. “They cannot take a high moral ground.”
While Islamists are suspects in many other attacks this year, the spectre of Hindu terrorist groups haunts many in India, which emerged from a traumatic partition in 1947 when hundreds of thousands were killed in religious clashes.
“Given India’s diversity, a very delicate balance has been maintained,” said security analyst C. Uday Bhaskar.
“If it is punctured, we will have very serious internal disturbances, aggravating the internal security of the country.”
While many analysts believe this case could be isolated or limited to a small group, some believe it could signal something deeper and more sinister: a growing militant network that believes Muslims and a secular government are threatening what is basically a Hindu nation.
It is not just Muslims that are the target. In Orissa state, Hindu groups angry at reports of conversions were blamed for attacks on Christians in August and September. At least 38 people were killed.
“The Hindu terrorist ... has been formed to retaliate and they are functioning in the atmosphere of hatred politics which runs deep into the social system,” said Amulya Ganguli, a political analyst.
But while an embarrassment, analysts are divided on whether any revelations about Hindu militants will hurt the BJP.
Some see it as an obsession of the chattering classes while millions worry more about inflation, an economic slowdown and a general perception that the government has struggled to bring anyone to justice for bombings, regardless of their religion.
Experts also say quick conclusions cannot be drawn by the arrests. There are reports of inconsistencies in the cases and nothing has been proved.
“This is not an open and shut case, going by the record of investigating agencies,” Major General Ashok Mehta, a security analyst, said.
As elections approach, the noise is unlikely to die down.
“Terrorism is definitely on the agenda of political parties and with elections round the corner everyone will talk about it,” said Bhaskar.