NEW DELHI - Before Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has set foot on Indian soil, his historic visit - the first by an Israeli premier to the country - is sparking a raging controversy here.
Demonstrations by the Muslim community on Friday at the Minara Mosque in Mumbai were a clear indication of the tension. Demonstrators strung up a dummy in Sharon's image, its head wrapped in a black sack. One of the demonstrators posters said "Sharon is the enemy of the people." Others branded him "the enemy of humanity." If anyone believed the message sent by the hanging dummy, to which four Star of David symbols were attached, was not sufficiently clear, another poster nearby read "Sharon must be hung."
Sharon is planning to leave for India as scheduled tomorrow, despite Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas's resignation yesterday. The visit comes 11 years after Israel established diplomatic ties with India.
A few observers said that the Mumbai demonstration was the opening round of larger, rowdier demonstrations that would take place after Sharon's arrival tomorrow. Others said these events are mainly symbolic. "The Muslims want to show their supporters that they are looking out for their interests. When the shah of Iran visited here in 1978, there was a bigger storm," the political editor of The Times of India newspaper Dr. Manoj Joshi told Haaretz.
Yet is is hard to ignore the rhetorical intensity of the opponents to Sharon's visit. Syed Ahmed Buckhari, the Imam of New Delhi's large Jama Masjid, yesterday lashed out at India and Israel, which he said formed an "anti-Islamic alliance." He added that "while the Indian government always stated it was acting to quash terror, Sharon's invitation can only be interpreted as supporting terror, because Israel is a terrorist state."
The Imam of Tipu Sultan mosque in Kolkata, Rahman Barkati, gave similar messages when he blasted the nationalist Hindu ruling party BJP for the "anti-Islamic atmosphere it is creating in the state together with the U.S. and Israel."
Barkati's statements, hinting that radical Hindus, nationalist Zionists and neo-conservative, fundamentalist Americans have opened a clash of civilizations, have considerable influence in certain sectors among India's 140 million strong Muslim community.
But Muslims are not the only ones concerned over Sharon's visit. On Friday the two left wing parties, SP and RJD, joined former premier Deve Gowda, a member of the center-left party Janata Dal, in declaring Sharon's visit "not worthy." The two parties issued an official statement saying "to receive such a man as a guest of honor constitutes an insult to and contempt for India's traditional uncompromising support in the Palestinian struggle for national liberty and an independent state." The two parties also called on the Indian public to come out and demonstrate against Sharon, "who is directly responsible for the massacre of 3,000 Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon."
Before the statement was released, India's Communist Party announced it intends to hold a demonstration outside the Israeli embassy in New Delhi. Left wing demonstrators promised to disrupt Sharon's visit to the mausoleum erected in the city in memory of the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi. "It is not proper that the Palestinians' oppressor should visit the site dedicated to a leader who has become synonymous with tolerance and restraint," they said. "Even Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf, who is considered India's sworn enemy, did not arouse on his visit in July 2001 the antagonism that Sharon does," said Praful Bidawi, one of India's most prominent columnists.
The fact that India's congressional opposition party failed to reach an agreement on whether its leader, Sonia Gandhi, should show up to her scheduled meeting with Sharon, underscores his statement.
Government spokesmen hastily called a press conference to ward off the criticism. One spokesman said Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Sha'ath did not notice any pro-Israeli drift in India's policy on his visit last week. A cabinet member who would not identify himself was quoted in the local press mocking "the obsessive rhetoric of the left wing parties," which are mired in the past. The Economic Times' editorial yesterday was entitled "Shalom, Sharon!" but the subtitle said "but we demand justice for the Palestinians." The writer scolds the opposition, but also attacks the government for completely ignoring the "real and legitimate" sentiments of the objectors to the tightening ties with Israel.
Israel's embassy tried to tone down the importance of the objections to Sharon's visit.
"Left wing groups are trying to take advantage of the visit to attack the government. It's more political manipulation than real criticism toward Sharon. In any case the criticizers do not represent a majority in the state's politics," an embassy source said.
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