Politics of religion undermines democracy in South Asia

The bitterness engendered by conflict underpinned by religion goes on

by Syed Badrul Ahsan
( November 15, 2018, Dhaka, Sri Lanka Guardian) Seventy one years after the partition of India along religious lines and the grant of independence to India and Pakistan by the British colonial power, religion continues to be a divisive factor in the politics of the region, affecting not just relations between the three nations which today make up the landscape but also the internal dynamics of the subcontinent. Back in 1947, the trauma caused by Partition saw as many as 14,000,000 people — Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs — displaced and forced to leave their ancestral homes and make their way to a new country. In addition, the division of India left close to 2,000,000 people, again Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs, dead in communal rioting even as freedom came to a fractured subcontinent.

The communal frenzy which marred the departure of British imperialism from South Asia in 1947 was well carried into 1971 when Bangladesh, till then the eastern province of Pakistan separated from the rest of the country by a thousand miles of Indian territory, fought its way to freedom through a guerrilla war and with the assistance of the Indian army. In the nine months preceding the end of the war in December 1971, tens of thousands of Bengalis, Hindus as well as Muslims, had been murdered by the Pakistan army in an effort to repudiate the results of a general election which had resulted in a majority for the Bengali-dominated political party, the Awami League, and suppress the Bengali nationalist struggle.
The bitterness engendered by conflict underpinned by religion goes on.
In these past couple of weeks, fanatical Muslim clerics and their followers have spilled out on the streets of major Pakistani cities to protest the Supreme Court’s acquittal of a young Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, in a death sentence based on charges of blasphemy handed down nearly a decade ago. Bibi’s guilt had been to drink water from a cup used by her Muslim co-workers. The resultant fracas ended with the Muslim women accusing her of having insulted Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, and her subsequent trial and conviction on charges of committing blasphemy.  Aasia Bibi remains in a secret location, and a pusillanimous civilian government has been bending over backwards to reassure the rioting clerics that no one will be allowed to undermine the Islamic faith.
As if that were not enough, in neigbouring India, where Narendra Modi and his Hindu rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rode to power in 2014, a renewal of communal politics has put secular democracy on the back foot. Quite a good number of Muslims have been assaulted and killed by Hindu mobs on suspicion of slaughtering cows — and cows are sacred animals to Hindus — and consuming their meat. The response of the government to the violence has been tepid, despite the outrage caused by such incidents among broad sections of the population. In recent days, the Hindu nationalists have clearly gone a step further. The BJP state government in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest province, headed by Yogi Adityanath, a rabid Hindu cleric, decided to change the name of the historic city of Allahabad to Prayag. Extremist Hindus claim Prayag was the name of the city before the arrival of Muslims in India hundreds of years ago.
In effect, Hindu nationalists have gone on an offensive to ensure that their revised, and controversial, versions of history restore what they see as their ancient faith-based social structure. It is a trend which a couple of years ago forced the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen to resign from his position as vice chancellor of Nalanda University in the state of Bihar. A few days ago, Ramachandra Guha, without question one of India’s foremost historians in these times, was compelled to withdraw himself from a senior teaching position at Allahabad University after student supporters of the BJP made it known that he was not welcome. Guha’s ‘guilt’ is his consistent advocacy of a historical narrative which does not conform to the revisionist interpretations of history which Modi and his people have been attempting to impose on the Indian intellectual psyche. Guha’s predicament was an eerie reminder of how a celebrated work, ‘The Hindus’, by the American scholar Wendy Doniger was forced off the shelves in bookstores in India under rightwing pressure soon after the BJP came to power.
If Pakistan and India have been passing through critical phases in their politics owing to the use of the religion card in so very many negative ways, Bangladesh has had its own problems. A couple of weeks ago, the Hefazat-e-Islam, an extremist Islamist religious body which advocates keeping women away from education and at home and has forced certain secular aspects of education out of school textbooks for the young, accorded a reception to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, describing her as Qawmi Mata, or Qawmi Mother. Qawmi madrasas, or religious schools, are run by the Hefazat and do not permit any supervision by the authorities of the syllabi they follow. The government, in the run-up to general elections scheduled for the end of December this year, has been going out on a limb to win the support of these Islamist fanatics through blandishments of a varied sort. The government’s dealings with the Hefazat today are at variance with its treatment of the organization in May 2013, when thousands of Hefazat followers took to the streets of the capital Dhaka and refused to leave until, as they said, the fall of Sheikh Hasina’s administration. Security forces were compelled to use force and flush out the Hefazat men through sustained action in the pre-dawn hours.
Religious communalism, among other factors, has thus prevented the three states of a once united India from joining the global mainstream in terms of liberal democratic progress, comprehensive economic development and, in an overall sense, from rolling back the memories of the horrors committed seventy one years ago.
Pakistan continues to be weighed down by religious intolerance symbolized by an increasingly fanatical Muslim majority. The secular democracy put in place by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in India is under threat from its present leadership. In Bangladesh, a growing spectre of religious extremism typified by clerics of the Hefazat mould is hardly being pushed back by the government and the political opposition.

(Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor-in-Charge, The Asian Age, in Dhaka, Bangladesh) 

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