The sad story of South Asian secularism

The sad story of South Asian secularism

By: || Updated: 18 Oct 2014 05:09 AM
Calcutta: Of the members of Saarc, India is the largest in terms of size, population and gross national product. It also enjoys a qualitative distinction, which may be as significant. This is that India is the only state in South Asia which has never identified itself with a particular religion.




Buddhism is the official religion of Bhutan and Sri Lanka. Pakistan is an Islamic Republic. Sunni Islam is the official religion of the Maldives. Till 2008, Nepal was a Hindu State. Bangladesh was born in 1971 as a secular republic, but when General Ershad was president in the 1980s, its Constitution was amended to assign a privileged place to Islam. Unlike these other countries, India has not (or not yet) identified a particular faith as that of the nation as a whole.


There remains a slippage between precept and practice. Despite our secular Constitution, religious majoritarianism has often reared its ugly head in our country. The 1950s were a time of relative social peace, this broken by a major Hindu-Muslim riot in Jabalpur. Through the 1960s and 1970s, there were episodes of inter-religious violence in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat and Maharashtra. In 1984, Hindu mobs butchered Sikhs in Delhi and other North Indian cities. In the 1990s, Islamic fundamentalists purged the Valley of Kashmir of the bulk of its Hindu population. These acts were horrific enough. Yet an even higher human toll was exacted by the Ramjanmabhoomi movement of the 1980s and 1990s. This led to a series of bloody riots across north and western India, in which the main sufferers were ordinary Muslims. In 2002, Hindu extremists in Gujarat killed more than a thousand Muslims, and rendered hundreds of thousands homeless.


Muslims in many parts of India continue to be vulnerable and insecure. This is unlikely to change soon. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose influence increases manifold whenever the Bharatiya Janata Party is in power, remains committed to building a Hindu theocratic state. Recent statements by the RSS chief, and by BJP MPs and ministers, make manifest the party’s intrinsic majoritarianism. The ascendancy of the Hindu rightwing has perceptibly changed the nature of Indian politics and social life, moving it even further away from pluralism and toleration.


India’s record in treating its religious minorities is mixed. Yet, it positively shines when compared to Pakistan’s. Unlike in India, where there is a constitutional separation of faith and State, Pakistan was explicitly created as a homeland for Muslims. In the first three decades, the religious character of the Pakistani State might perhaps be characterized as ‘Islam-lite’. Minorities knew their (modest) place, but they were not actively persecuted. However, the Islamization of the country proceeded rapidly under the long reign (1977-88) of General Zia-ul-Haq. Sharia laws were adopted. Severe blasphemy laws were enacted to silence the minorities. Sects like the Ahmediyas were declared ‘un-Islamic’. There was a proliferation of madrasas funded from the Gulf, teaching the harsh Wahhabi-ist version of Islam.


The Sunni militants first went after the Hindus and Christians. These were small in number and easily tamed. So they then targeted Pakistan’s large Shia community, which had once exercised enormous influence among the country’s professional and political elite (Jinnah himself was a Shia). In recent years, there have been a series of brutal attacks on Shia shrines and neighbourhoods. The jihadis also target Muslim politicians and intellectuals who believe that Hindus and Christians must not, in law or in practice, be treated as second-class citizens.


At Partition, there were many more Hindus in East Pakistan than in West Pakistan. Through the 1950s, there was a steady migration of Hindus into West Bengal. In 1963, after the alleged theft of a relic of the Prophet from Srinagar’s Hazratbal mosque, there were attacks on Hindus in East Pakistan, leading to a further wave of migration into India. Even so, at the time of the Bangladesh War of 1971, several million Hindus still remained. Many Hindu activists participated in the Bangladeshi freedom struggle, which centred around linguistic rather than religious identity.


At its birth, Bangladesh was proud of its secular ethos. It adopted as its national anthem a song by Rabindranath Tagore, who was, of course, a Bengali Hindu. However, in the four decades since Independence, there has been a creeping Islamification of society, although it has by no means gone as far — or assumed such violent forms — as in Pakistan. Even so, Buddhists in the Chakma Hills have had their lands handed over to Muslim migrants from the plains. And Bengali Hindus continue to vote with their feet for India.


In Sri Lanka, too, the fundamental axis of political conflict was once language rather than faith. The Sinhala majority in the south felt threatened by the economic advances made by the Tamil minority in the north. So they made Sinhala the sole state language, knowledge of which became mandatory for college admission and government employment. This move sparked a civil war, which lasted the better part of four decades.


In 1972, as the Sinhala/Tamil conflict was escalating, Buddhism was made the state religion of Sri Lanka. This was a further slap on the face of the Tamils, who were Hindus, Muslims, and Christians — but not Buddhist. Religious majoritarianism was now joined to its linguistic counterpart. Sinhala Buddhist monks became cheerleaders for the Sinhala-dominated Sri Lankan Army. After the war ended in 2009, Buddhist clergymen flocked to the side of the authoritarian president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Then, earlier this year, a militant group of Buddhists attacked Muslims in eastern Sri Lanka.


As it happens, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were no tolerant pluralists either. They too targeted Muslims, torching homes and mosques in Jaffna, Mannar, Batticaloa and other towns. Tamil Christians were also subject to harassment. In this manner, the Tigers played their part in converting a Sinhala/Tamil argument into a Buddhist/Hindu conflict.


Bhutan is widely hailed as a peaceful and beautiful idyll. The tourists who visit its monasteries and forests do not always know that back in the 1990s the State, keen to protect its Buddhist essence, pushed hundreds of long-settled Hindu families across the border into Nepal.


Through all of the 19th and 20th centuries, Nepal itself was a Hindu State. The King was seen as the representative of Vishnu on Earth. After the abolition of the monarchy in 2008, Nepal became a secular republic. It may be that of all South Asian countries, Nepal has the least bad record when it comes to communal violence. There have been attacks on Muslims, but in general the country’s major fault-lines are economic (landed versus landless) or geographical (plains vs hills) or social (Brahmins vs other castes), rather than religious.


For most of its post-colonial history, India and Sri Lanka were the only two electoral democracies in South Asia. Now Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal have joined their ranks. Even monarchical Bhutan has had its elections. For the first time, every nation in the region has an elected government. The achievement of electoral democracy in the countries of South Asia has not however led to a sense of equal citizenship. Poverty and inequality are widespread. As worrying is the visible discrimination by language and (especially) by faith. It is hard — and sometimes impossible — to be a Hindu or Christian or Shia in Pakistan, a Hindu or Muslim in Sri Lanka, a Hindu or Buddhist in Bangladesh, a Muslim in India or Nepal.


-The Telegraph, Calcutta

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