Over the years, politicians across the world have exploited ethnic and religious sentiments to mobilise support in their favour.
South Asia, which is home to almost 200 crore people representing every major and minor religious belief, has also been victim to this. The volume Politics Of Hate: Religious Majoritarianism in South Asia presents the research of noted scholars on the role of the media and political leaders in deploying hatred for political advantage. The book covers developments in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in an era of media incitement, orchestrated attacks on mosques, churches and temples, and identity politics.
Below is an excerpt from the introduction of the book, written by its editor.
The last decade or more has seen a rise in majoritarian communalism across large parts of the world. The situation is particularly grim in South Asia, home to almost 2 billion people, which includes followers of every major and minor religious belief in the world. The rise in religious extremism in this religiously diverse subcontinent is often a function of politics.
The partition of the subcontinent in 1947 along religious lines seems to have exacerbated the desire of majorities within the countries of the region to further consolidate their dominance. Pakistan, which was created on the basis of religion, has had several phases of suppression of the relatively small remaining religious minorities. India, a country founded on secular nationalism, has also demonstrated a slide towards religious nationalism over the last several years.
There is clearly a regional trend, and there is a need to examine it. This edited volume seeks to offer a distinct and original take on the issue of extremist religious hatred within the context of South Asia’s politics. Pakistan and India can both be cited as the prime examples of this phenomenon, though instances of communal majoritarianism undermining the rights and protections of minorities are also increasing in Bangladesh and in Sri Lanka.
By 2050, India will have the world’s largest Muslim population, in addition to its majority Hindu population, alongside Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians and Jews. Over the last few years, there has been a reported increase in violence targeting India’s Muslims. This rise in religious violence, often by vigilante groups that are sometimes condoned by the state, has raised questions about India’s religio-ethnic stability – something that could not even have been imagined in the first five decades of India’s independence.
In December 2019, the Indian Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which granted an expedited process of acquiring citizenship to Buddhists, Jains, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs from neighbouring countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh – but not to Muslims. This was seen as a signal that the Indian government saw Muslims differently from how it saw other communities.
A few months later, in February 2020, at the same time as then US President Donald Trump was in Delhi, the capital city witnessed one of the worst anti-Muslim riots in decades. Reports by human rights watchdogs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Muslim academics, human rights activists, former police officers and journalists all alleged anti-Muslim bias in the investigation of the riots by New Delhi police.
In September 2020, Amnesty International was forced to shut down its India office. The human rights watchdog ‘accused the government of pursuing a “witch-hunt” against human rights organisations’. India is the only democracy where Amnesty has been forced to shut offices.
Over the last few years, there has been a rise in religiously motivated attacks against non-Hindu communities in India, especially Muslims and Christians. During COVID-19, there has been a rise in attacks targeting and blaming Muslims for what was called, in the media, ‘corona jihad’. The local and central governments and the media blamed the spread of COVID-19 on a March 2020 conference held by the Islamic Tablighi Jamaat organisation. Even though courts across India dismissed these charges, the damage had already been done.
In July 2021, jailed tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy died in a prison in Mumbai, at the age of eighty-four. A Jesuit priest, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, was arrested in October 2020 after being accused of terrorism along with sixteen other activists, academics and lawyers. Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, had referred to this detention as ‘inexcusable’.
Pakistan, founded as the homeland for British India’s Muslims, has over time become a country where all minorities – both Muslim and non-Muslim – have faced persecution and harassment. Where there were once 17% non-Muslim minorities in areas constituting Pakistan at the start of 1947, today, minorities comprise only 3% of Pakistan’s population. Pakistan was ethnically cleansed of its Hindu and Sikh populations at the time of Partition and discriminatory policies and persecution have led to many Christians and Ahmadis emigrating from the country.
Pakistan has the strongest blasphemy laws in the world and is the only country whose constitution has sought to define who is – and is not – a Muslim. In early August 2021, an eight-year-old Hindu boy was accused of blasphemy and is being held in protective police custody in Pakistani Punjab, becoming the youngest person ever to be charged with blasphemy in the country. When the boy was released on bail, a Muslim mob attacked the local Hindu temple, damaging statues and burning down the temple’s main door.
In May 2021, a Muslim mob attacked a Christian village in Pakistani Punjab after a quarrel between young Christians who cleaned the entrance to their church and a Muslim gentleman who passed by. This is not the first time Christians have been attacked or their places of worship attacked in Pakistan.
Ahmadis have long been persecuted in Pakistan, and the Constitution of Pakistan does not even recognize them as Muslims. However, over the last few years, there has been a rise in attacks against Ahmadis. According to human rights activists, this spike can be traced to the rise of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), formerly Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA), an Islamist militant outfit that rose to popularity on the issue of blasphemy.
Most Islamist groups argue that Pakistan’s status as an Islamic republic justifies defending the sensibilities of the Muslim majority at the expense of the minorities. At different times in Pakistan’s short history, various Islamist scholars have articulated the need for different treatment of Muslims and non-Muslims in the light of Islamic law. The country’s hostility towards India has also resulted in nurturing, through textbooks and the media, an anti-Hindu sentiment.
Bangladesh differs from Pakistan in that it was founded as a secular Muslim country. But it has, over the years, become a battleground for Islamist groups who would like to lead the country down the path of an Islamic state. In March 2020, hundreds of supporters of Hefazat-e-Islam, a radical Islamist group in Bangladesh, attacked houses belonging to Hindus in the country’s north-eastern Sylhet division. These protests spread to the capital city, Dhaka, with thousands of Islamist activists marching in the streets.
Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, originally pitting the majority Sinhalese against the minority Tamils, has also taken on a religious dimension. Buddhist Sinhalese have started targeting Sri Lanka’s Muslims, some of whom have attacked Christians. In April 2019, suicide bombers attacked churches and hotels across Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, killing more than 290 people.12 Attacks against Sri Lankan Muslims have increased since the Easter attacks. Many Muslim-owned businesses face informal boycotts and anti-Muslim riots broke out in two provinces one month after the Easter attacks.
There have also been efforts to deny Muslims the right to be buried in accordance with their religion. In February 2021, the Sri Lankan government first announced that it would only allow cremation for those dying from COVID-19. After doctors’ groups, the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations (UN) and local human rights activists protested, the government backed off and allowed burial for Muslims and Christians.
One month later, in March 2021, Sarath Weerasekara, Sri Lanka’s minister of public security, announced that the government planned to ban the burqa, and would close more than 1,000 Islamic schools across the country. The minister was quoted as saying that ‘the burqa was a sign of religious extremism and had a direct impact on national security’. After protests from human rights organizations, the government rescinded this policy, which nevertheless reflected the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights grants to everyone the right to believe and practise their religion, as well as the right to change those beliefs. But over the last decade, governments across South Asia have taken legal measures to prohibit religious conversions from the dominant religious group. These anti-conversion laws are a violation of the individual’s right to choose their religious faith.
The motivation behind these laws, though not officially stated as such, is to protect the dominant religious tradition from a perceived threat from minority religious groups.
The methods of preventing conversion vary. In India, several state legislatures have adopted laws limiting conversions away from Hinduism. In Pakistan, national blasphemy laws are used to criminalize attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims. Moreover, governments in India, Pakistan and Nepal are tightening their control over non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially foreign missionary groups.
The rise of majoritarianism, and the desire for religiously ‘purer’ communities, is also manifested in the heightened sensitivities among majority populations over interfaith marriages or marriages predicated on the conversion of one spouse.
In Pakistan, poor Hindu and Christian girls, sometimes underage, are converted through forced marriages but since the conversion is in the direction of the majority, the legal system tends to ignore the element of coercion. In India, even interfaith marriages resulting from romantic relationships between adults are described as ‘love jihad’. Despite the persistence of these allegations, credible data has not been presented to demonstrate the extent and nature of these allegedly coerced conversions. In fact, the National Investigation Agency in India in October 2018 closed an investigation of alleged love jihad and found that accusations of a Muslim plot to convert Hindu women were unfounded.
Farahnaz Ispahani has been a leading voice for women and religious minorities in Pakistan for the past 25 years, first as a journalist, then as a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly and, most recently, as a scholar based in the United States.
Featured illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty
This article was first published on The Wire.