Hassan Gardezi Comments:

The Question of Religious Minorities in the South Asian Nation States

The SANSAD Forum has raised a pertinent question regarding religion as a source of social conflict in the South Asian countries. Why is it that even after more than six decades of independence the South Asian subcontinent is plagued by religious intolerance and violence, and the extremist components of the majority religious groups, Islamists in Pakistan and Hidituwa conglomerate (parivar) in India in particular, continue to battle for appropriating the state for their exclusive rule?

In other words how do we explain that Religious consciousness and conflict have continued to dominate the overall socio-political dynamics in these countries, rather than class consciousness and conflict? Does a credible explanation lie somewhere in the Marxist thesis of Asiatic Mode of Production? Or is there some truth in the Gandhian assertion that South Asian culture is concerned more with matters spiritual as opposed to the “Western culture which is dominated by materialism? These frameworks may have some theoretical utility, but immediate relevance for coming to grips with the problem seems to lie in a sentence within the Forum moderator’s introduction to the subject. The sentence reads: “In this battle religion functions not as religion, either as doctrine or practice, but as ideology in the service of economic, social and political interests of particular religion identified groups.”

The Muslim league leaders of Pakistan were the first to come up with the construct of Islamic ideology in the newly created state of Pakistan despite the warning held out by their supreme leader, Jinnah that religion had nothing to do with the affairs of the state. Led by Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan they passed the Objectives Resolution in the Constituent Assembly in 1949 to Islamise the state of Pakistan. But then came along the chief of Pakistan army, Gen. Ayub Khan, who seized state power and dismissed the League politicians on charges of serving their own economic, social and political interests rather than those of the public, irrespective of their pious Islamic pretention. That was just the beginning of the nexus between religion and politics in Pakistan which has in the course of its turbulent history involved other external state and non-state actors, ending up in the country’s acquisition of the dubious reputation as the “epicentre of global terrorism.”

The Indian National Congress (INC) leaders, unlike the Muslim League of Pakistan chose a secular constitutional designation for the Republic of India in 1947, and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru kept the state policy focus, at least in theory, on equitable economic development, keeping Hindu nationalist parties at bay. It was Nehru among the INC leaders who expressed serious interest in addressing the problems of mass poverty and inequality in South Asia. He saw the problem of mass poverty not only as the result of colonial exploitation but also as a function of indigenously evolved structures of inequality. In his first presidential address at the Lahore session of the INC in 1929 he was quite emphatic about the need to deal with the problem of inequality by pointing out that India “remains fallen” as a result of having built a society based on the “structural inequality” of caste system.

However, Nehru’s egalitarian politics did not last for long after he took office as prime minister. He was under constant pressure both internally by his senior Congress party colleagues, and externally by the Anglo-American Cold War alliance to give up his self-proclaimed socialist ideas in favour of free enterprise ideology. The end of his socialist disposition came rather suddenly in 1962 when the incident of clash between Indian and Chinese troops broke out over a disputed stretch of the Himalayan border. Taking advantage of this so called “India-China Border War,” the United States and United Kingdom rushed in with packages of economic and military aid to India which Nehru and his economic planner found hard to refuse.

With the death of Nehru two years later in 1964 the field was left wide open for laissez fair policy pushers and Hindu nationalists. Right wing Hindu nationalist groups became stronger under the short lived government of Shastri and the rather long but policy-wise vacillating rule of Indira Gandhi. After Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 aggressive Hindu nationalism in conjunction with US sponsored neoliberalism has completely submerged the issues of poverty and inequality, especially during the full term Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government 1999 to 2004. Today while the neoliberal economist, Manmohan Singh, administers India as prime minister on behalf of INC, the bulk of most ardent anti-poverty activists have receded into the jungles of central India to fight the ruling establishment as “Maoist” rebels and Hindu majority groups have accelerated their violence against Muslims and Christians in the cities.

To make a long story short, we see a pattern unfolding in the South Asian region, particularly in two of its largest nations in particular. Since partition the use of majority religious symbolisms, narratives and sheer numerical strength have collectively become the tool of social, economic and political domination, characterised increasingly by violence.. There are however some significant country variations within this pattern. In India domination and associated violence follows the traditional divisions between Hindu majority and the minorities of Muslims, Sikhs and Christians who inhabit the country in small but sizable numbers. In Pakistan where about 95.9 percent of the population is Muslim according to the last Census, much of the violence takes the form of sectarian violence, the majority Sunni sect directing its violence against Shias in particular who constitute the largest group of Muslim minority sects in the country. Another important distinguishing factor in the case of religious violence Pakistan has been its internationalisation in recent years. The Saudi ruling family has played an important role in this respect. It has used its oil wealth in large quantities to promote its brand of puritanical salafi Sunni Islam in Pakistan and around the Muslim world in the hope of generating wider sympathies for its continued hold over power. That explains why the greatest violence is being directed to Shias and Sufis, the groups least likely to be converted to Salafi Islam.


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