Religious Majoritarianism in South Asia
by Knox Thames, Global Policy, Durham University, UK, May 18, 2023
Politics of Hate: Religious Majoritarianism in South Asia edited by Farahnaz Ispahani. HarperCollins India 2023. 336 pp., £17.99 paperback 9789356293557, $14.99 e-book 9789356290013
The history of the Indian subcontinent is as vast as the region’s size and population. Consequently, foreign policy practitioners and activists from outside the region find it challenging to gain a deep understanding of current events, something more than superficial headlines. Moreover, with religious grievances an underlying current in regional affairs, appreciating historic currents that flow into contemporary human rights abuses for religious minorities is crucial but time-consuming. For these reasons, the Politics of Hate (Harper Collins India), an edited book by Farahnaz Ispahani, is a must-read for policymakers and human rights advocates.
Analyzing India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the Politics of Hate discusses the various challenges facing religious and ethnic minorities in these countries. Reductive often describes popular understandings of these nations – India is Hindu, Sri Lanka is Buddhist, Pakistan and Bangladesh are Muslim – papering over the immense diversity in each country. But internal forces in each are pressing for majority rule, if not domination, which has and will victimize minorities. As Ispahani cites in her introduction, “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 book is a testament to how South Asia’s diversity is under pressure from extremists, terrorists, and, at times, the governments themselves. She concludes, “the rise in religious extremism in this religiously diverse subcontinent is often a function of politics” – the politics of hate.
The book begins with an overview by former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, who focuses on a reoccurring theme of religious majoritarianism. He states, “Majoritarianism plays on otherization of the minority, but, if history is any guide, seldom enhances stability or peace in a society.” (p. 2) This theme repeats throughout the book, not from editorial laxity, but because the countries of South Asia are democratic (albeit imperfectly, and some are weakening). Thus, unlike authoritarian governments in Central Asia or the Middle East, elections matter, and voters can see their views pursued by officials they elect. However, democracy absent minority protections creates dangerous opportunities for manipulative politicians and religious demagogues with expansive agendas to transform their beliefs into law.
India, the largest democracy in the world, is experiencing such a transformation, with the electoral success of Narendra Modi’s BJP and its Hindutva agenda. Chapters two through four examine how Hindu majoritarianism is unravelling the secular foundations laid by India’s founding fathers, with dire consequences for Christians and Muslims, while another examines the role of Indian media in fuelling communal violence. The chapter on “Muslimophobia” provides suggested remedies for the government, and Indian Hindus, as well as for Indian Muslims. Chapters five and six on Sri Lanka follow similar themes of illiberal democracy used as a weapon against minorities. The authors explain the siege mentality of Sinhalese Buddhists, how politicians use dog whistles for votes, and the vicious cycle of Muslim discrimination based on fears of terrorism, driving some into the hands of terrorists.
Pakistan also centers largely in the Politics of Hate. Chapters seven through nine on Pakistan examine the plight of Pakistani Christians and Shia Muslims under a legal framework that represses minorities and Muslims who challenge the theology of radicals. Christians on the sub-continent trace their community back to Saint Thomas, one of the Apostles of Christ, and their troubles have continued throughout their history. Of particular insight is chapter eight on how Shia Muslims, from which Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah hailed, navigated the politics of South Asian Islam dominated by conservative Sunni preachers during the quest for independence. Each chapter highlights little-known histories of both communities and how they have maneuvered to survive. Finally, the last two chapters of the book focus on Bangladesh. They are framed by its birth as East Pakistan and the bloody struggle for independence. The depredations from the war continue to reverberate throughout Bangladeshi politics to this day in ways that lessen space for diversity of thought and religious minorities.
The expert contributions in Politics of Hate read well, and the book is of accessible length at 313 pages. However, having followed the region for decades, I would have appreciated discussion on the neighboring countries of Afghanistan, Burma, and Nepal. For understandable reasons of accessibility and readability, Ispahani focused on the countries emerging from the former British Raj, the colonial empire from 1858 to 1947 that dominated the sub-continent. The painful process of partition still lingers between India and Pakistan, and later Bangladesh’s traumatic birth, with continuing consequences today for diversity. However, British tendrils certainly extended further, leaving an indelible legal and cultural mark that reverberates today in Afghanistan and Burma. Nepal, while never colonized was a British protectorate, and the nation also struggles with the politics of hate, as Hindu chauvinists compete against liberals and communists. Unpacking the similarities and differences between these three additional countries would have rounded out the discussions. But perhaps this is best left for volume two.
Overall, Politics of Hate should be on the bookshelf of policymakers and activists focusing on South Asia. While those concentrating on human rights, religious freedom, and protecting minorities will find it of immense value, practitioners working on more prominent issues should also consider the book’s many insights. The most vexing challenges within and between these countries involve religious minority rights and histories of persecution. In addition, radicals and terrorists against a westernizing agenda use narratives of xenophobia and religious exclusivism to justify violence and promote politicians supporting their worldview. With two billion people in South Asia, the region and these issues are too important to ignore.
Knox Thames served in a special envoy role at the U.S. Department of State during the Obama and Trump administrations, focused on religious minorities in the Middle East and South / Central Asia. He is currently a Senior Fellow at Pepperdine University. Follow him on Twitter at KnoxThames.
Politics of Hate’ is a collection of essays that traces the rise and rise of communalism across four countries in the subcontinent
Edited by Farahnaz Ispahani, these essays explore in depressing detail majoritarianism in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka
by Nirupama Subramanian, Indian Express, June 3, 2023
Last month, a film called The Kerala Story hit the big screens in India. Reviewers called it out for its fake claims on Islamist radicalisation in Kerala and for its attempt to stoke communal fires by othering Muslims. At an event organised by the RSS recently, a minister declared it was hard to find a “tolerant Muslim”, and even those who appear as such are putting on an act to become a governor or a vice-president.
But let us be clear. India’s journey into communal politics began well before Independence. With memories of the communal fires of the 1940s fresh, the first government of free India managed to keep a tight lid on it. But soon enough, the lid came loose through acts of commission and omission, and now it seems to have blown off entirely. Pre-millennial Indians brought up to believe that secularism made their country a moral force in the world, and if nothing else, definitely cooler than Pakistan and its other neighbours, are now being told it was all “minority appeasement” and that majoritarianism is a made-up concept.
Politics of Hate, Religious Majoritarianism in South Asia lays out the land in depressing detail, covering communalised ground across four countries of the region, with Husain Haqqani setting the stage in his introduction. But it is India’s descent into what many describe now as a “mirror image” of Pakistan that is striking. It is sad that a nation that was in many ways a beacon for South Asia as a plural, diverse, inclusive democracy is now three chapters in a book about the communal pathology of the region.
Politics of Hate: Religious Majoritarian-ism in South Asia; Edited by Farahnaz Ispahani; HarperCollins; 336 pages; Rs 599 (Source: Amazon)
“Muslimophobia in India, Reasons and Remedy” by A Faizur Rahman, is perhaps the most complex essay in the volume. A commentator on Islam and secretary-general of the Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought, Rahman traces the long historical arc of anti-Muslim sentiment in India from the mid-19th century to the late 20th century, and the rapid slide into open communalism since then. He describes the response of the Indian Muslim intelligentsia — focussed on condemning acts of violence against Muslims, or making “dispassionate efforts” at educating Muslims about their constitutional rights, or even blaming the Muslims themselves — as inadequate, pushing the community into the arms of Muslim politicians who feed off its fears.
Putting faith in studies showing that most Hindus are not communal-minded, Rahman suggests another way of countering “Muslimophobia” (he suggests that the fear of a Muslim demographic threat is uppermost in the Hindu mind rather than a sentiment against Islam) by countering misinformation and educating Hindus on five bogeys: Muslim demography; “Islamic” rule; conversion; Hindus as “Aryans”; and terrorism — the facts that Rahman puts out on this going against every claim in The Kerala Story. He also calls out the Muslim clergy, demanding a theological recasting and the abandonment of concepts such as blasphemy and Dar-al-Harb.
Rahman is the only one offering hope on India. Niranjan Sahoo writes of the fallouts of the rise of Hindutva on the cultural and social fabric. He draws attention to the rewriting of history, and describes the government’s reading down of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir as its “most decisive step towards a majoritarian state”, and why no other party can dismiss the electoral power of Hindu majoritarian politics.
In her contribution journalist-academic Maya Mirchandani traces the takeover of India’s mainstream media for communal propaganda, analysing the TV coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat episode during the pandemic, which laid the blame for the virus on Muslims. “The distance TV creates between viewer and viewed or a keyboard does between an online abuser and their victim,” writes Mirchandani, “has empowered hate in a way that face-to-face social interaction censures or discourages.
Repetitive and constant exposure to such ill-intentioned news coverage not only erodes an overall ethical standard and the quality of fact-based, constructive, informed journalism, but fuels biases and real violence. Media houses are not just third-party observers but part of the narrative…”
The volume includes two chapters on the rise of Islamists in the “moderate” Islamic republic of Bangladesh. While Ali Riaz’s contribution is a study of the 2013 Shahbag Movement and the (far-right) Hefazat-e-Islam that rose to counter it, C. Christine Fair and Parina Patel, demonstrate the lengthening shadow of radicalism in Bangladesh by means of a survey.
Two thoughtful contributions by Sri Lankan academics Neil DeVotta and Gehan Gunatilleke show how majoritarianism’s relentless othering is less about the majority’s imagined ideal minority-free state, and more about the satisfaction derived from blaming, punishing and depriving the “others” — the Sinhala Buddhist majority’s first target was the Indian Tamils.
Next, it was the Ceylon Tamils, now it is the Muslims. Both point to Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism and Sri Lanka’s “socio-political culture” as creating Islamophobia, a “Saudization of Islam” and Islamist radicalism, all of which contributed to the deadly Easter bombings of 2019.
Mohammed Taqi provides an unputdownable history of the fate of the Shia in Pakistan. He writes how its roots lie in Jinnah playing down his Shia identity, preferring to present himself as a “generic Muslim”, thus paving the way for the dilution of Shia identity even as he gave space to hardline Sunni politicians and clergy in his push for the creation of Pakistan. Ispahani gives a detailed account of how the anti-minority sentiment in Pakistan — against Ahmadi, Christian, Hindu, Sikh — was given a legal sanctity — first through the 1949 Objective Resolution by placing Islam in pole position in the new state, then in the 1973 Constitution, via the second amendment explicitly targeting Ahmadi by defining a Muslim and a non-Muslim, and through laws dealing with blasphemy, and how difficult it is to roll back any of these.
The bleak situation of Pakistan’s minorities is further detailed in a chapter on the country’s Christians by Michael Nazir-Ali, who says “what we need in Pakistan is a change in mindset which recognises all citizens as equal, with equal responsibilities and rights”. That’s a prayer for all the countries that find a place in this book’s majoritarian hall of fame.