Fundamentalism in South Asia

Published On: July 28, 2016 12:35 AM NPT By: Dinkar Nepal

India’s neighborhood policy under Modi is executed with a belief rooted in an intolerant and orthodox view of South Asia as a great Hindu Rashtra
“There is a major terror attack somewhere in the world, almost every week”, I wrote in the first part of this series titled ‘Terror at Hands’ which was published on July 13th in this newspaper. In two weeks since, the world has already seen other major terror attacks: the ‘truck rampage’ at Nice in France, the shooting at Munich in Germany and the bomb blast at Kabul, Afghanistan.

These are acts of terror; brutal blots on humanity. The Nice attack was an example of how almost anything can be made a weapon now. Diverse in geography and methodology, they united in a theme. The theme is terror.

I had gone at great length in the first part to establish that although the Quran has graphic reference to violence and a ‘righteous war’, such references in varied degree of intensities are found in all religions. Therefore, I concluded, blaming a particular religion and its teachings for terror is improper. It is rather bad politics which is to be blamed.

It’s a fact that most times in acts of terror today the culprit is a Muslim. So the early pickers on the Munich attack started their tirade on Islam in social media. However, the teenage attacker on Friday who shot himself after killing nine other people was from a Turkish German immigrant family of Muslim background who had recently converted to Christianity. He had deliberately planned the attack for months and specifically targeted Muslims. Most of them were his friends from school.

He terrorized the world. He also polarized us.

Today any act of violence gets quickly associated with Islam until proven otherwise. It has a lot to do with the fact that the lands where most of the wars of this century have been fought are Muslim countries. That has created a fertile environment for terror to flourish.

Some critics say the ‘war and terror’ has been internalized by the market economy of the west and an ecosystem has been created around it, which not only feeds large number of weapon manufacturers and dealers all over the world, but also becomes a raison-d’êtres for the security establishments.

So the world is trapped in a vicious cycle, filled with conspiracies and lot of back-stage management of perceptions and manufactured realities.  And it all, in a sense, started here in South Asia.

Building an empire
“The Hindu movements of 19th century are responsible for Islamic fundamentalism in South Asia,” I was curious when a serving Colonel of the Indian Army said in a casual discussion. “The ‘two-nations’ theory which became the ideological base for Pakistan is the root cause of Islamic fundamentalism in South Asia. It was a reaction to the Hindu movements.”

The Hindu reform movements in the late 19th century developed into a full-fledged majoritarian politico-religious ambition with the establishing of the Hindu Mahasabha in early 20th century.

The colonel said, “The fear of being engulfed by the Hindu rhetoric of a vast Indian Nation as a land of uniform Hindu culture was one of the reasons why a parallel Muslim movement grew. It later took the form of the ‘two nations’ theory that became the reason for Pakistan.”

A significant development in this was the publication of a book Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? written by a notable Mahasabha leader Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in 1923; the RSS, which is the mother organization for many in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, worships him today. His legacy is borne proudly by other smaller but much more radical political groups like the Shiv Sena and its breakaways.

Savarkar rejected non-Vedic faiths such as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Savarkar traced the term ‘Hindu’ back to the geographical designation Sindu—Hindus being the people who lived in the lands between the river Sindu (Indus) and the high seas, and whose original scriptures were the Vedas. For them, the country so defined was both their fatherland (pitribhu) and their Holy Land (punyabhu), and they constituted one nation, the Hindu Rashtra; the acknowledgement of a common nationality (rashtra), a common race (jati), and a common culture or civilization (sanskriti).

Almost after a century, the concept has become a powerful political force. As a demand of the times, and as a political necessity, the Modi-led BJP in India tries to project a modern outlook. Their fundamentals, however, remain rooted in an intolerant and orthodox view of complete South Asia as a great Hindu Rashtra. India’s neighborhood policy under Modi is also executed largely by this fundamental belief unless it is forced to accommodate pragmatism by ground realities.

It has repercussions inside and out. Modi’s critics say that there is a vigorous attempt to saffronize India. For making the political ambition a sustainable long term reality, a lot of recoloring has to be done. This, the critics say, is scraping off the idea of India cemented by the early leaders. They say it is weakening the social fabric. It is harming the political entity called India. Even the burning Kashmir issue is connected to it.

Breaking an empire
In an interview with The Economist in 1981, Pakistani General Zia ul-Haq said: “Pakistan is, like Israel, an ideological state. Take out Judaism from Israel and it will fall like a house of cards. Take Islam out of Pakistan and make it a secular state; it would collapse.”

Faisal Devji argues in Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea that Pakistan’s nationalism is founded on negation coupled with religion: rejecting old land for new, dismissing Hindu India for Muslim Pakistan. Therefore, “for Muslim nationalism… religion was conceived of not as a supplement to geography but as an alternative”.

C. Christine Fair, a Georgetown University scholar, shows in her book Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War that Pakistan, the land of the pure (pak), was created for Islam on the basis of Islamic ideology. Therefore, unlike conventional armies which seek only to protect territorial boundaries, the Pakistani Army, Fair argues, has taken upon itself to protect the country’s ideological frontiers as defined by Islam.

The loss of East Pakistan in 1971 was a major reason for the Islamist influence to strengthen ground in the Pakistan Military. The Islamists were seen as more reliable political partners because the loss was attributed to the rise of secular forces in East Pakistan and their collaboration with India. Within a few years, the civilian government was toppled and a strict blasphemy law was enacted. Pakistan was officially taken over by fundamentalism.

It is this leaning, a sense of responsibility the Pakistani Administration (read: army) feels towards the cause of Islam that has been exploited by the west, the war-mongers, the terrorist outfits and also the separatists in South Asia.  

Then the soviet capture of Afghanistan happened. This enabled the birth of Al-Qaeda and Taliban, assisted by the US, and executed by Pakistan. The Soviets left Afghanistan after a bloody and troublesome experience. But Al-Qaeda, the monster, was to carve out a different destiny for itself.
Pakistan found itself at the pivot of global terror, and it always enjoyed that positioning. It played on both sides.

But eventually, it hurt Pakistan the most.

So the blame lies, ultimately, with politics. And Geo-politics. And the over-reach by the superpowers.

The fringe drifts
I had ended the first part abruptly with a quote from a Bangladeshi writer, Ikhtisad Ahmed, a columnist for the Dhaka Tribune, “As a divided and despairing nation heals, it cannot afford to forget again, if the plague of fundamentalism is to be permanently cured. The alternative is complete submission to and compliance with Islamism, regardless of who is in power.”

Bangladesh, if we focus on the genesis, should be the least likely candidate for a fundamentalist in-reach and out growth. It was carved out of the Islamist Pakistan because the people of then East Pakistan rejected the superficially Islamic nationhood. Secularism was one of the four fundamental principles enshrined in the 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh.

But it did not last long. It was deleted from the constitution by the Fifth Amendment in 1977 by President Zia-ur-Rahman, and replaced by a statement of “absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah”. Islam was declared the state religion in 1988 by President Hussain Muhammad Ershad. In 2010, the Bangladesh Supreme Court restored secularism in the Constitution, but Islam still remains the state religion.

These legal changes are official manifestations of a process of regression which takes subtle and direct cues from the neighborhood, builds on the intricate and harsh socio-economic conditions inside, and follows the global trend.

As a result, liberal bloggers have been hacked to death.  Long before the killing of bloggers like Abhijit Roy in 2015, Islamic fanatics had driven away poet Daud Haider in the 1970s and Taslima Nasreen in the 1990s into permanent exile.

When and how will this drift end? Will religious fundamentalism ultimately creep into Nepal? Where does our own era of violence, which we have just left behind hopefully, fit in the narrative? We will explore in the next part.

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