Panel at MIT Addressed South Asian Religious Right Politics

Part 2: Post-Colonialism in Former British India

by Basav Sen


The first part of this article -- "The division of British India" --
discussed the partition of British India into the Republic of India,
which was the central part of the former British colony, and into
Pakistan, which consisted of a western part bordering Afghanistan, and
an eastern enclave bordering Mynamar [see the Thistle Vol. 9,
#13]. India and West Pakistan had won freedom from British colonial
rule, but East Pakistan was for all practical purposes a colony of
West Pakistan for another 24 years, after which it seceded to form
Bangladesh. In all 3 countries, the lessons from the bitter division
of British India have not been learnt, and the demagogues of the
religious right have been increasingly successful in stirring up
hatred. The focus of this article is today's post-colonial situation
in India and Pakistan, the respective home countries of panelists
Asghar Ali Engineer and Asma Jahangir. The Bangladesh situation is not
discussed because there was no representative on the panel from
Bangladesh, not because it is unimportant.

INDIA: A SECULAR STATE?

	After forming, the government of India declared India to be a
secular state. Their poorly articulated definition of this secularism
as "equal treatment of all religions" has made it possible for
conservatives of all religions to interpret it as equal
accommodation. For instance, most religious communities in India can
practice their own customary personal laws (i.e. laws governing
inheritance, marriage, divorce, etc.). This has led to gender
inequity, as all these customary laws were conceived in highly
patriarchal societies: Hindu personal law restricts women's
inheritance of property, while Muslim personal law allows a man, but
not a woman, to practice polygamy.
	Engineer said, during the panel discussion, that the
development of a uniform personal law was a necessity both to
secularize the polity and to ensure gender equity. But he questioned
the motives of Hindu communalists who advocate a uniform personal
law. Initially, they claimed that they were for gender justice -- a
hypocritical claim, since they pointed out the inequities only in
Muslim and not in Hindu personal law. In recent years they have become
more public about their intentions. For example, Vamdev, a leader of
the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), openly called for a uniform personal
law based on a Hindu code called the Manusmriti, which includes "gems
of wisdom" such as the natural condition of a woman is to be subject
to her father before marriage and her husband after marriage. The
Hindu right says that allowing Muslim men to practice polygamy is
unfair to Hindu men, who should also have this privilege. This is
because, with their politics firmly rooted in patriarchal values, they
construct "community" and "nation" as a body of men. Women are not a
part of the nation in this construction, but property of the nation,
and hence (their logic goes) the privilege accorded to Muslim men by
allowing them, but not Muslim women, to practice polygamy is viewed as
a privilege for the entire community rather than an injustice to about
50% of the community!
	This flawed secularism of the state is being challenged from
the right by groups in opposition to it who want to do away with
whatever semblance of secularism there is. A brief list of these
organizations follows.
	The fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was mentioned in
the first part of the article. After independence they set up an
electoral front called Bharatiya Jan Sangh, later renamed Bharatiya
Janata Party (BJP). The VHP, mentioned earlier, is a group of "holy
men" who lend an aura of piety to the electorally active BJP and the
paramilitary RSS. In the Western state of Maharashtra, another fascist
movement, the Shiv Sena, has become very powerful. The present state
government there is a coalition of the Shiv Sena and the BJP. (Imagine
a state in the US ruled by a coalition of the KKK and the John Birch
Society...) The Shiv Sena leader, Bal Thackeray, has made statements
like, "If Indian Muslims have behaved like the Jews in Nazi Germany
they deserve the same fate," and "There are only two places for
Muslims, Pakistan, and kabrastan (the graveyard)."  Thackeray
instigated a Sena-led pogrom against Muslims in Bombay in 1993, in
which some 600 persons were killed.
	The Muslim rightists retreated from electoral politics (with
the part of the Muslim League left in India being politically
irrelevant) and operated through clerics. The Sikh religious right
continued to work through the Akali Dal, an important electoral force
in the Sikh-majority state of Punjab. Both the Hindu and the Muslim
rightist ideologies uphold gender (and in the case of the Hindu,
caste) hierarchies. The major difference is that the Hindu right
threatens not only the identity, but the very lives of religious
minorities, as Sena's actions have shown. Also, Sikh rightists have
emerged over the last 15 years as a violent threat to religious
minorities in Punjab, and Sikh dissidents.
	At the local level, communalism in India causes outbursts of
bloodletting in urban areas. Engineer has made detailed studies of
these riots and found that they can be traced to causes such as land
disputes between powerful local real estate developers, and municipal
elections. The state has often unabashedly supported majority bigotry
in these riots. For example, some 2500 Sikhs were massacred in New
Delhi, the capital city, in 1984 while the police stood
by. Investigations have shown the involvement of senior leaders of the
ruling Congress party in instigating riots that were claimed to be
"spontaneous" outbursts in response to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's
assassination by two Sikhs.
	In recent years the strength of the Hindu right has greatly
increased. The BJP has become the main opposition party at the
national level. They claim that this is because Hindus are reasserting
themselves after centuries of slavery under Muslim sultans and British
rule. In reality, the Hindu right phenomenon is similar in origin to
the "angry white man" phenomenon in the US. Sections of the affluent,
male elite, and largely upper caste Hindu population in India are
"dismayed" at the increasing assertiveness of women, people from lower
castes (called Dalits, or literally the oppressed, and subjected to
centuries of apartheid), indigenous peoples, poor peasants, and other
historically marginalized groups. They view this assertiveness as a
threat to their privileges under the feudal-capitalist, patriarchial,
casteist order. Their stand on gender issues has been discussed
before. Their casteism is more carefully concealed, though, as they
claim to include "all Hindus." But, they are opposed to affirmative
action for the Dalits, and their worst casteist sentiments become
apparent in unguarded moments. Activist filmmaker Anand Patwardhan has
captured one such ironical moment on film, in which a VHP leader is
seen accusing a politician from a rival party of not being a true
Yadav (a middle caste) but actually from a "backward" caste.
	Hindu rightists have active, well-funded front organizations
in the US. By funding bigotry in India (US $1 converts to about 30
Indian rupees), these organizations pose a serious threat to the
peoples of India. (Their presence was driven home to me the other day
when my friend and I were approached by a representative of VHP, right
here on the MIT campus!)
	Contrary to the mainstream US and European media portrayal of
a centuries-old feud pitting Hindus against Muslims (in the absence of
qualifiers it is easy to interpret this as all Hindus and all
Muslims), there is an active, multi-religious resistance to
communalism in India. A broad-based progressive anti-communal
movement, which is aware of the many facets of communal oppression
(based on class, caste, and gender), is struggling against the
religious right despite severe lack of financial support, violent
threats, and sometimes actual violence. Women and persons of lower
caste and working class backgrounds form a critical part of these
movements. Engineer has been active with these movements for decades
now.

PAKISTAN: HOW "PURE?"

	Pakistan, literally the land of the pure, started in an
undefined ideological space between a secular and a religious
state. It was founded as a homeland for South Asia's Muslims, but
Jinnah declared religious freedom and equal citizenship for all in his
now-famous speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, implying
the creation of a secular state.
	Shortly after his death, the country was taken over by a
military oligarchy, but this junta refrained from the dangerous
politics of religious bigotry, perhaps because it did not need to. In
the meantime, the West Pakistan-based elite practiced economic and
cultural discrimination against the eastern wing of the country, and
in response, the Bengali people of what was then East Pakistan started
agitating in defense of their linguistic and cultural rights. This
conflict set the stage for the first use of religious bigotry by the
Pakistani state.
	In response to growing demands for elections in both the
Western and Eastern wings of the country, the strongman General Yahya
Khan announced elections, in which the proponents of Bengali cultural
rights won a clear majority, owing to the fact that they won nearly
all seats in the more populous Eastern wing of the country. The ruling
junta responded by unleashing a genocidal campaign of repression,
perhaps the worst since World War II. By conservative estimates, more
than a million Bengalis were murdered (by some estimates 3 million),
and hundreds of thousands of women were raped. The Pakistani army used
rape as a weapon of terror. It also suited the interests of the
Pakistani generals to use religion as a tool—the genocide became a
"holy war" to prevent the disintegration of the homeland that was the
"destiny" of South Asian Muslims. (Interestingly, this was a "holy
war" in the name of Islam, but while the Hindu minority was especially
targeted for repression, most of the victims were Muslim.) A hitherto
obscure Islamic fascist group called the Jamaat-e-Islami collaborated
with the Pakistani army in the massacres. And all the while, the Nixon
administration applauded Yahya Khan's "resolve" and armed the
butchers. The Bengali people formed a guerrilla army and fought
back. Finally, in 1971 the Indian armed forces intervened on the side
of the Bengalis, and Bangladesh was liberated. (The Indian Prime
Minister, Indira Gandhi, had her own less-than-pure motives for
intervention, but that is not the subject of this article. Suffice it
to say that she did not have any qualms about savage repression at
home; her decision to intervene was not based on love for human
rights.)
	The precedent was thus set for the immoral use of religion on
the Pakistani political stage, even though this particular campaign
failed. The junta resigned in disgrace and the popular civilian
government of Z.A. Bhutto took over. In 1977, General Zia-ul-Haq came
to power in a coup overthrowing the Bhutto government, underlining the
fragile nature of Pakistani democracy.
	To legitimize his unconstitutional rule, General Zia, a "loyal
US ally," started using religion. His regime introduced customary laws
to appeal to conservative sentiments. "Hudood" laws were passed, which
were discussed in detail by Asma Jahangir during the event at
MIT. These unfair laws require that a woman who is raped produce two
male witnesses to testify for her; otherwise she is punished for
"adultery." Among other travesties of justice, this law has been used
to punish a blind teenager who was raped.
	These laws, as Jahangir observed, have also been used to
repress religious minorities, particularly Christians, and the
Ahmediyas, a heterodox Islamic sect. "Blasphemy" laws have also been
introduced, under which a person can be sentenced to death for any
remarks that can be interpreted as insulting to religious beliefs of
Muslims. Most of the accused have been religious
minorities. Accordingly, members of the court system are afraid to
acquit blasphemy cases for fear of reprisals from rightist groups.
	But the people of Pakistan are not quietly accepting these
repressive measures. Asma Jahangir's own activities with the Human
Rights Commission of Pakistan bear testimony to the resistance that
exists. And all the resistance does not come from "Western-educated
elites," contrary to the myths that rightists propagate. The poorest
indentured laborers, many of whom are Christian, are organizing, as
are women in Afghan refugee camps.

IS THERE HOPE FOR SOUTH ASIA?

	In each of the South Asian countries, the danger of a
religious right coup is very real. Middle class support for
increasingly repressive and chauvinistic politics is alarming. The
states have become increasingly coercive, and they have less and less
political will to use coercion against opposition from the right,
though they have no hesitation to use it against progressive
opposition. Also, given the fact that the communalists in any one
country use communalism in other South Asian countries as
justification for their politics, there is a danger of a fascist
take-over in one country leading to a "retaliatory" fascist take-over
in another. And, as Engineer warned, though there is a sustained
progressive resistance to communalism, the wider support these
movements get during crises evaporate at other times when the fascist
threat is not obvious. He emphasized that well-meaning but passive
supporters of anti-communal movements need to realize that the
"fire-fighting" mindset is inadequate, and warned that the likes of
the RSS and Jamaat-e-Islami never stop organizing. So is there hope?
No one can tell, but the prospect of fascist rule in this subcontinent
of more than a billion people is terrifying.


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