Panel at MIT Addresses South Asian Religious Right Politics

Part 1: The Division of British India

By Basav Sen

 Imagine a future in which shooting doctors at abortion clinics,
instead of being a stray occurrence, becomes the norm. Then, multiply
that death toll by ten. Welcome to the world of religious right
politics in South Asia (the region of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and
Sri Lanka). The word "politics" should be emphasized here, as the
Western mainstream media frequently portrays religious right violence
in South Asia as being "religious" rather than political, as being
driven by centuries of mutual animosity, and beyond the pale of
contemporary, rational analysis. Nothing could be further from the
truth - South Asian religious right politics and the violence
associated with it is completely motivated by contemporary economic
and political calculations. No "inexplicable 1000-year-old conflicts,"
but cold calculations of economic gain, electoral arithmetic, and
media manipulation. A recent event on the MIT campus sponsored by the
Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia (AFSDSA) - a
discussion with two activists on the front-line of progressive
resistance to the politics of bigotry - served to emphasize this.
	Asghar Ali Engineer is a well-known authority on religious
right politics in India (called "communalism" in South Asian parlance,
and subsequently in this article) and an activist, tirelessly fighting
the propaganda of communal politicians, building grassroots resistance
to their politics, and defending the endangered rights of religious
and ethnic minorities. Asma Jahangir, a feminist lawyer from Pakistan,
is a tireless champion for the rights of minorities and women in
Pakistan. She has resisted oppression of women in the name of religion
at considerable risk to her life - in fact, very recently, she escaped
an attempt on her life when a group of gunmen attacked her home when
she was not in the country, and threatened other family members. Both
are fighting against tremendous odds. A background to the political
situation in both India and Pakistan will show just how powerful the
forces they fight against are.
	Any discussion of communal politics in South Asia must start
with the history of the division of British India into India and
Pakistan. This division is the subject of this article, the first in a
two-part series. This is a purely academic discussion, intended to
illuminate contemporary communal politics, and whatever one's views of
this partition, it must be unequivocally stated that what has happened
historically cannot be undone. Whether the partition was right or
wrong, India and Pakistan are two distinct entities and any plan to
erase this distinction by force is unthinkable.
	The entire region of South Asia was under British rule until
1947. British India, as it was called, was inhabited by people with
undoubted cultural commonalties, but it had never been politically a
single entity. In the 19th century, under the influence of Irish,
Japanese, and other nationalisms, the Western-educated elites of
British India started to develop a national consciousness articulated
through the Indian National Congress. Detractors who say that since
British India was never politically a single entity before, that this
nationalism was spurious, should remember that the nation state is a
relatively recent invention: it dates back to 18th and 19th century
Europe. The notion of a people with common cultural/linguistic
heritage aspiring to be a single political entity, and the belief that
these identities, rather than the territory that happened to be under
the control of a particular despot, should be the basis for
differentiation between sovereign political entities, is of relatively
recent origin anywhere in the world.
	The British were concerned with the growth of this
nationalism, as it threatened their continued exploitation of India as
a source of cheap raw material for British industry. They decided to
devise a strategy to divide Indians. The easiest one they found, for
geographical reasons, was religion. The language groups in India were
closely associated with certain regions and provinces. The major
religious groups on the other hand were distributed more or less
evenly across India, with very few regions being entirely dominated by
one group. Hindus were the majority, Muslims a large minority, and the
other religions were small. And each religious community was deeply
divided linguistically and culturally. The British calculated that
dividing the nationalists along lines of religion would confound them
to an extent other divisions would not be able to, as a religious
nationalism would not even be territorially contiguous, and
regional/linguistic nationalisms would be territorially
contiguous. Thus started the British policy of "Divide and Rule" in
India. The British have made public statements to this effect. For
instance, "Divide et Impera was the old Roman motto," said
Elphinstone, the British governor of Bombay province in 1861, "and it
should be ours in India."
	Of course it would be simplistic to say that the British
machinations were successful without willing players among
Indians. Why, then, did certain Indians cooperate with the British in
this scheme? Communal historians, whether Hindu rightists in India or
Muslim rightists in Pakistan, would assert that this was because
religion is a fundamental driving force in the lives of people (if
they admit at all that British machinations had anything to do with
the division of British India). A survey of the participants in
religious right politics in British India, whether Hindu rightists in
the Hindu Mahasabha and the fascist RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh)
or Muslim rightists in the Muslim League, reveals a completely
different set of motivations. These were all members of the landed
aristocracy or the nascent capitalist class, and, in the case of the
Hindu rightists, drawn from the upper castes of Hindu society. (Hindu
society is traditionally divided into hereditary hierarchical
endogamous groups called castes, originally occupational, but the
custom of caste division has persisted even after the breakdown of the
occupational division.) They were almost exclusively male. And they
all claimed to speak on behalf of the "community" as a monolithic
entity. Significantly, they were conservative on a host of other
issues, from even the mildest land reform to ameliorate the condition
of the Indian peasant, to the preservation of caste and gender
hierarchy. Their motivation, it follows, was the preservation of their
own privileges rather than religion per se, and religion was a good
garb for their politics because it gave them an aura of morality and
because it gave them patronage from the British, who were keen to
encourage precisely this type of politics in India.
	An opposing trend also appeared in British Indian politics
from the 1920s; the growth of a "left," communist and socialist
parties. Interestingly, all these opposing trends in British Indian
politics (with the exception of the RSS) were, to begin with, under
the umbrella of the Congress.
	The Muslim League was largely a set of landed aristocrats with
no political drive, and their only leader of any consequence was the
brilliant conservative lawyer, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Jinnah believed in
the politics of petitions and legal challenges, of working within the
system (which he knew exceedingly well) to win concessions from the
British. When Gandhi launched the first attempt by Congress to
mobilize masses outside the educated elites who had always been the
constituency of Congress, Jinnah was very uncomfortable and left
Congress, taking most of the Muslim League with him. (Note that the
circumstances in which the League broke with the Congress had very
little to do with religious right politics directly.)
	After this, Jinnah and others in the League became
increasingly concerned about the parallel trend of growing populism
and growing strength and assertiveness of the Hindu right. Nationalist
historians in present-day India often deny the legitimacy of this fear
and attribute the subsequent separatism of the Muslim League solely to
their own reactionary brand of politics. This shows total
insensitivity to legitimate fears that minorities may have in a
majority vote political system. The myth taught to students in India
today - that the Muslim League was solely responsible for dividing
British India - is an oversimplification, and the role of the Hindu
religious right in creating a hostile environment for minorities,
particularly Muslims, is undeniable.
	That of course does not excuse the fact that the politics of
the Muslim League was reactionary. The League advanced the "two nation
theory" which stated that the Hindus and Muslims of British India
constituted two distinct nations. This is a distortion of the true
picture in British India, which could just as easily have been one
nation on the basis of undeniable cultural commonalties, or divided
into 25 nations on the basis of distinct regional languages and
cultures. The most reactionary aspect of the League's politics was
their denial of the very possibility of a secular politics in South
Asia - they held that any political formation of necessity represented
one or other religious community. (By a secular politics, I mean a
politics that recognizes the importance of issues of class and gender
which are independent of ethnic and religious divisions, and builds
ideological positions - conservative, liberal or radical - on
different sides of questions of class and gender.) The Congress had a
Hindu chauvinist right wing, but this did not apply to all of
Congress, and certainly not to the Communists and Socialists. This
conception of all politics as being representative of one or another
religious group effectively denies the politics of class and gender
and legitimizes the claims of an elite to speak on behalf of all
social and economic strata within a religious community. It
disempowers workers, peasants, women, and the oppressed in general,
and rules out the possibility of their forging political ties that cut
across ethnic and religious lines.
	The League, however, was not the only proponent of a
two-nation theory. The RSS believed in a particularly vicious version
of it - Hindus and Muslims were two distinct nations, but the "final
solution" to this problem was not a territorial partition (as the
League advocated) but religio-cultural genocide of Muslims in British
India: their assimilation into a monolithic, Brahminical Hindu society
(which was in any case the conception of Hindu society by a section of
the upper caste elite).
	As a result of the demand for a separate Muslim state of
Pakistan articulated by a Muslim elite through the League, the refusal
of a Hindu upper caste elite within Congress to recognize and address
the legitimate fears of minorities, and British encouragement of
communal division of the freedom movement, the partition became a real
possibility. It goes to the discredit of the secular, left political
forces that they could not effectively articulate an alternate vision
to it and build a mass movement to prevent the communalization of
politics. This failure of the left turned the possibility into an
inevitability. When the British, unable to justify the drain on their
resources resulting from trying to govern an increasingly ungovernable
colony, and the bad international publicity arising from the
inevitable repression they resorted to, granted their South Asian
colony independence, they left it divided into India and Pakistan.
	This division entailed mob violence of unprecedented scale and
brutality (by some estimates 500,000 dead), and the migration of
millions of Muslims from India to Pakistan and of Hindus and Sikhs
from Pakistan to India. Millions were forced to leave the only home
they had ever known and the only means of livelihood they had to be
uprooted to an India or Pakistan which they were told was their
country, but which they had never set eyes upon, and for the creation
of which their opinion was never consulted. Families were broken and
several thousand disappeared. What nationalist historians in both
India and Pakistan fail to note, however, is that this mass migration
was not out of any desire to be with one's "own kind," it was not born
out of any identity-based nationalism. That was the preserve of the
elite - the South Asian peasant was tied to the soil. What drove the
migration was the very real fear of violence. And what motivated the
violence, besides the machinations of rightist parties (the
involvement of the right wing of Congress, the Muslim League, the RSS,
and the Sikh communalist Akali Dal in inciting violence is known), was
often a desire to grab the property left behind by the migrantss. This
vast human tragedy left its imprint on the politics of post-1947 South
Asia, and the legacy of bitterness was exploited by conservative
interests in both countries, and in the new nation of Bangladesh which
broke away from Pakistan in 1971, as will be seen in the second part
of this article. Both Asghar Ali Engineer and Asma Jahangir are
struggling against these forces of reaction.

Editor's note - Part 2: The Post Colonial Phase will appear in the
next issue of the Thistle.

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