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.