In South Asia, the politics of religious extremism
If the weaponisation of religion continues apace, the subcontinent may plunge into prolonged social strife
Something dreadful is afoot in South Asia. Cutting across Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, a geography of discord is taking shape, with worsening inter-community relations.
In the absence of any meaningful South Asian regionalism, there are no institutional nudges for us to think of the region as a social whole. And given the supercharged nationalistic atmosphere in all our countries, people are incentivised to think only about the communal dynamics of their respective countries rather than seeing how communal conflicts in one impact the complex and delicate social weave of the region. And yet, it is only by recognising the linkages that the picture of the crisis emerges.
At the heart of the crisis is the fraying relations between the subcontinent’s two largest religious communities. For well over a century, these relations have remained vulnerable to the snares of history, secular aspirations of power, and seductions of ideology. What for one community is the history of glory and triumph is for another a tale of humiliation and despoliation. Aspirants to political power in the region — from the British to the politicians working within the framework of postcolonial electoral democracy — have never hesitated to play up underlying discontent. And revivalists within Hinduism and Islam have pursued dreams of a South Asia marked by religious or cultural homogeneity.
However, not since the Partition of 1947 have relations appeared so fraught as they do today.
In Bangladesh and India, overwhelming majorities coexist with large minorities. Bangladesh recently saw widespread anti-minority violence. India witnessed major communal riots in early 2020 and has been experiencing a range of actions—political, legislative, social, and violent—that adversely and systematically impact the country’s largest minority. Pakistan’s small Indic — Hindu and Sikh — minorities have been rendered absolutely disempowered over decades, and their numbers in Afghanistan are negligible. The tragic story of the cleansing of minorities in the latter two countries fuels communal discord in the former two.
Furthermore, the patterns involved in recent violence underline the regional nature of the communal entanglement. In late March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh, during the 50th anniversary celebrations of that country’s independence, was marked by protests that turned violent and caused at least 13 deaths. The sequence of recent violence that took place in Bangladesh and Tripura indicates a connection between the two, something that can also be inferred from reports of the rhetoric that accompanied the protests in the Indian state against anti-minority violence in the neighbouring country. Finally, both India and Pakistan continue to register protests against attacks on minorities and their places of worship in each other’s countries.
All of this is being fueled by an increasing weaponisation of religion. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, religious radicals have gained momentum and triumphed. The Afghanistan government that dissolved in the face of the Taliban onrush pursued secular goals in a deeply religious country. Since mid-August, the Taliban has been putting together an order over-determined by its ungenerous interpretation of Islam.
Pakistan aided the Taliban’s return to power but this gave it no leverage over militant Islamists at home. The establishment, comprising Islamabad and Rawalpindi, has been on the backfoot, showing remarkable leniency towards the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and settling for appeasement of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) after much bluster and theatre. If the government has reportedly considered amnesty to certain TTP factions, it has inked a peace deal after banning the TLP, declaring it a militant outfit, and threatening to use force.
As majoritarian and militant Islamists gain traction in the two countries, they render the sectarian, ethnic, and religious minorities vulnerable while also fuelling, as well as feeding off, societal radicalisation.
India’s public culture has become unmistakably majoritarian. While the top leadership maintains a posture of studied blindness towards the religious plurality of the country, the wider ecosystem exploits real and imagined grievances against the minority. As majority-minority relations strain, social peace is endangered and lofty national aspirations are weakened at the base.
Bangladesh is poised at a critical juncture. Religious radicalisation and ideas of majoritarian dominance in that country are still in their relative infancy. The response of Bangladeshi civil society to the recent anti-minority violence augurs well, but it is for the government to take measures that are substantive and long-term, that go beyond law enforcement and address deeper roots.
If the weaponisation of religion continues apace, the subcontinent may plunge into prolonged social strife. Unfortunately, there is no existing regional vision powerful enough to counter the process. Afghanistan is shutting the region out. Pakistan continues to reorient towards Muslim western Asia, eyeing closer relations with Ankara and Riyadh than with New Delhi and Dhaka.
As the region’s largest State, India had the resources to lead the process. Indeed, New Delhi has recently espoused de-radicalisation in its regional discourse. However, its approach to the problem of inter-community relations in the region misses the big picture. As indexed by the 2019 amendment to India’s citizenship law, the approach remains partisan in one sense and inadequate in another. Perhaps unwittingly, it associates India with all of South Asia’s Indic faiths except Islam, thus polarising rather than harmonising the region’s religious landscape.
That leaves us with Bangladesh, where secularism hasn’t yet become taboo. If it handles its domestic challenge maturely, it may well cut a path through for the rest of the region.
Atul Mishra teaches international relations at Shiv Nadar University, Delhi-NCR, and is the author of The Sovereign Lives of India and Pakistan
The views expressed are personal