Religious Extremism and Nationalism in South Asia: a Case Study of Pakistan and India

The following feature has been contributed by Sadaf Shabbir. She has been a contributor at the Student’ Herald, writing in-depth pieces about issues such as Feminism, female genital mutilation, international relations amongst other topics. Sadaf is a student of International Relations from the University of Karachi. This article explores the rise of religiofascism in South Asia with a particular focus on contemporary India and historical events in Pakistan. The following is a self-introduction by the author.

Sadaf is a student of International Relations from the University of Karachi and a proud bibliophile analyzing the world politics and contemporary happenings with the comparative analysis based on the gendered lenses; unveiling the sexism and gender biases engraved in each field including the last bastion of social sciences. Discovered writing as a way to disseminate her thoughts to the world and have published articles on topics as ‘Feminism and International Relations’ ‘Domestic Violence is Domestic Terrorism’ and ‘FGM and International Law.’ And even this piece is just a small contribution to revamp the way people interpret certain events in society.

A Glance over South Asia:

The international world order has been in transition and states are deviating from their traditional paths of acquisition of landmass to have the direct control or maintain the clout of hegemony but now more lethally innovative tactics have been adopted by states which lead towards influential politics without intervening in any other state’s boundary. The world we live in is marked by disorder and disharmony; chaotic international political fabric; imbalance in economic power among the nations; global insurgent networks; existence and growth of illicit actors; insecurity looming large in face of proxy wars; trust deficit has become the foremost constituent to define relations among nations.

Amid all such perilous scenario, another threat is enveloping or more appropriately, devouring the stability of the global world. Such a threat has not yet been given the highlight it deserves but its crucial impacts remain tangible. From Europe to South Asia, and that is the rise of far-right politics based on religious extremism and ultra-orthodox nationalism; spreading like a fire in dry bushes and eroding everything that comes in between its way.

South Asia remains densely populated and can be described as an assortment of distinct ethnic and religious factions. The heterogeneity though can be fruitful for many reasons but this diversification can be hazardous as well especially when the masses seem to be emotionally aroused; the incendiary rhetoric can be so inflammable that the burns caused may take years to heal or in an otherwise scenario, may get exacerbated.

South Asia remains a region, having immense economic potential that may surpass any rising or established regional power hubs. The region has been blessed with vast reservoirs of natural resources, and even the human resource remains an asset. Then what exactly impedes the growth of this region and what are the causes which have coerced the international political analysts to name it the least integrated region?

The fundamental reason remains the historically embedded animosity between India and Pakistan and this clash of titans has cost the integration of this region and this is why the region is lagging behind in discovering its true potential. Apart from this, colonial legacy, trust deficit, inter-state conflicts, for instance, the illegal occupation of Jammu and Kashmir remains the bone of contention between two nuclear rivals and its resolution remains at the centre for any stalemate to be melt. But these are the threats that are coming outside each country’s boundary. So what about internal politics and polity? What can be explained about domestic politics which ultimately reverberates the true colours of any state’s foreign policy?

Unfortunately, there remains a sad state of affairs. Religious extremism has dug its claws so deep into this region that any hint of progress becomes overshadowed with the darker presence of religious dogmatism and further, has aggravated the internal political instability in South Asia; which has the spillover effect to the extent that it strains the already worsening relations among South Asian states.

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Nehruvian Secularism Discarded: A Sneak Peek

Into today’s India

Founded on the basis of Nehruvian Secularism, India has taken an off-road and remains at constant odds against the principles enshrined in her constitution. The credit goes to none other than the ever-increasing and unprecedented fascism, reaching its pinnacle under Narendra Modi’s dogmatism and truculent policies working like a hard hammer over minority groups particularly the largest one, the Muslim community. This has been the case with India, particularly since 2014, when the scenario became exacerbated with the rise of “ Modiism”. Even before the 2014 elections, hatred and religious intolerance particularly against Muslims and Christians remained rampant. The 2002 Gujarat massacre remains a strain over the secular constitutional fabric of the Republic of India; where the state government had allowed the target and revenge killings by the zealots as the consequence of which thousands of lives were lost and the violent fanaticism had become the norm of the time. the gruesome reality as the result of massacres depicted India, which had deviated from her pluralistic ground. The massacre was considered an ideological victory by the Hindu Zealots according to whom the minorities must be dictated by the superior religion and that the massacre was a lesson to be learned if the minorities really want to assimilate in India which would now be dominated by Hinduism as the ruling ideology.

Institutionalization of Religious Extremism and Nationalist Orthodoxy

Though, as I stated before, religious intolerance and orthodoxy have always been prevailing in India, but the Gujarat massacre opened up a new chapter; the chapter that was the end of everything and the beginning of something which would be marked by the utter alteration of the state which would affect those residing, ghastly. 

The aftermaths were seen when the religious extremism became the ultimate tool by the government to systematically exclude the minorities and to revamp the state hence making it Hindu-centered. And the preparations seem to be started.

The verdict by the Indian Supreme Court on Nov. 9, allowing the erection of a Hindu temple to be built after vandalizing the Babri Mosque in 1992, is the answer in itself and the embodiment that how the exclusion and oppression of the minorities have now been encoded and implemented by the judiciary hence giving itself a title of Hindutva-judiciary; where the decisions or verdicts given by judicial organs would now be dominated by religious preference. That was just the start or more appropriately, a trailer, the movie was yet to be seen. The state apparatus had already mapped out the working mechanism it needed to follow in order to systematically liquidate the presence of one religious faction from the existence of India and that blow was seen in NRC, National Register of Citizens and the target was the province of Assam.  As a result of NRC, Assamese were asked to provide their documentation to prove their citizenship. Hence the NRC became the heinous assault and remained dangling like a sword as the result of which the 1.9 million Assamese were to prove foreigners or sent to detention camps as being outsiders and illegally residing into the territorial boundaries of the state. All such calamitous attempts were mingled with another tool to systematically shun and ostracize minorities particularly the largest one, Muslims. CAA, Citizenship Amendment Acts, were another nail in the coffin to bury Muslim identity once and for all. According to the act, the haven in the shape of citizenship was to be provided by the Indian government to the marginalized and persecuted minority groups from neighbourhood namely Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. 

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Though the act, which seemed all altruistic and magnanimous from the surface, was the bluff in disguise and the minority groups included all the religious factions except Muslims. The NRC, NRP and CAA together were considered as Alt+Ctrl+Del policy which would ultimately open up a taskbar for the Indian Government to systematically persecute Muslims from the operating mechanisms of the Indian State Structure. Kashmir remains the valley under siege. The human rights violation and stealing the right of self-determination of the masses who have been striving for decades to reach to their independence remains the dark chapter in the history of India’s democracy. The crisis worsened particularly in mid-2016. The use of lethal weapons remains centred on the government’s policies to crush any dissent which even tries to revolt against barbarism and cruelty. The revocation of article 370 35a utterly exposed the shrouded policies being enacted and implemented by the state against the basic human rights of the Kashmiris. As the result of the revocation, Kashmir has now officially become the part of the federal government of India and any special status, for instance, the criminal and penal law of Kashmir has now vanished and such scenario has made another tactic by the Indian government explicitly visible and that is the Domicile Issue. Domicile issue has become part of India’s foremost strategy for converting Muslim majority Kashmir to Muslim minority Kashmir and that would all be done in quite a hurtling way as the non-Kashmiris have been allowed by the law to buy the properties and marry the Kashmiri women; a stance which was considered illegal and was not permissible before the article got revoked. Already millions of domiciles have been issued and this is all the pre-planning for a prospect of a referendum; when the time hits, the valley would already be dominated by the Hindus and if such a prospect becomes the reality, Kashmir’s suffering will remain inevitable.

An Insight into Pakistan

That remains a tense situation in India but what about her immediate neighbour? Pakistan was founded to come out of the discriminatory and exclusionary politics that had plagued the subcontinent and had resulted in the immense exploitation of the Muslims in particular. The basis of Pakistan can be found that how Muslims were exasperated as being considered second class citizens. But then what happened that the nation which was born after cutting off the roots of the divide and rule dilemma and freeing itself as the independent one, adopted the same policies as her colonizers? It would be a state of denialism if one defies what goes on in Pakistan when it comes to ethnic, sectarian and religious minorities and how such harsh realities have deteriorated each working facet of the nation. Religious extremism seems to have taken the helm of this country and intolerance has become a defining constituent. The assaults against minorities remain rampant and now the rise of far-right politics have raised many eyebrows of concern against those who are responsible for running the state-craft. Minority rights have been safeguarded in the constitution. And even the founding fathers of this nation had emphasized that how each person irrespective of their religion are free to not only practice but also to advance their religious teachings and practices. But unfortunately, the scenario came out as otherwise.

Religio-nationalist Hysteria—Instrumentalization of Bigotry

It all had started in the era of General Zia-ul-Haq when he had altered the political fabric of the country by emboldening the hardliners in the name of religion and hence this is how systematic persecution of minorities had started. And the aftermaths of such religious orthodoxy and intolerance were witnessed by the whole country. The year 2009 had marked the culmination of extremism when Gojra, a Christian town, was put to fire and had resulted in 6 reported deaths. But that was just the beginning of the consequence and abandonment that minorities had to suffer. And it all stems from the lens with which we are trained to look at minorities; which is to always consider them outsiders, imposters or intruders; whose presence is responsible for contaminating our sacred culture and if not curtailed, can result in the downfall of the whole religious institution. The recent rise of and hijacking by the far-right religious extremist parties, roaming on the streets of the capital; blackmailing the state with deadly threats; demanding the expulsion of certain factions from the society; becoming the nightmare for those already left petrified by the state; hurling inferior slurs and declaring the other ones infidels in the name of false accusation of blasphemy and in the end the masses witness the state, bowing down before their ferocious demands depict Pakistan that this nation never had desired and further showcase that how religious extremism had become so entrenched that the state has given up in front of the religious thugs.

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Such a grim situation back in the homeland defines something really disturbing even on the regional and international level. The “Talibanization” of the country particularly during and after the blunders being done in the the1979 Afghan war has cost us not only our national stability but also regional one. The war in Afghanistan and the patronage being provided by the state of Pakistan to the Afghan Taliban had the disastrous spillover effect on Pakistan and the whole tribal belt and become the crux for the recruitment into the extremist groups. The deliberate negligence of the state and the shortsightedness in terms of policies had sullied the international image of Pakistan and the country was accused of being the hotbed or the launchpad for the global terrorism being executed. And further aggravated the country’s relations with her immediate neighbours particularly India after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. And its consequences can be seen on the foreign policy fronts which are akin to economic policies such as the grey list of FATF and how Pakistan is still unable to wash off the stain of harbouring terrorism. This fetishism of nationalism had made the masses on both sides of the border blind enough to consider themselves superior to the other one. In all such scenario, the commoners or those not belonging to religious, ethnic or sectarian elites, remain in shambles. Their lives at both sides of the border remain at stake. And its bigger picture can be seen that how ultra-orthodox nationalism and religious extremism stem from the domestic policies state remain to adhere to and spread out like confetti on the international borders which in return further embolden the bulwark of cruelty against the minorities to be used for blame-game tactics, without scrutinizing their own selves.

Concluding, the role played by the religious extremism and nationalists for harnessing regional stability remains alarming and needs to be countered on the institutional as well as grassroots levels. The vacuum which has been created by the inability of the state institutions and to overcome cumbersome political processes further unleashes the havoc wreaked by the extremists and radical mindsets. The absence of law and order and gratuitous malevolence by the state apparatus to let such mindsets take the reins have raised some serious questions over the accountability of the state and its working mechanisms.

Terrorist harbouring and marginalizing the imperative factions of society and constant hatred stemming from incendiary rhetoric perpetuated by the elected democratic leaders themselves further, exacerbate the scenario and seem to shut down even the smallest slit which would result in the major breakthrough to the stagnant relations of the two countries at the cost of which thousands of lives remain at risk.

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