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South Asia: a region of rising intolerance

Alienation of minority groups encapsulates a world in which extremist philosophies prevail

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South Asia: a region of rising intolerance

Muslims protest against the verdict of India’s Supreme Court to award Hindus control of the bitterly disputed Ayodhya holy site for a Hindu temple, widely seen as a victory for Narendra Modi’s ruling BJP. (Photo: Arun Sankar/AFP)

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“When a fire engulfs the city, even the temple cannot escape.” That is an old proverb but it still resonates strongly in a world today that is overshadowed by increasing intolerance and extremism.

The proxy wars in the Middle East, the constant global export of extremist Salafist Islam by some Persian Gulf countries, the deadly terrorism of transnational jihadist outfits like Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, the state-sponsored campaign of annihilation of Uyghur Muslims in China and the brutal ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The list is ever-increasing.

South Asia is home to more than a quarter of the world’s population and is well advanced in intolerance and extremism, having exited British colonial rule (1757-1947), during which time the imperialists adopted a divide-and-rule policy that stoked communal tensions and led to the bloody 1947 partition of India and Pakistan along religious lines.

India: Hindu supremacy

The Nov. 9 verdict by the Supreme Court of India, allowing construction of a Hindu temple on a hotly disputed 2.77-acre site in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya town, and ordering authorities to allocate a plot elsewhere for Muslims to build a mosque, is a perfect case in question.

Since 1984, Hindu fundamentalists claimed the site was the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram and an ancient Hindu temple despite Mughal emperor Babur building a mosque there in the 16th century.

In 1992, Hindu zealots destroyed the 400-year-old Babri mosque and demanded a Hindu temple be erected in its place, leading to deadly violence.     

The recent verdict was thus an outright victory for Hindu fanatics, many of them supporters of India’s current ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Muslims were taken aback but could do no more than weep in silence and deplore “more of a harsh judgment than justice.” They remained calm — and with good reason.

Since Modi’s BJP returned to power in 2013, minority Muslims have experienced a wave of coordinated attacks, including deadly mob violence in the name of cow vigilantism.

The recent revoking of autonomy of India’s Muslim-majority Kashmir is seen more as a religious whipping from the Hindu-theocratic BJP, a party that envisions “one country (India), one language (Hindi) and one religion (Hindu).”

Muslims, who are still the largest minority group in India, could not afford to engage in another bout of religious bigotry over Ayodhya.

Minority Christians and the socially bottom-rung Dalits are no better off.

Churches and Christians also face Hindu extremist attacks, Hindu groups accuse foreign and local missionaries of proselytizing in the name of charities and social services such as education, health and community development, and the government continues to heap pressure on Churches by enacting regulations to cut off the inflow of Church funds.

Discrimination and inhuman treatment of Dalits is commonplace — it gets even worse if the Dalit involved is Christian or Muslim.

Ethnic, religious and cultural hegemony were again in play when the state of Assam recently held a population census in the form of a National Register of Citizens (NRC) that branded millions as foreigners and threatened them with detention and deportation. It was political manipulation at its worst, became a question of life and death for many and led to a spate of suicides.    

This fall of grace and alienation of India’s minorities is a tragedy for the world’s largest democracy, a pluralist and unique nation of many faiths, whose ethnic groups enjoy rights enshrined in its 1950 constitution.

Pakistan: Hotbed of Islamic radicalism   

India’s archrival Pakistan condemns the persecution of Muslims in India, claiming they are never safe there and that this was behind the creation of a separate homeland for Muslims in 1947. Pakistan even termed the recent revoking of Kashmir’s autonomy as further evidence of Hindu hegemony.

However, Pakistan’s stance in support of Muslims in India is mockingly ironic because this republic is an even worse abuser of minorities.

Decades of military rule, plus the collusion of politics and religion in Pakistan, have turned the nation into a hotbed of Islamist radicalism. Pakistan’s split in 1971 and the resulting emergence of Bangladesh was nothing but a fallout from Pakistan’s discriminatory and intolerant socioeconomic, political, cultural and religious policies.

The US government’s so-called war or terror against those allied with Pakistan since 2001 has backfired, emboldened Islamist terrorist groups and worsened the lives of many people, especially minorities.  

The deadly persecution of Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and non-Sunni Islamic sects has become an everyday reality in Pakistan, triggering a mass exodus of the persecuted.

The country’s draconian blasphemy law is another thorn for religious minorities — mob violence, murders and even judicial executions for so-called defamation of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad continue unabated.

Bangladesh: Creeping Islamism and authoritarianism

Bangladesh was once considered a moderate and pluralist Muslim country, but not anymore.

The nation’s 1972 constitution recognizes religious freedom but during the military rule of 1975-90 the charter was amended to declare Islam as the state religion.

Although on a lower scale than India and Pakistan, Bangladesh has also seen religiously and politically motivated violence against minority groups — Hindus, Christians and Buddhists — in recent decades. Justice was the loser. Ethnic communities, mostly Buddhists, Christians and Hindus, continue to face deadly violence over land, property and ethnic hegemony.

Since 2013, the country has experienced a lethal rise in Islamic extremists, with militants murdering more than 50 people, including liberal Muslims, atheists, writers, academics, gay activists, religious minorities and foreigners.        

The ruling Awami League, in power since 2008, succeeded in neutralizing militancy by force, but did too little to combat homegrown extremism, including a long-sought ban on religion-based politics.

On the other hand, the government faced criticism for courting Islamist parties for political ends and overlooking the Islamization of school textbooks.

The ruling party has been also accused in recent years of muzzling dissent, annihilating political opposition and curtailing press freedom.

This toxic mix of creeping Islamism and growing authoritarianism is ominous for Bangladesh and minority groups already feel cornered.

Afghanistan: Wars, Taliban and radical Islam   

Once a beautiful and tolerant country, Afghanistan is a pale imitation of what it used to be. The Soviet-Afghan war (1979-89) and the US pursuit of the Taliban in 2001 did not just destroy the country, they diminished the bonhomie that had always existed in Afghan society, replaced by Taliban militia shootings and suicide bombings.

Analysts fear the planned total withdrawal of US troops from Afghan soil without a peace treaty in place between the Taliban and government would lead to civil war and the return of the Taliban to power for the first since the late 1990s.

If so, that would equate to a further collapse and the country reaching a point of no return.

Sri Lanka: Ethno-religious divide worsens

Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war might have ended in 2009 with the army defeating the Tamil Tigers, but the country has failed to overcome its ethno-religious tension and violence.

Adding to Sinhalese-Tamil tensions, the rise of extremist Buddhist nationalism in recent years has plagued the island nation. Hindus, Christians, Muslims and moderate Sinhalese, all have borne the brunt of this new ethno-religious-political polarization.

Thus, this year’s deadly Easter Sunday bombings, mostly targeting Christians, were not just an act of terrorism but also the brutal culmination of the country’s sectarian tension.

An intelligence failure has been blamed for ignoring early warnings about the bombings. What is not in doubt, however, was the blatant disregard for the lives and security of a minority community.

The recent political upheaval, culminating in the return of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists to power in the Nov. 16 election, means Sri Lanka’s struggle against intolerance will only get worse.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former defense secretary and now president, showed little appetite for tackling ethno-religious tensions during his election campaign and is unlikely to act decisively over them. Moreover, he is also accused of war crimes against Tamils during the civil war and of brutally muzzling dissenting voices.

Nepal: Hindu hegemony   

Nepal abolished the monarchy in 2008 but is still struggling to make much progress toward democracy. Political parties and ethnic groups remain divided along religious lines as the country charts a new course to suit its majority Hindus.

The 2015 constitution declared Nepal a “secular state” with a guarantee of religious freedom but in reality the nation gives special status to Hinduism. Discriminatory laws against other religions persist, such as the restrictions on conversions and strict punishments meted out for blasphemy or so-called “hurtful religious sentiments.”

Radical Hindus in the capital Kathmandu have been pushing for an outright ban on religious minorities being allowed burial grounds and cemeteries.

Hindu politicians delivering hate speeches against Christian priests and pastors, plus sporadic religiously motivated attacks against Christians, are now commonplace.

The Assumption Cathedral Church in Kathmandu was targeted by a bomb attack in 2009 and an attempted arson in 2017. Justice has yet to be delivered for either incident.

Whether Nepal performs any better in tackling creeping intolerance depends on the country’s leaders prioritizing religious freedom as enshrined in the constitution.

Maldives: Radical Islam and crushing dissent

In recent years, Muslim-majority Maldives has seen political conflict between autocratic regimes and pro-democracy forces. The unrest has provided a perfect climate for the rise and spread of radical Islam, including the introduction of Shariah law and the crushing of dissent.

The rise of radicalism is also blamed on Maldivian students returning from madrasas in Middle East countries where Wahabi or extremist Islam flourish.  

In 2008, the Maldives drafted a new constitution that guaranteed the protection of human rights, but only to the extent that this was compatible with Sunni Islam, under Shariah law. The constitution does not grant freedom of religions, declaring instead: “It is the responsibility of every citizen … to preserve and protect the State religion of Islam,” which in reality forbids the practice and spread of any other faiths.

The country still has its controversial Religious Unity Act 1994, which states that “both the government and citizens must protect the religious unity that they have created.” Under this law, it is illegal to convert anyone to any other religion than Islam and only Muslims can be granted citizenship, which is revoked should they convert away.

Under the rising influence of Islamists, Shariah law has been incorporated into the legal system and maintains apostasy — a citizen publicly claiming to be “a Maldivian but not Muslim,” for example, would be committing an offense punishable by death.

Bhutan: Buddhist first

While this landlocked country ranks among the top in the region for happiness and peacefulness, little is known about its latent Buddhist and cultural hegemony.

Bhutanese people have high esteem for their cultural and spiritual heritage, which is associated with Buddhism, but generally adopt a stringent and suspicious approach toward non-Buddhist elements, including Christians.

In the 1990s, this Buddhist dominance led to the expulsion of about 100,000 people in the south of the country, most of them ethnic Nepalis and many of them Christians. These people were considered illegal immigrants, despite having lived in the kingdom for decades. There were efforts for them to later be repatriated but it was in vain. Meanwhile, most of the refugees have already fled overseas.

Despite international pressure, Bhutan is still hesitant to grant legal status to Christianity, thus underlining its failure to commit to religious pluralism.

South Asia: The deafening silence

People in the region have many things in common when it comes to their way of life, livelihoods, cultures and even their religious practices. Their close geographical proximity also ensures that what happens in one country affects the others, for good or bad.

The unbridled march of intolerance in the region, however, means their differences are to the fore and their commonalities take a back seat.

Vested internal and external forces are strongly active in each country, reaping dividends from religious and ethnic tensions. The tragedy is that the majority, who may not support them, keep silent nonetheless.

This deafening silence does not just continue to alienate and instill fear in minorities but also threatens the stability and security of the region, which is also one of the poorest, most illiterate, most malnourished and most deprived parts of the world.

Whether the lives of these many millions of disadvantaged people get better or worse depends on one thing: can the countries in the region overcome growing ethno-religious intolerance and extremism?

Rock Ronald Rozario is a journalist and commentator for ucanews and is based in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.

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