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OP-ED: South Asia on the brink?

  • Published at 12:23 am October 22nd, 2021
communal violence
UNB

How purportedly opposed extremisms feed off each other

From this space last week, due to entirely coincidental timing of publication, my Friday column (Expanding the fault lines of Indian apartheid) drew an unusual degree of online abuse from self-appointed Hindu nationalists.

Amidst the flurry of semi-literate epithets, there was a larger point that can be aptly summarized in the tweet by one Mark Kinra, who describes himself as a “geo-political analyst” to his 144 followers. He posted: “At a time when #Hindus are being raped and killed in #Bangladesh and their houses and temples are being destroyed this @vmingoa calls India an apartheid state by further fuelling the fire by writing op-eds.” Then he attached the hashtag, #Enemywithin.

This is, of the course, the knee-jerk mindless jingoism my friend Samrat Choudhury wrote about in his own commentary on these pages: “The Muslim right-wing in Bangladesh and the Hindu right-wing in India are both capitalizing on the trouble, which was obviously artificially and deliberately created to start with, for their respective political gains. The only losers in this are the victims … How long will this kind of religious politics continue to boost the flagging careers of political entrepreneurs in the region?” Samrat was even blunter on Twitter. He asked: “How long will Bengalis either side of the border have to keep becoming ‘bali ka bakra’ for this type of political scam initiated by religious extremists in Pakistan, India, or Bangladesh, whose sole purpose is boosting the flagging careers of despots and tyrants?”

Those comments drew out another interesting nugget of analysis on Twitter, this time from Mohamed Zeeshan, one of the wunderkinds of India’s emergent foreign affairs commentariat. The 28-year-old tweeted: “The attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh, the vandalism of Muslim-owned meat shops in India, the attacks on Hindus & Sikhs in Kashmir are all signs that S Asia is on the brink of outright communal warfare. The endgame in S Asia does not look bright at all. The world should pay heed.” 

From his home in Bangalore, Zeeshan elaborated to me via email: “I do hope that things do not ever escalate. But we’re seeing ethnic cleansing in different parts of the sub-continent on a localized scale. The persecution of Shias in Pakistan has been going on for years; the rise of the Taliban has endangered the lives of Hazaras in Afghanistan. In India, there are villages in Uttar Pradesh where only Hindus live (or only Muslims live) and this ghettoization has happened because of violence against the minority community -- driving them out. That’s what we’re now seeing in Kashmir against the Hindus and Sikhs.”

Zeeshan says because “these things are happening at a localized level -- in villages or provinces or specific regions, and the victims are of different identities in different places” it becomes more “difficult to build a black-and-white image at the nationwide level -- or pan-sub-continent -- casting one community as being more responsible than the other. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, majoritarian politics casts Hindus as the enemy, and in India, it casts Muslims as the enemy -- and majoritarian attacks in Bangladesh are used as justification for the oppression of Muslims in India (and vice versa).”

In this way, the purportedly opposed extremisms actually “feed off each other [and the] only way to prevent this from spiralling further is to prevent the marginalization of minorities -- whoever they are -- in every country/region across the sub-continent. There has to be more enlightened public discourse -- and politics.” I asked Zeeshan why he’d used the loaded term “endgame” to describe what’s happening in South Asia. He said it more specifically referred to the revisionist majoritarian surge in India, which “rejects many parts of India’s secular constitution [and] perceives many of its provisions as an injustice. We are now more than seven years into the rule of Hindutva, and in the last couple of years, we have seen several changes to Indian society and law, including to the constitution itself. So, the question that I’m asking is: What does Hindutva really seek to achieve? What is its endgame -- and when will its ‘cultural revolution’ end?”

This process that is playing out has profound implications for the region, as well as the globe. Zeeshan says: “One of the ways in which the BJP’s revisionist politics is manifesting itself is in foreign policy. Hindutva is trying to redefine India’s national identity too, and that means that there is now a clear change in the values and interests that India wants to stand for and represent.”

In this way, “in place of the erstwhile secular identity, ‘Pax Hindutva’ has assumed a Hindu identity -- speaking up exclusively for Hindu rights (as opposed to universal human rights). You can see this difference very clearly in the way India responded to Rohingya refugees, versus how it responds to Hindu refugees with the CAA. Such a clearly discriminatory foreign policy would not have been as easy for pre-2014 Indian governments.”

What’s on the cards? Zeeshan says: “We will have to wait and see if this will work. In my book, Flying Blind: India’s Quest for Global Leadership, I argued that the only way for India to build its global influence is by representing the interests of constituencies and allies overseas. The problem for Hindutva is that there are no ‘Hindu constituencies’ outside of India itself -- and so, therefore, by representing Hindu rights exclusively as opposed to human rights more universally, India will find that its foreign policy will alienate many millions worldwide.” 

Right here in South Asia, “the repercussion is obviously going to be the most pronounced and costly, where India is surrounded by countries that are not all Hindu-dominated. The CAA was seen as being offensive in Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Even in Nepal, where there is a Hindu majority, politicians seem to be inclined to prove that they are not ‘sellouts’ to Hindutva. Across South Asia, therefore, countries are starting to reach out more openly to China in an effort to counterbalance Indian influence.”           

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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