Religious Minorities in South Asia—Selected Essays on Post-Colonial Situations (2 vols.)
Manak Publiations, 2002. INR 950 [2 vols)
Edited by Monirul Hussain and Lipi Ghosh
South Asia is almost carelessly profligate in the matter of ethnic and religious diversity. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism were born in the region. Christianity reached here long before it made it to Europe — St Thomas is believed to have arrived in Kerala in the century AD. And though Islam arrived much after it had spread to Europe and Africa, there are more Muslims in South Asia than in any other major region of the world.
As a natural consequence of the dispersal of religious communities across such a vast territory, every religion exists as a minority faith somewhere in the region. Some of these minorities, like the Muslims in India or the Hindus in Bangladesh, number in the millions, while others, like the Kalash of northern Pakistan or the Jews of Kerala number only a few hundred.
A major gap in the literature on the religions of South Asia was the absence of a systematic survey of the different minorities in terms of faith. This has, to some extent, been rectified by the two-volume Religious Minorities in South Asia, which provides a general overview of the history and contemporary status of the many religious groups in the region.
The first volume covers the religious minorities of Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, while the second volume focuses on those of India. The essays are written by specialists who, in most cases, are members of the respective communities they deal with. The essays are uneven in quality, some being extremely general while a few are well-researched and documented.
Three of the ten essays in the first volume deal with the religious minorities of Muslim-majority Bangladesh. In the chapter on Bangladeshi Buddhists, Bimal Bhikshu, of the World Chakma Organisation, argues that although a predominantly Buddhist area, the Chittagong Hill Tracts were forced to join Pakistan in 1947 against the will of the people. From then on, it has been a continuous tale of woe for the Buddhists of the country. Displaced from their lands and with their territory flooded by Bengali migrants, many were forced to flee to India. Like the Buddhists, the Christian and Hindu minorities have been subject to considerable discrimination and oppression. RW Timm, a Christian priest and member of the Dhaka-based Coordinating Council for Human Rights in Bangladesh, surveys the contributions that the Christians have made to the country, particularly in education and health. Christianity found converts among the tribals and low caste Hindus of the country. Timm outlines the growing threat that the community faces from right-wing Islamist groups. Meghna Ghuhathakurta of Dhaka University discusses the problems of the large Hindu minority in Bangladesh. Between 1947 and 1971, when the country was part of Pakistan, the Hindus of Bangladesh suffered considerable discrimination. There was hope after independent Bangladesh emerged that Hindus would be able to live as equal citizens. Ghuhathakurta notes, however, that this has not happened. The political use of Islam by regimes in search of legitimacy, the growth of right-wing anti-India Islamist groups, and the spread of anti-Hindu sentiment as a reaction to the oppression of Muslims in India, have all compounded the fears of an insecure Hindu minority, causing a flood of refugees to India which has yet to subside.
Across to the north, Nepal, the only so-called official Hindu state in the world, has small Christian and Muslim minorities. Marc Gaborieau’s essay discusses the spread of Christianity in Nepal from the seventeenth century onwards. He notes that until recently, conversion from Hinduism to any other religion was a punishable crime in the country. According to him, Christians were relegated to the status of low castes’ in a country where the constitution, until the advent of democracy, was based on the discriminatory Brahminical law-code of Manu. Today, while prosyletising is prohibited, conversion is allowed, leading to a growth in the number of Christians. The Muslims of Nepal are a more well-established community, with a long history of their own. Sekh Rahim Mondal makes a general overview of the different Muslim ethnic and occupational groups, which, like the Christians, were until recently officially treated as outcastes by the state. In general, despite being a predominantly Hindu state, Nepal’s social climate does not seem to adversely affect minorities in the way that it does in the rest of the Subcontinent.
Pakistan, which was established as the first Islamic republic in the modern world, has a sizeable non- Muslim population. The book devotes three essays to discussing the Ahmadis, Christians and Parsis of the country. Strangely, discussion on Hindus, who constitute a sizeable community, especially in Sindh, is conspicuously absent. Zulfiqar Gilani’s article on the Ahmadis focuses on the troubling question of what it means to be a Muslim, and the competing interpretations of Islam, which in the case of Pakistan has resulted in the Ahmadis or Qadianis being declared non-Muslims by the state. Human rights activist Peter Jacob looks at the problems of Pakistani Christians, largely descendants of ‘low’ caste Hindu converts. Jacob argues that although the Christians have made valuable contributions to Pakistani society, they remain victims of widespread discrimination. This is very different from the situation encountered by the small, though affluent and influential, Parsi community of Karachi, as Nasreen Ghufran points out in her paper. The Parsis in general do not face the kind of problems that other minorites in South Asia do, a reality that is equally in evidence in India.
To the far south, Sri Lanka has been in the grip of Sinhala Buddhist— Tamil Hindu conflict for close to two decades. The two chapters on Sri Lanka — by Paul Casperez on the Christians and Bertram Bastiampillai on the Muslims — focus on the issue of inter-ethnic and interreligious strife, dealing with the different strategies that these communities have adopted to cope with a war between, essentially, the two other communities.
The entire second volume is devoted to the religious minorities of India. Almost all the contributors brought together by the editors agree on the growing threats to peace and inter-communal harmony emanating from right-wing Hindutva quarters. Thus, while the Constitution of India guarantees complete equality to all citizens irrespective of religion, many from minority communities have to face considerable discrimination, and sometimes attacks and pogroms organised by right-wing religious groups. This often happens in collusion with the agencies of the state. India’s largest religious minority, the Muslims, are discussed in two papers, one by Asghar Ali Engineer and the other by Monirul Hussain. They are both concerned with the issue of how India can come to terms with its multi-religious situation and how Muslims can reconcile their faith in Islam with their status as minorities, while at the same time promoting better relations with people of other faiths.
While the Muslim case has been complicated by recent politics, the Parsis of India, as AB Rabadi reports, and the Jains, as Ranu Jain points out, provide examples of how a religious minority can survive and flourish in a society otherwise torn by communal strife. The Sikh situation is rather more ambiguous and has not been adequately explored here and Gopal Singh’s paper on the Sikhs is dissapointing. His is a passionately argued piece that seeks to prove that the Sikhs are a separate nationality, but it tells us little about the actual condition of the community. On Indian Buddhists, Sukomal Chaudhuri’s paper deals with the established communities of the trans-Himalayan region, while SK Deokkar’s piece discusses the neo-Buddhist Ambedkarite Dalit converts. The Indian Christians are dealt with by Bonita Aleaz, who makes an insightful survey of the major developments in contemporary Indian Christian theology, particularly the rise of socially-engaged ways of under- standing the Christian message in today’s India.
Although many of the essays in the two volumes are general surveys and contain little more than what a regular newspaper-reader would already know, they provide a useful overview of the situation of religious minorities of South Asia. With religious and ethnic strife tearing apart established societies, it is clear, as the work suggests, that the question of religious minorities in each country can no longer be seen in isolation from the wider developments of the region. With the rise of what may be termed right-wing militant majoritarianism in each country, every religion is under threat. South Asia’s future must bear close scrutiny, and books such as this will help do that.