Southasia’s déjà vu
Sedition and blasphemy are the two sides of the same hyper-nationalist coin.
From Pakistan there is mixed news. Recent headlines on the country juxtaposed with news from India prompts the thought that the kind of fascism that Pakistanis have been fighting against is now erupting across India. The encouraging news from Pakistan includes its second award at the Oscars, the execution of convicted killer Mumtaz Qadri (arguments against the death penalty notwithstanding) despite the militant rightwing support for him, and the recovery of the kidnapped son of Qadri’s victim Salmaan Taseer, killed for alleged blasphemy. The bad news includes the horrific suicide attack, allegedly by Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan Jamaatul Ahrar, on Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park in Lahore on 27 March 2016.
From India, the bad news includes a spate of attacks by the cultural rightwing on Muslims, Dalits, intellectuals and rationalists over recent months. As a result, dozens of Indian intellectuals have returned state-awards in protest against the government’s silence – or complicity – in such attacks. These rightwing attacks on free speech sparked student protests across the country; the harassment of the Dalit students and the suicide of Rohith Vemula at Hyderabad Central University (HCU) fed into the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) crisis, where police, in February, arrested the President of the student union and five other students on charges of sedition. The current trend in India of sedition allegations and chest-thumping nationalism willing-to-kill for perceived dishonor to nationhood is particularly worrying for Southasians who believe in democratic values.
It appears sedition has become the new blasphemy – where the possibility or even threat of such an accusation frames political discourse. Blasphemy in Pakistan and sedition in India are two faces of the same hyper-nationalist coin. But this conflation of nationalism with religion is not new in the region, and goes back to Partition. As Pakistan was carved out as a ‘homeland for Indian Muslims’, the Hindu population in India, an already Hindu-majority country (albeit one that developed a secular constitution) increased in proportion to its Muslims.
Pakistani leaders established nationhood on the basis of religion – the main factor distinguishing it from India – and they built a narrative entwining Islam and patriotism. Though, rightwing forces in India tried to do the same with Bharat Mata and Hinduism, they were kept in check by the secular constitution as well as the long running democratic political process. Southasians have seen such insidious mix of religion and politics all too often, in Pakistan (blasphemy murders since 1992) and Bangladesh (attacks on atheist bloggers over the last couple of years). In India too there have been horrific bloodbaths on the pretext of religious and nationalistic pride (massacre of Sikhs in 1984, Muslims in Gujarat, 2002 among others). And, of course, 1947 when India and Pakistan’s birth were marred by the murder, abduction and rape of millions on either side of the newly demarcated border that partitioned Punjab and Bengal.
Allegation of blasphemy or sedition often masks the real motive of those making the accusation: controlling political spaces and the public narrative. We saw Hitler use similar tactics with devastating effect in 1930’s Germany. Today, this trend is visible in the USin the run-up to the presidential elections, where the Donald Trump campaign narrative posits ‘good’ and ‘patriotic’ Americans as white Christians, othering Hispanics, Blacks and Muslims.
In Southasia, until recently, Pakistan’s lack of a continuous democratic political process compared to India’s democratic tradition (interrupted only by Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule, 1975-77) was the basis of one of the major differences between the two countries. As India began nation building and establishing institutions of technology – what Nehru called ‘temples of modern India’ – in Pakistan, bureaucrat-led civilian governments and military dictators consolidated the security state, often brutalising society as well as breaking down institutions.
After Pakistan’s first general elections in 1970, the military-led West Pakistan establishment refused to allow the winning Awami League of East Pakistan (Bengal) to take office and the Pakistan Army brutally quelled the subsequent unrest. As hyper-nationalism trumped the democratic process, the ‘two-nation’ theory – that Hindus and Muslims are two separate nations – fell apart. The Muslim Bengalis of East Pakistan as well as the Hindu Bengalis, a sizeable minority, rose together against the oppressive Punjabi-Muslim dominated West Pakistani regime and their version of Pakistani nationalism.
Even after the breakup of Pakistan following the Pakistan army’s surrender to India and the emergence of the new nation state of Bangladesh, military interference in Pakistani politics continued. Army chief General Ziaul Haq ousted Pakistan’s elected Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1977 and later hanged him on trumped up murder charges. Over the next decade, the Zia regime backed by the US and Saudi Arabia, injected Wahabi Islam into Pakistan’s media, law, society and the idea of nationalism to counter Communist USSR in Afghanistan – and the Shia revolution in Iran. These Cold War policies led to the rise of the Taliban and other militants, now with linkages to Daesh.
Allegation of blasphemy or sedition often masks the real motive of those making the accusation: controlling political spaces and the public narrative
There was little respite even after Pakistan’s ‘return to democracy’ following Zia’s death. Over the next decade, a Ziaist law allowing the President to dissolve Parliament sent packing one elected government after another before completing their terms. This period of what I call ‘democracy musical chairs’ ended in 1999 with yet another military coup, that of General Pervez Musharraf’s.
It was not until the 2008 polls that swept former premier Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to power (she was assassinated on the campaign trail in Dec 2007) that Pakistan began starting to reverse its Ziaist legacy. This included moves like President Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower, striking down the President’s power to dissolve government. In 2013, PPP became the first government in Pakistan’s history to hand over power to the next elected government.
Pakistan’s shift from policies favoring the religious right includes military action against some groups of militants, though still marred by confusion about the ‘good Taliban, bad Taliban’ narrative. This confusion allows parochial politics interests to stump the rule of law, allowing a space for zealots to attack civilians again and again, such as in Lahore.
This divisions between parochialism and progressive thinking came into sharp focus recently when Pakistan won its second Oscar for Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s documentary, A Girl in the River, highlighting the menace of ‘honour killings’, a phenomenon prevalent across northern India and Pakistan (Chinoy also bagged the country’s first Oscar for her earlier documentary Saving Face, about acid attacks on women in Pakistan). Almost simultaneously, Pakistan hanged the convicted murderer, Mumtaz Qadri who had shot dead the Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer for alleged ‘blasphemy’ in 2011.
The government withstood pressure from the rightwing to not hang Qadri but allowed his funeral to be held publicly at Liaquat Park – where Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Dec 2007. Tens of thousands attended the funeral and glorified Qadri as a hero for having dispatched a blasphemer. On Sunday, a few thousand protestors marched on Parliament in Islamabad and are holding a sit-in, refusing to budge until their demands (to turn Pakistan into an Islamic state) are not met.
Based on the blasphemy laws that the Zia regime added to British-era legislation, the rightwing has over the last couple of decades increasingly used the blasphemy issue to retain their political clout and relevance.
But why is a similar pattern visible in India, with its long running democratic process, where there is no military dictatorship but an elected government?
The answer may lie in the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party’s (BJP) long-standing links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Through savvy media management, Narendra Modi had distanced himself from the RSS – and its violent history – and instead foregrounded his development narrative over the massacre of Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, when he was Chief Minister.
Another factor could be BJP’shumiliating electoral losses in last year’s state elections (Delhi and Bihar), following which its aggressive nationalism is a deliberate strategy to regain lost ground, not unlike Pakistani militants striving to remain politically relevant and in the media limelight through desperate acts of violence. The economy remains sluggish despite the unexpected windfall of depressed oil prices, notes the Goa-based filmmaker and activist Rakesh Sharma, whose award-winning documentary Final Solution (2003) probes the 2002 Gujarat massacre and its aftermath. He ticks off other factors: there has been no significant job creation, index of industrial production is down, and investments, foreign and domestic, have not taken off as expected.
“So the Vikaspurush Modi (the Development Messiah) persona is giving way to the hyper nationalist Modi, as the right wing needs to polarise the electorate,” he adds. The “othering” is an age-old tactic: “Create an enemy, so that the majority community feels threatened… even under siege, seeing these muscular leaders as their only saviors”. The Modi government will become increasingly strident going forward “as it can not possibly deliver on their electoral promises of achchey din (good days)” says Sharma.
The tide of hyper-nationalism being linked with religion in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh is not unstoppable. After all, the mindset our societies need to fight is the same: anti-democracy, anti-women, anti-homosexuality, and anti-minority, politics shared by extremists from all religions. Additionally, Pakistan is also fighting the same militants groups that attack India – particularly every time the two countries move towards better relations.
After the BJP won the elections in 2014, I had argued that India needs to learn from Pakistan’s failed experiment of injecting religion into politics, and Pakistan from India about the continuing democratic political process, with its potential to nullify rightwing militancy (essay in the recently published anthology, Making Sense of Modi’s India). I had also predicted that with participatory politics and as Prime Minister, Modi would be forced to be more statesmanlike. We have seen fascist or militant politics – Muttahida Qaumi Movement, MQM, in Pakistan; Maoists in Nepal – become more tempered as the groups in question enter the political arena.
~ Beena Sarwar is a Pakistani journalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is also an editorial advisor at Himal.