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Mainstream, VOL L No 12, March 10, 2012

On Secularism and Space for Religion in Politics in South and South-East Asia

Tuesday 13 March 2012, by Ajay K. Mehra



The Politics of Religion in South and Southeast Asia, edited by Ishtiaq Ahmed; London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group; pp. 268.

“For me, politics bereft of religion are absolute dirt, ever to be shunned. Politics concerns nations and that which concerns the welfare of others must be one of the concerns of a man who is religiously inclined, in other words, a seeker after God and Truth... God and Truth are convertible terms and if anyone told me that God was a God of untruth or a God of torture I would decline to worship Him. Therefore in politics also we have to establish the Kingdom of Heaven.”

—Mahatma Gandhi, Young India, June 18, 1925

Mahatma Gandhi, who by no stretch of imagination could be called communal in his views or practice of politics, strongly believed that religion in politics had a space to guide practioners of politics towards truth and God. As in the above quote from his writing in Young India, he refers to the positive aspect of religion. In his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, also he said, ‘... my devotion to truth has drawn me into the field of politics; and I can say without the slightest hesitation, and yet in all humility, that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.’ Obviously, the Mahtma was not referring to the mobilisational aspect of religion used by most parties and politicians, neither was he alluding to the use of religion as statecraft or state policy. He was emphasising the moral aspect of religion in politics, which is rarely, if ever, talked about or practised. The book under review too brings out that the Gandhian view of religion in politics that does not appear to exist in any of the countries discussed, including in India.

This fourteen-chapter volume, edited by the renowned and perceptive scholar of South Asian affairs, Ishtiaq Ahmed, in which he himself contributes three chapters aside from the Introduction, is a timely addition to debates on secularism and the space and place for religion in politics and public sphere in two regions of Asia where the medium of religion has always been a significant one for politics. Whether or not a state in the region has been declared secular constitutionally, politics-religion interface keeps public life abuzz with debates and, at times, with avoidable controversies. Since even a state with a declared state religion has religious groups in ‘minority’, group frictions, debates on public policies and minority rights keep the society’s engagement with politics of religion continuous. Also, most countries in this region have used religion for political mobilisation and political organisation. No wonder, the consequences in most cases have been volatile, if not violent.

Two significant recent developments in India deserve contextualising. First, in the course of campaigning for five State Legislative Assembly elections during January-March 2012, most notably in the politically significant Uttar Pradesh, Congress leaders Digvijay Singh and Salman Khurshid (Union Minister for Minority Affairs) raised controversial issues. Singh raked up the September 2008 vintage case of Batla House (in Delhi’s Muslim majority Jamia Nagar neighbourhood in Okhla) police encounter with a group of young ‘terrorists’ allegedly belonging to the Indian Mujahideen, of which two fled and two were shot dead, and demanded an inquiry into the whole incident. This action took the life of an officer of the Delhi Police’s elite anti-terrorist squad and another was injured when the alleged terrorists returned fire. Charges of a fake encounter and anti-Muslim government policies flew thick and fast. Since the Congress party was in power both at the Centre and in Delhi, this probe demand surprised many. And Khurshid promised nine per cent job quota for Muslims within the 27 per cent backward classes reservation, which also invited the ire of the Election Commission of India for violating its code of conduct for the parties.

Second, equally, if not more, controversial was the decision of the Government of India and the Government of Rajasthan not to allow Salman Rushdie to attend the Jaipur Literary Festival in January 2012. But was it not the Government of India that did an about-turn in the Shah Bano case, banned the Satanic Verses and opened the doors of the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi site in Ayodhya? The government also did not take a clear stand on the return of celebrated painter M.F. Husain from exile; he was under threat from Hindu extremist groups and eventually died in London on June 9, 2011 after leaving the country in 2006.
These two are undoubtedly stark cases of politics using religion consciously. That in each of these cases it was the Congress party that took these controversial decisions in order to ensure that the Muslim vote-bank stayed with the party, makes it even more signficant. However, under such circumstances religion too finds it convenient to use politics for its sectarian ends.

The volume—the result of a symposium held in Singapore, that explains chapters of uneven length, treatment to the subject and content—has essays on South Asia, Bangladesh, India (three), Pakistan (three), South-East Asia, Indonesia, the Phillipines, Malaysia and Singapore. Both the regions of Asia, with certain continuities and linkages, have had different histories. Historical and cultural linkages in trade as well as religious traditions are well known, though Islam came to the two regions through different routes—invaders in South Asia and merchants in South-East Asia. Four countries with largest Muslim population in the world are in these two regions of Asia—Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. In Malaysia too, over 60 per cent of 28.5 million population practise Islam. Societies in countries of both the regions, particularly the ones discussed in the volume, are multicultural, which brings in the interplay of more than one religion in social and political life. This introduced syncretism in religious beliefs and practices as well as in social life. However, this has created discourses on majority (ethnic or religious groups) and minority groups in each of the countries. Only India and Singapore have declared themselves as secular countries. Historically, both the regions also have a common thread of colonial rule; except the Phillipines that was under Spanish colonialism, the rest were British colonies.

Ishtiaq Ahmed’s Introduction, defining fundamentalism as politicised religion, succinctly brings out that religion, which had declined in social and political life with industrialisation, consequent growth of capitalism and philosophy of liberalism that also brought in the so-called poject of modernism, has made its presence felt the world over. The volume moves on the assumption of increasing role of religion in the contemporary world, making it a global pheno-menon. Thus, what the American Constitution had done in terms of separating religion from state and politics, appears to be fading. Stressing the positive and negative aspects of religion, Ahmed points out the majority-minority conundrum in politics in most countries:

The experience from South Asia and South-East Asia incontrivertibly confirms that such a politics of religion has been invariably violence-prone and can take recourse to terrorism, wrecking innocent lives. In short, religious natio-nalism seeks to impose the will of brute majorities on hapless minorities; among minorities, it takes the form of separatism and secessionism; and it provides an illegal basis for extraneous forces to interefere in the internal affairs of sovereign states in the name of worldwide religious bonds. At times, even in majoritarian situations, such as in Islamic-dominant Indonesia and Malaysia, there have been assertive minority factions within that have tried to impose their views on the silent majority, thereby affecting the existing status quo. In effect, the politics of religion is subersive of the territorial nation-state project and if not brought under control can destabilize societies and threaten the security of states. (p. 2)

And yet, Ahmed rightly points out, religious opposition to totalitarianism and dictatorship demonstrates its positive potential in a demo-cratic sense. He historically traces how despite the colonial modernity guiding politics of nations in the regions under discussion, politicised religious revivals of the 1970s brought in a strange logic of explaining victory and defeat in war. If the Iranian revolution globalised the politics of religion, the Afghan jihad brought in extremist violence of the worst kind. Looking at South Asia with an overarching argument, Ali Riaz looks at the rise of religious appeal in politics from the perspective of the failure of the secular ideology and liberal states to build an inclusive society and meet the developmental demands of their large populace. The political dynamics of the rise of religion, which in fact has always been lurking in the background, has been in two processes—states adopting a religious path following the politics of ethnicity to appeal to religious groups; and second, despite a state being secular, a few parties have pursued the ethno-religious agenda rather vigorously. He has identified two factors as critical to the emergence of religion as political ideology—‘the crisis of hegemony of the ruling blocks, and the ontological insecurity and existential uncertainty as a result of globalisation’. (pp. 17-18)

There are seven chapters on three South Asian states, which have all emgerged from the colonial British India, and despite large majorities—India (80 per cent Hindus, Pakistan 97 per cent Muslims and Bangladesh 90 per cent Muslims)—have minorities too India has a significant 13.4 per cent Muslims (total population third in the world, next only to Pakistan) and Bangladesh has nine per cent Hindus. Naturally the question of minority right, whatever the demographic situation, arises. Three chapters on India analyse ‘Secular versus Hindu nation-building’ (Ishtiaq Ahmed), ‘Sikh Politics and the Indo-Pak relation-ship’ (Tridivesh Singh Maini) and ‘Transnational religious-political movements: Negotiating Hindutva in the diaspora’ (Rajesh Rai).

Presenting a panoramic view of religion in India, Ishtiaq Ahmed brings out the inclusive nature of Indian policy approaches, though diversity, not merely of religions, but within the Hindu fold, generates friction and conflict. The advent of the politics of Hindutva, however, has unleashed aggressive, at times violent, majori-tarian politics on minorities such as Muslims and Christians. Maini places the politics of religion in the regional context, bringing out the tendency of a hostile neighbour to use religio-ethnic disaffection for proxy war, as in the case of Khalistan movement and Sikh terrorism in Punjab. He concludes by highlighting that the Sikh religion has drawn from all the subconti-nental religions and it has the capacity to act as a bridge between religions. Rai reveals the contribution of the diaspora to the Hindutva project. He explains the popularity of Hindutva nationalism among diasporic Hindus by the interplay of factors in the host-land—it is particularly a side effect of multicultural policies in the UK and US—which has resulted in ethnicisation of religion in a foreign land.

Three chapters on Pakistan analyse ‘Religious nationalism and minorities in Pakistan’ and ‘Women under Islamic Law in Pakistan’ (both Ishtiaq Ahmed) and ‘Negotiating rights through transnational puritan networks’ (Tahmina Rashid). Ahmed’s enlightening chapter on the minorities in Pakistan juxtaposes the question of rights and status of the minorities in Pakistan with religious naitonalism, which is inherently and oppressively majoritarian in theory and practice. Indeed, Jinnah’s speech in Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947 that virtually promised a secular state: ‘You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.’ Yet, Pakistan did not take long to turn its back on moderates who founded the state, including Jinnah. Ahmed details that anti-minority feelings and practices in Pakistan are at times brutal. The two chapters on women need to be read together. While Ahmed brings out succinctly how social and cultural handicaps for women in an Islamic and Islamising society work against women, the added legal discrimination add to the indignities and violence against them. Rashid brings in another interesting dimension, that is, the use of the new media technology by groups such as Al-Huda and Tablighi Jamat to ‘address the demands engendered by globalisation and political modernisation as a threat potentially capable of eroding the Islamic character of society.’ (p. 257) Such initiatives have put fresh pressures on women in Pakistan to conform to traditional roles for good family values, eroding the possibilities of fresh initiatives for reform.
Taj Hashmi’s study of Islamism in Bangladesh completes the picture of the politics of religion in subcontinental South Asia. The case of Bangladesh must be viewed with the historical perspective of a land that took the initiative in founding the Muslim League and was in the forefront of the demand for a Muslim homeland, Pakistan, but by the end of the 1960s had developed linguistic nationalism that led to the creation of a third country from British India. The new Bengali nation attempted a secular state, but majoritarianism took over. An interesting point emerging is that once a religious political discourse, even practice, is initiated by a political party or a few leaders, the secularists too get entrapped. Malgovernance resulting in impoveri-shment and poor human development provides a firm ground for religion in politics.

Nationwise, South-East Asia is a much more diverse region and of the four countries discussed, Malaysia and Indonesia are Islamic, the Phillipines Christian and Singapore secular. Bilveer Singh’s overview of religion as a political ideology in South-East Asia has a broad sweep, which gives a peep into the role of religion—Islam, Buddhism and Christianity, even Hinduism and Sikhism—in the region. Singh stresses religion, particularly Salafi Islam, acquiring prominence in the nations of South-East Asia. The study of Indonesia by Noorhaidi Hasan shows that its political Islam has on the one hand given prominence to Islamic Shari’a laws in public life and, on the other, led to Islamic extremism and jihadi politics; he particularly refers to the activities of Laskar Pembela Islam. The case of Malaysia too projects in a perceptive analysis by Maznah Mohamad the processes that we have discussed in cases of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Assertion of majoritarian politics in a plural society leads to what Mohamad calls ‘the homogenisation of Islam’ and ‘the elevation of Islam as primus inter pares among all religions’. Naturally, minority rights, and more importantly women’s rights, are jeopardised. The case of the Phillipines (by Raymund Jose G. Quilop), which has a Christian majority, has similarities as well as differences with the other two cases discussed from the region. The impact of religion in social and political life is visible, it also impacts the kind of laws being passed and implemented, but since the Catholic Church does not hold the majority, other groups, including Islamic ones, have been making their presence felt, bringing in greater religious plurality.
Singapore’s (Eugene K.B. Tan) case is a good one to close the discussion on this very useful book. A secular and regulatory state that Singapore is, it has consciously and strictly kept religion out of the sphere of state and politics, pushing it to the private sphere. This multicultural state has Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Islam as major religions in its community life, though Islam is becoming prominent with its various manifestations such as dress and piety. Thus, despite a recognition of significance of religion in public affairs, Singapore has attempted management of religious affairs with laws such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, the Declaration of Religious Harmony and the Singapore Muslim Identity project and Association of Women for Action Research. The state has successfully attempted strategic steps legally and administratively to manage religious harmony.

Despite the uneven length and intensity in articles, some of which are soft on analysis, Ishtiaq Ahmed has succeeded in highlighting that the rise of religion in politics and public affairs is inconsistent with rights and dignity that plurality offers to humanity. The volume succinctly brings out that the use of religion by any section of the political universe could lead to the use of the religious medium and language by most, if not all. The ‘capture’ or ‘dominance’ of the state by ‘religionists’ has serious consequences for social cohesion. Singapore and India offer their own models of management of religious diversity.

Prof Ajay K. Mehra is the Director (Honorary), Centre for Public Affairs, NOIDA (UP); he is also the editor, ICSSR Journal of Abstracts and Reviews in Political Science. He can be contacted by e-mail at:

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