Indian subcontinent has never become a truly tolerant place for religious and other dissidents. The latest episode of violence makes exiled Bangladeshi author and activist Nasreen the scapegoat.
Once again the religious extremists ran amok in India reminding people that no serious issue is actually required to incite communal violence in the Indian subcontinent that has seen innumerable bloodbaths with their origin in religious conflicts***. The pretext was the publication of an article by Taslima Nasreen allegedly criticizing the practice of 'burqa' among the Muslims by a Kannada daily in Karnataka state on 1st March. The protest by the Muslim organizations and the subsequent clashes with the rival communities led to the death of two people and destruction of huge amount of property by vandalization of the vehicles and torching of hundreds of shops. The fragility of the communal harmony in the country is shown clearly by the episode though the controversy surrounding the rebellious Bangladeshi author and activist Nasreen is by no means a new thing.
Though, by now, it is common to lump such 'minor' incidents of unrest together with many others that occur frequently, that may be least helpful to understand the underlying pathology of religious intolerance and violence. The 'high profile' terrorist attacks to targets in India that often embitter the relationship between India and Pakistan draw wide coverage from the media and discourse among the intellectuals. The incidents of communal violence of various magnitudes are also no less important in understanding the socio-political dynamics of India as well as the region. Since the history of known Hindu-Muslim animosity in the subcontinent goes back centuries down the history, we will trace it in very recent history so that the pretext of rebellion by Nasreen against the Islam-as-usual can be understood, helping to clarify some of the controversies surrounding her.
Ever since the partition of India that saw horrendous massacres of the people on the mere ground of not belonging to the dominant religion of the locality, the communal violence has occurred in waves that leave painful and unhealed scars capable of inciting more retaliatory violence in the future. Even though India formally followed the secular path while contrasted to the adoption of Islam as national religion in Pakistan, the issues of socio-political discrimination and organized violence along religious lines has dominated the dynamics of inter-religion and state-religion interaction in India.
The revolt of the people in erstwhile eastern Pakistan was based on linguistic differences rather than religious ones and the birth of Bangladesh after the India-assisted war of 1971 was seen as the triumph of the Bengali-speaking population against Urdu-speaking Paksitani establishment. That was, however, an event and the trend of religion-based animosity among people was not at all challenged as the ruling elite there could find no other convenient bridge to gap the difference between the poor masses and the wealthy ruling class other than religion. Without a coherent vision to improve the living conditions of people and alleviation of poverty there was enough room for a generalized disenchantment in the public. And, of course, Bangladesh was not alone to suffer from the fate. The process of mass pauperization combined with the ecological devastation resulting from ill-planned and hastily implemented development projects contributed a lot to alienate the people. The unemployment and the resulting frustration among the young people made it easy for the extremists to recruit them. At the end poverty and violence helped to sustain each other.
The other factors alienating people further were the recurrent failures of democracy in Bangladesh and Pakistan. The infamous Emergency rule in India hit hard the support of the masses to the secular Congress party increasing influence of the unscrupulous religious groups among the masses. Particularly detrimental to the tolerant and moderate fabric of the Pakistani society was the regime of general Zia in which he deliberately radicalized the society along religious lines to the extent of enforcing the infamous 'hudhood' laws in an attempt to legitimize his brutal and inept administration. And the perfect pretext was provided by the Jihad that was to start in Afghanistan with collaboration of the Saudi oil-money, the American weapons and the Pakistani Intelligence apparatus.
The events surrounding the decade-long Afghan Jihad and the eventual withdrawal and collapse of the USSR became instrumental in shaping the course of events in South Asia as in many other parts of world. First was the opening up of the economy of India, the largest one in the region to the world. Second was the increasing radicalization of the population along the religious lines now that the epochal debate between the capitalist and socialist ideology was thrown to background. The Hindu extremist forces in India, that had been capitalizing the decline of the clout of Congress following the Emergency rule back in 1977 to assimilate, were prompt to utilize the opportunity. They instigated a major offensive against their rival religion by demolishing the Babri Mosque in 1992 unleashing a reign of fierce communal violence that resonated well beyond the boundaries of India killing thousands of people, mainly the innocent women and children who could not escape the assault.
It was with this event that Taslima Nasreen gained both fame and infamy. Her famous novel 'Lazza' meaning 'shame' meticulously documented the events in Bangladesh in the aftermath of demolition of the Babri Mosque. The depiction of the daily lives of the fleeing minority Hindus and the predatory Muslim gangs is indeed comparable to the brilliant works like that of Afghan life during Taliban regime by Khaled Hosseini in 'The Kite Runner'. Nasreen had, by then, written a lot against the dogmatism of Islam as she had experienced first as a girl and then as a woman. She was harshly critical of the increasing indoctrination of the people along religious lines while praising the early Bengali society that was more tolerant and pluralistic. She wrote particularly against the suppression and exploitation of the feminine under the auspices of the religion. Her bold and defiant work 'Lazza' was enough for a 'fatwa' to be issued against her by the Mullahs and she was forced to flee the country. Ever since even India has been reluctant to let her reside in some corner of this vast country for fear of the reprisal by the Muslim organizations which are adamant not even to let her articles published.
Such intense is the dislike towards Nasreen in Indian Muslim groups that even the politicians from the 'secular' parties abstain from supporting her right to seek refugee status in India, let alone her liberal views about the world, fearing the Muslim voters would be anguished.
The rise of communalism in the sub-continent and waning faith of people on secularism as a way forward was supposed to have led to the electoral setback to the secular Congress Party in India in late nineties and early part of this decade. The saffron coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), anticipating a clear victory, went to the election prematurely in 2004. But the defeat of the saffron coalition in those polls followed by even meagre performance in recent polls in 2009 led the analysts to think otherwise. Even worse defeat of the religious Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in latest elections in Bangladesh can be said to have reinforced the argument that arousing the extremist religious sentiment among people was becoming increasingly less effective means of gaining power in the region.
A more in-depth analysis shows, however, a non-linear interaction among the various economic, social and political factors acting in tandem to shape a reality that is much more complex than that appears. The phenomenal electoral losses of the religious parties are significant indicators of the failure of their strategies to rally a large enough proportion of masses to elevate them to power. But that is only one aspect among many of the reality as the electoral loss of such parties has not occurred evenly and consistently as shown by the electoral victory of BJP in the state of Gujarat in India in the aftermath of a ruthless communal pogrom that it instigated in 2002. Apparently, the party had succeeded in indoctrinating the voters in the state so much that they voted the incumbent Chief Minister with plain knowledge of what his administration had done to the detriment of the Muslim minority.
The incident of communal violence in Karnataka thus epitomizes the symptom of a social ill, not the disease itself. The issue of an article by Nasreen was but a mere excuse that could be used to polarize the people so that the cause of the extremist elements in the society was served right. And the outbreak of communal violence is the last thing that India would like to face at the moment when the violence of the Naxalites in multiple states is hitting hard a large proportion of population.
The larger question that emerges from this discussion is: where is the place for a rational and peaceful dissidence in the subcontinent? One Nepali student after visiting the birth place of Nasreen in Bangladesh reacted: so sad to discover even taking Nasreen's name had become taboo in her own birth place she has written so proudly about. Those who incite, promote or condone violence are rarely punished because somehow they manage to gain the political capital in the process using it later to gain or retain the power. Their lives are not threatened even if they boast in public to have 'eliminated' the 'evil beings'. They seldom flee to seek refugee status, and when they do so, they are embraced in the 'friendly' state and society with warmth.
And the religious extremists will have no scarcity of the recruits so long as there is no organized long term constructive attempt to avoid the alienation of the masses resulting from perceived apathy or the collusion of the power apparatus with those who incite the violence. One episode of violence compulsorily sows the seeds of the other episode as the scores remain always unsettled. The uneven distribution of the privileges and the employment opportunities only worsen the environment by providing the ideal recruits for the extremists. This time it was Taslima Nasreen who was made a scapegoat to serve the ends of the extremists on the Muslim side whose effort became fruitful for those on the Hindu side also as they could mobilize the youths in their side for the violence further radicalizing them in an 'eternal' fight that will go on till the 'evil' beings keep challenging their faith. Intimidating the soft targets has been so frequent in India that some political parties are doing so perennially in order to quell the rebellious voices that even mildly support or praise their perceived enemies. The voices against this tendency are there but far less organized and little beyond a mere rhetoric while the extremists easily enter the ground with violence or intimidation. That is why it will be long before a truly tolerant, pluralistic and liberal society will evolve from the current one in India as well as the subcontinent.
*** News source: The Hindu and Hindustan Times dailies on 2nd March