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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Secularism in South Asia: The Chickens Come Home to Roost

(First published by Foreign Policy Journal on June 1, 2013)

Over 2008-2009, the tide of secularism sweeping South Asia appeared unassailable. While the chickens have already come home to roost in Pakistan merely after a tenure of PPP-led government, the ailing UPA-II coalition in India led by the Congress fears a similar fate in upcoming polls after two exhausting tenures. Situation in Bangladesh looks more complicated and less predictable but some lessons are hard to miss.

In 2009 elections, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the incumbent secular alliance led by the Indian National Congress, got a thumping victory in India. To defeat the rival saffron alliance for two elections in a row, that too with an incremental margin, was no mean achievement and the future of the secularists looked cemented for the first time after the post-emergency debacle of Indira Gandhi in 1977.

It was not long after the lingering turmoil in Bangladesh had followed by a landslide victory of the secular-minded Awami Leage (AL) led by Sheikh Hasina in 2008, nearly decimating the right wing religious parties.
And in a dramatic turnaround, the polls in Pakistan held in 2008 to cap the Musharraf rule had also given the alliance led by PPP, known most widely for its secular credentials apart from corruptibility and tendency to misgovernance, an unambiguous victory.

In the tiny neighborhood of Nepal also, the centuries long Hindu monarchy had been formally uprooted in 2008 with a promise to establish a secular republic, even though the fate of the monarchy had been already sealed by the people’s movement in 2005.

To sum up, the tide of secularism seemed unassailable as the first decade of new century was concluding, sweeping across the political boundaries in South Asia. After a protracted affair with the religion as the driving force in politics, it was believed, people had said ‘enough is enough’ and sought an alternative.
The times have changed now, however, and so have the directions of political wind in various capitals of the South Asian countries.

The coalition of the secular parties in India has been battered so badly by the corruption scams and shoddy dealing of those scams by people at all levels in the government that it has become a heresy to praise the achievements of the UPA-II a year before the completion of its tenure.

With the recent revelation that even the politicians in ruling alliance are mulling over the option of early polls to bring the lackadaisical performance of the once-impeccable Manmohan Singh to an end, the future looks pretty grim for the coalition of secularist forces in India. While all of their loss is unlikely to transform into gain for the rival saffron alliance named NDA, a fractured verdict of the people is bad for both the secularists and the nation in general.

In neighboring Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has just enjoyed a historic electoral gain. A witty journalist Mohammed Hanif has sarcastically commented that Sharif has won by promising airports to people who do not own even a bicycle, still both the gain for the religion-friendly parties and the loss for the secularists in Pakistan were highly significant. While duly sharing a record of corruption and misgovernance with the PPP, PML-N stands in contrast with the former in terms of its attitude towards the relationship between the state and the religion.

Looking deeper into the results of the polls in Pakistan, the performance of the ruling coalition over the past five years was far more decisive than any other factors like the Taliban’s selective targeting of secular parties prior to the polls, in determining the outcome. In face of intractable Taliban insurgency and failure of the PPP-led government to tackle the problem head on, the assumption, rather wishful thinking, that the Taliban could be better dealt by political powers ideologically closer to them seemed less absurd then it would appear otherwise.

And the tumult and turbulence in Bangladesh now is a bit complicated and rather unsettling, but the lessons to be learnt could be very significant.

Given the routing of the rightist parties in the 2008 polls by the AL-led alliance with a pledge to try the war criminals of 1971 independence war, it was quite logical for the confident Hasina government to move forward with the formation of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) in 2009. The handling of the trials by the tribunal and the government’s handling of the fallout of the verdicts of the tribunal has been, however, less than exemplary. From the eruption of violent protests in response to the death sentence to Jamat-e-Islami leader to the recent government move to close media houses loyal to opposition and a decree to ban the mass meetings in public, the ruling alliance does not seem to be making its case strong for the upcoming polls.

As Michel Van Es has put it aptly in one article in Asia Times Online, letting the ICT proceedings be perceived as ‘victor’s justice’ was the biggest failure of the tribunal. The emergence of radical organizations like Hefajat-e-Islam and their increasing clout may in fact, usher Bangladesh in a new era when the secularists have to face the intransigence of not only the traditional religious parties like Bangldesh Nationalist Party  and Jamat-e-Islami which could be somehow linked to the war crimes of 1971 but also a totally new breed of Islamists with popular appeal and devoid of the ‘war crime’ taint.

Surprisingly, renowned Bangladeshi intellectual and analyst Farhad Mazhar has gone to a painstaking length to depict the often dreaded Hefajat-e-Islam in positive light in the face of what he calls ‘Motijheel massacre’ by government forces on May 6 following the ‘Dhaka siege’ of May 5. In a fallaciously indefensible line of argument, however, Mazhar remains silent on sticky points—like the one that demands the Ahmadiyas to be declared non-Muslims and on the involvement of leaders with proved pro-Taliban credentials in the movement – despite individually defending (and often euphemizing) most of the points in Hefajat’s 13 point charter.

Regardless of his position on the Hefajat’s rise in Bangladesh, Mazhar’s earlier assertion that the Islamic factor has entered politics in Bangladesh cannot be ignored. Nor can we, at this point of time, refute his observation that, in trying to uproot Islamic politics, Sheikh Hasina has simply established it further; and that cracks and weaknesses have appeared in the language and culture-based nationalism that Bangladesh has seen over the past 42 years.

In India on the other hand, while the secularist political powers seem to be going through tough times in terms of political calculus, one latest sting by a responsible media outlet shows the utter failure of the apparently secular state institutions to checkmate the shadow of religious bigotry in the electoral politics.

Besides the region-wise decline in the clout of secularists in the short term, it is too early to say whether, in the long term, the unconventional arguments of analysts like Mazhar are any hint of wider acceptance of the arguments of prominent Indian thinker Ashish Nandy articulated in his seminal work ‘The politics of secularism and recovery of religious tolerance’ . In the work, Nandy elaborates how the one-size-fits-all model of secularism adopted in non-Western countries is increasingly incapable of addressing the grievances like communal disharmony and violence, and paradoxically, how it might have perpetuated the very problems it is supposed to solve.

Now, while the secularists in India are horrified by the debacle of secularists with parallel record of misgovernance in neighboring Pakistan, those in Bangladesh are yet to navigate through the potentially troubled waters ahead, amid the uncertainty about the election government. Whether the new government under Sharif in Pakistan will be able to better tackle the myriad of problems in Pakistan and whether the ideological proximity to Taliban proves an asset or a liability while dealing with them is also hard to speculate at this point of time.

Nonetheless, the short term troubles of the secularists in the region are hard to miss. Whether the religion-friendly powers in either country can capitalize on the declining clout of the rivals by delivering to the people through a more pragmatic plan of action is yet to be seen. The coming decade is likely to see a more intense interplay between the two political camps even though the winner is hard to predict yet.

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