By Arnold Zeitlin
The founding fathers of the three most populous South Asian states all wanted secular governments in which religion, especially those of the majority of their citizens, played no part. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Quaid-e -Azam of Pakistan, famously said in a speech three days before the creation in August 1947 of Pakistan that “in course of time, Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens if the state.” He gave no indication that he recognized his remarks undercut his argument for the need of a Muslim homeland like Pakistan. He went on to say:
“You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of 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 State.”
Across West Pakistan’s eastern border, the Indian constitution gave Indians freedom of conscience and the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion but said nothing about establishing a state religion. It was not until 1976 that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had the world “secular” inserted into the constitution. Her father, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s founding prime minister, very much favored keeping religion out of government but once declared “secularism is not a happy word.” He added: “Some people think it means something opposed to religion. That obviously is not correct. What it means is that it is a state which honors all faiths equally and gives them equal opportunities.”
As the leader of Bangladesh as it emerged to independence, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in November 1972 told the assembly writing the country’s constitution “secularism is not the absence of religion. The Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists and the Christians will perform their respective religion. Nobody can interrupt one another. We object that anybody can use religion as their political tool.” Bangladesh, then with nearly 20 percent of its population Hindu, Buddhist or Christian, became the first South Asian state to use the word “secular” in its constitution.
Jinnah, Nehru and Sheikh Mujib were wrong, underestimating the religious zeal of their populations. Religious political parties in these countries tend to attract few voters, but religion is important to individuals.
In Pakistan’s 1956 constitution, Islam became the country’s “official” religion. Islam became the state religion under a new constitution in 1973 when the country was led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, identified by one observer as “a whisky-drinking, pseudo-socialist from a Westernized family.” Under Bhutto’s rule, in a bid to the country’s religious right, parliament amended the constitution declaring the Ahmadiyya Muslim community non-Muslim. General Zia Ul-Haq, who had Bhutto hanged after seizing power in a coup, pursued a policy of Islamization until he was assassinated in 1988.
Another military figure, Lt. General Zia Rahman, seized power in Bangladesh and became president in 1977. He replaced secularism in the country’s constitution with the words “absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah” and pursued a foreign policy “based on Islamic solidarity.” Another general, Hussain Muhammed Ershad, followed Rahman, who was assassinated, ruled until he resigned in 1990 under the pressure of massive street demonstrations but not before he made Islam the country’s state religion.
In India, the ruling BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pursued a policy in support of Hindutva, a movement which seeks to make India formally a Hindu state in which its largest religious minority, the Muslims, would become second-class citizens, a condition that 75 years ago justified the creation of Pakistan as a Muslim homeland.
The consequence of these developments is outlined in a series of essays collected under the title, Politics of Hate, by Farahnaz Ispahani, an activist in support of South Asian minorities, a journalist, former member of the Pakistan parliament and a member of the celebrated Ispahani family. She contributes also to the book an essay on Pakistan’s harsh treatment of religious minorities. Her husband, Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistan ambassador to the United States and Sri Lanka and now director for South and Central Asia for the Hudson Institute, an American think tank, opens the book with an overview of South Asian states and their treatment of minorities.
Their writing and other essays paint a grim picture of South Asia prejudice and hatred. Where 23 percent of Pakistanis were non-Muslims when Jinnah made his 1947 speech, today the non-Muslim population is less than 4 percent, many having been driven away from a discriminatory society. Muslims scorn Hindus. Sikhs and Christians; and Sunni Muslims target Shia Muslims as well as Ahmadiyyas who practice an Islam that recognizes a 19th century figure as their prophet.
Essays by Neil DeVotta, an American academic and specalist on Sri Lanka, and Gehan Guatilleke, a Sri Lankan lawyer, describe the hatred of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists for Hindu Tamils and for Muslims. While an infinitesimal proportion of Sri Lanka’s population, Christians bore the brunt of that horrific Sunday, 21 April 2019, when Islamic jihadists attacked three Christian churches, killing nearly 200 people, as well as three luxury ihotels, klling another 69.
Michael Nazaer-Ali, a Pakistani-born Roman Catholic priest, describes how Pakistani Christians are targets of an increasingly intimidating blasphemy law. C. Christine Fair and Parina Patel, professors at Georgetown University in Washington DC, report on a 2017 survey of more than 4,000 Bangladeshi Muslims that demonstrate they “overwhelmingly prefer more Sharia in governance of their country and larger roles for religious leaders”. Two-thirds of those questioned favored stoning those convicted of adultery and three-quarters completely or somewhat favored Islamic punishments like whippings or cutting off hands. The professors concluded “while respondents are extremely intolerant of non-Muslims, they are also intolerant of Muslims of differin sectarian commitments”. mostly meaning Shias. They see little hope for change, concluding that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, her country’s population now 90 percent Muslim, “has chosen to retain Islam as the state religion, and in her zeal to extirpate the BJeI (Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami), she has chosen to patronize an equally dangerous suite of islamic actors for her own purposeful gains”.
Solutions from the essayists to the intolerance and hatred are well intentioned but unlikely to emerge. “Buddhist values such as metta (loving kindness) and karuna (compassion)” writes attorney Gunatilleke about the hatred in Sri Lanka, “could be invoked to advance a discourse of coexistence and equal citizenship…such a radical shift may seem extremely difficult to achieve”.
A. Faizur Rahman, India-based founder of the Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Thought, ends his report on “Muslimophobia” in India, by reaching back to a 16th century poem by Sant Eknath about a Muslim-Hindu argument that ends with both sides embracing (“great bliss comes to both,” is the poem’s final line). “If a Hindu-Muslim argument can become agreement in the sixteenth century….”concludes Rahman wistfully, “there is no reason why the two communities cannot live together in concord within the borders of the world’s largest secular democaracy….”
Evidently, as this book reveals, hatred and intolerance need no reason. Politics of Hate is a grim, but valuable reminder of the deep religious divisions of South Asia and the difficulties in overcoming them.