By Basav Sen
Imagine a future in which shooting doctors at abortion clinics, instead of being a stray occurrence, becomes the norm. Then, multiply that death toll by ten. Welcome to the world of religious right politics in South Asia (the region of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka). The word "politics" should be emphasized here, as the Western mainstream media frequently portrays religious right violence in South Asia as being "religious" rather than political, as being driven by centuries of mutual animosity, and beyond the pale of contemporary, rational analysis. Nothing could be further from the truth - South Asian religious right politics and the violence associated with it is completely motivated by contemporary economic and political calculations. No "inexplicable 1000-year-old conflicts," but cold calculations of economic gain, electoral arithmetic, and media manipulation. A recent event on the MIT campus sponsored by the Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia (AFSDSA) - a discussion with two activists on the front-line of progressive resistance to the politics of bigotry - served to emphasize this. Asghar Ali Engineer is a well-known authority on religious right politics in India (called "communalism" in South Asian parlance, and subsequently in this article) and an activist, tirelessly fighting the propaganda of communal politicians, building grassroots resistance to their politics, and defending the endangered rights of religious and ethnic minorities. Asma Jahangir, a feminist lawyer from Pakistan, is a tireless champion for the rights of minorities and women in Pakistan. She has resisted oppression of women in the name of religion at considerable risk to her life - in fact, very recently, she escaped an attempt on her life when a group of gunmen attacked her home when she was not in the country, and threatened other family members. Both are fighting against tremendous odds. A background to the political situation in both India and Pakistan will show just how powerful the forces they fight against are. Any discussion of communal politics in South Asia must start with the history of the division of British India into India and Pakistan. This division is the subject of this article, the first in a two-part series. This is a purely academic discussion, intended to illuminate contemporary communal politics, and whatever one's views of this partition, it must be unequivocally stated that what has happened historically cannot be undone. Whether the partition was right or wrong, India and Pakistan are two distinct entities and any plan to erase this distinction by force is unthinkable. The entire region of South Asia was under British rule until 1947. British India, as it was called, was inhabited by people with undoubted cultural commonalties, but it had never been politically a single entity. In the 19th century, under the influence of Irish, Japanese, and other nationalisms, the Western-educated elites of British India started to develop a national consciousness articulated through the Indian National Congress. Detractors who say that since British India was never politically a single entity before, that this nationalism was spurious, should remember that the nation state is a relatively recent invention: it dates back to 18th and 19th century Europe. The notion of a people with common cultural/linguistic heritage aspiring to be a single political entity, and the belief that these identities, rather than the territory that happened to be under the control of a particular despot, should be the basis for differentiation between sovereign political entities, is of relatively recent origin anywhere in the world. The British were concerned with the growth of this nationalism, as it threatened their continued exploitation of India as a source of cheap raw material for British industry. They decided to devise a strategy to divide Indians. The easiest one they found, for geographical reasons, was religion. The language groups in India were closely associated with certain regions and provinces. The major religious groups on the other hand were distributed more or less evenly across India, with very few regions being entirely dominated by one group. Hindus were the majority, Muslims a large minority, and the other religions were small. And each religious community was deeply divided linguistically and culturally. The British calculated that dividing the nationalists along lines of religion would confound them to an extent other divisions would not be able to, as a religious nationalism would not even be territorially contiguous, and regional/linguistic nationalisms would be territorially contiguous. Thus started the British policy of "Divide and Rule" in India. The British have made public statements to this effect. For instance, "Divide et Impera was the old Roman motto," said Elphinstone, the British governor of Bombay province in 1861, "and it should be ours in India." Of course it would be simplistic to say that the British machinations were successful without willing players among Indians. Why, then, did certain Indians cooperate with the British in this scheme? Communal historians, whether Hindu rightists in India or Muslim rightists in Pakistan, would assert that this was because religion is a fundamental driving force in the lives of people (if they admit at all that British machinations had anything to do with the division of British India). A survey of the participants in religious right politics in British India, whether Hindu rightists in the Hindu Mahasabha and the fascist RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) or Muslim rightists in the Muslim League, reveals a completely different set of motivations. These were all members of the landed aristocracy or the nascent capitalist class, and, in the case of the Hindu rightists, drawn from the upper castes of Hindu society. (Hindu society is traditionally divided into hereditary hierarchical endogamous groups called castes, originally occupational, but the custom of caste division has persisted even after the breakdown of the occupational division.) They were almost exclusively male. And they all claimed to speak on behalf of the "community" as a monolithic entity. Significantly, they were conservative on a host of other issues, from even the mildest land reform to ameliorate the condition of the Indian peasant, to the preservation of caste and gender hierarchy. Their motivation, it follows, was the preservation of their own privileges rather than religion per se, and religion was a good garb for their politics because it gave them an aura of morality and because it gave them patronage from the British, who were keen to encourage precisely this type of politics in India. An opposing trend also appeared in British Indian politics from the 1920s; the growth of a "left," communist and socialist parties. Interestingly, all these opposing trends in British Indian politics (with the exception of the RSS) were, to begin with, under the umbrella of the Congress. The Muslim League was largely a set of landed aristocrats with no political drive, and their only leader of any consequence was the brilliant conservative lawyer, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Jinnah believed in the politics of petitions and legal challenges, of working within the system (which he knew exceedingly well) to win concessions from the British. When Gandhi launched the first attempt by Congress to mobilize masses outside the educated elites who had always been the constituency of Congress, Jinnah was very uncomfortable and left Congress, taking most of the Muslim League with him. (Note that the circumstances in which the League broke with the Congress had very little to do with religious right politics directly.) After this, Jinnah and others in the League became increasingly concerned about the parallel trend of growing populism and growing strength and assertiveness of the Hindu right. Nationalist historians in present-day India often deny the legitimacy of this fear and attribute the subsequent separatism of the Muslim League solely to their own reactionary brand of politics. This shows total insensitivity to legitimate fears that minorities may have in a majority vote political system. The myth taught to students in India today - that the Muslim League was solely responsible for dividing British India - is an oversimplification, and the role of the Hindu religious right in creating a hostile environment for minorities, particularly Muslims, is undeniable. That of course does not excuse the fact that the politics of the Muslim League was reactionary. The League advanced the "two nation theory" which stated that the Hindus and Muslims of British India constituted two distinct nations. This is a distortion of the true picture in British India, which could just as easily have been one nation on the basis of undeniable cultural commonalties, or divided into 25 nations on the basis of distinct regional languages and cultures. The most reactionary aspect of the League's politics was their denial of the very possibility of a secular politics in South Asia - they held that any political formation of necessity represented one or other religious community. (By a secular politics, I mean a politics that recognizes the importance of issues of class and gender which are independent of ethnic and religious divisions, and builds ideological positions - conservative, liberal or radical - on different sides of questions of class and gender.) The Congress had a Hindu chauvinist right wing, but this did not apply to all of Congress, and certainly not to the Communists and Socialists. This conception of all politics as being representative of one or another religious group effectively denies the politics of class and gender and legitimizes the claims of an elite to speak on behalf of all social and economic strata within a religious community. It disempowers workers, peasants, women, and the oppressed in general, and rules out the possibility of their forging political ties that cut across ethnic and religious lines. The League, however, was not the only proponent of a two-nation theory. The RSS believed in a particularly vicious version of it - Hindus and Muslims were two distinct nations, but the "final solution" to this problem was not a territorial partition (as the League advocated) but religio-cultural genocide of Muslims in British India: their assimilation into a monolithic, Brahminical Hindu society (which was in any case the conception of Hindu society by a section of the upper caste elite). As a result of the demand for a separate Muslim state of Pakistan articulated by a Muslim elite through the League, the refusal of a Hindu upper caste elite within Congress to recognize and address the legitimate fears of minorities, and British encouragement of communal division of the freedom movement, the partition became a real possibility. It goes to the discredit of the secular, left political forces that they could not effectively articulate an alternate vision to it and build a mass movement to prevent the communalization of politics. This failure of the left turned the possibility into an inevitability. When the British, unable to justify the drain on their resources resulting from trying to govern an increasingly ungovernable colony, and the bad international publicity arising from the inevitable repression they resorted to, granted their South Asian colony independence, they left it divided into India and Pakistan. This division entailed mob violence of unprecedented scale and brutality (by some estimates 500,000 dead), and the migration of millions of Muslims from India to Pakistan and of Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan to India. Millions were forced to leave the only home they had ever known and the only means of livelihood they had to be uprooted to an India or Pakistan which they were told was their country, but which they had never set eyes upon, and for the creation of which their opinion was never consulted. Families were broken and several thousand disappeared. What nationalist historians in both India and Pakistan fail to note, however, is that this mass migration was not out of any desire to be with one's "own kind," it was not born out of any identity-based nationalism. That was the preserve of the elite - the South Asian peasant was tied to the soil. What drove the migration was the very real fear of violence. And what motivated the violence, besides the machinations of rightist parties (the involvement of the right wing of Congress, the Muslim League, the RSS, and the Sikh communalist Akali Dal in inciting violence is known), was often a desire to grab the property left behind by the migrantss. This vast human tragedy left its imprint on the politics of post-1947 South Asia, and the legacy of bitterness was exploited by conservative interests in both countries, and in the new nation of Bangladesh which broke away from Pakistan in 1971, as will be seen in the second part of this article. Both Asghar Ali Engineer and Asma Jahangir are struggling against these forces of reaction. Editor's note - Part 2: The Post Colonial Phase will appear in the next issue of the Thistle.