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Violence and communalism: South Asia’s disturbing commonality

Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: Fundamentalists, even as they create walls between communities, recognise that South Asia has a connected destiny: They bank on it to achieve their ends

Police clash with Muslim devotees during a protest in Dhaka, Bangladesh (AP)

The violence against the Hindu minority in Bangladesh is an ominous development. But it is also a reminder of one cardinal truth: All of South Asia is “tied together in a single garment of destiny,” to borrow Martin Luther King’s phrase from a different context. Violence in one place will spill over to another; freedom endangered in one place will inevitably corrode the freedom of others. We have tried to act as if this was not true. But that modus vivendi has been unravelling for a while.

Anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh is not new. The current violence is strategically timed. It is surely not a coincidence that the violence coincides with targeted attacks on Hindus in Kashmir. The intent is not just local ethnic terror, but a deepening of the communal divide in India. It is tempting to say that this violence is a strategic act by particular organised groups, perhaps with transnational links. It is not organically embedded in society. This is a comforting thought, and can empower us to the extent that it is still important to recognise forces that do not condone such violence. But in South Asia the link between strategic communal violence and organic embeddedness is always a tricky one. Such violence inevitably transforms the fabric of social relationships itself. It is fanciful to think that Kashmiriyat survived terrorism, or that remnants of Bangladeshi pluralism will survive this violence, or that blasphemy laws in Punjab will not play into hands of violent reactionaries, any more than Indian secularism survived the violence of so-called fringe groups. Over time, everywhere in South Asia, violence has fundamentally transformed politics. It is a tiger you ride at your own peril.

The Partition of India could work as a modus vivendi, if three conditions were in place. The first is that the internal conflicts in each of the states would not radically spill over into the other states. This assumption was never literally true. But it was shaken to its core by 1971. Pakistan’s horrendous internal conflicts spilled over, and Indian intervention helped the breaking up of Pakistan, creating a syndrome of deep Pakistani insecurity that still haunts the subcontinent. The second assumption was that the successor states behaved, as much as possible, like normal states in relation to each other: Pacifying violence, trading with each other, leveraging the advantages of their geographical proximity. They would, like all states, worry about the power of their neighbours. But the fact that they were states would give them enough confidence to deal with each other. Most states in South Asia, however, want to run away from each other. In Pakistan we got a state whose elites were ready to cut off its nose to spite its face, becoming an epicentre of transnational violence from Afghanistan to Bangladesh, and changing its own social character in the process.

But even the absence of these two conditions could, with some difficulty, be managed, if India remained a bulwark against spillover effects. Spillover effects don’t just work through retaliatory violence. They work by transforming the ideological climate in other states. The persecution of Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh is a pivotal strand in the mentality that India must be, if not a Hindu state, at least a “Hindus First” state. India could also remain a bulwark against these effects if in response to communalism elsewhere, it reaffirmed its own secularism more deeply. The assumption was that India is large enough to absorb a few pin pricks. Throwing cold water domestically over what our neighbours were doing, even as we tried to contain them internationally, was not a sign of weakness, it was smart strategy. The fact that Hindus are being targeted is not a creation of Hindu nationalism. The targeting of Hindus also has elements of sui generis logic. But the ascendancy of Hindu nationalism has profoundly changed how the dynamics of attacks play out. Hindu nationalism looks for pretexts to target Muslims, deepen internal divisions, and construct a seamless spectre of Muslim threat. The official response of the government of India to the violence in Bangladesh may be conventional. But this incident will have deep communal effects. Even if there is no immediate retaliatory violence, the cumulative communal undertones in India will erupt. Which is exactly what those groups who foment violence in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh would like.

The spillover effects cannot be contained because, despite differences in political cultures, the ethnic fundamentalisms of these countries now feed off each other. They will give each other victories. All of these countries, including India, now have hegemonic ideologies at the level of civil society that revel in a vicious coarsening of discourse, are deeply committed to violence, and frankly don’t mind disorder if it increases support for society’s authoritarian instincts.

This is also of great strategic consequence. Some of Delhi’s macho strategic mandarins used to loudly thump their chests and say India can do without South Asia: It was too big and had too much legitimacy capital to have to worry about its neighbours. India’s legitimacy capital is slowly eroding as its democracy and secularism corrode. But, strategically, not placing South Asia front and centre was always a myopic view. It was also a mistake in a much deeper sense. The geopolitics of South Asia is not a conventional international relations problem; it is a deep, and increasingly traumatic, psychodrama in a long civilisational history. The international de-hyphenation of India and Pakistan may be considered a big diplomatic victory. But the de-hyphenation we are proud of is practically meaningless when even the ideological currents in most South Asian countries are now so deeply hyphenated.

In a twisted dialectic, fundamentalists, even as they create walls between communities, seem to recognise that South Asia has a connected ideological destiny: They are banking on it to achieve their ends. There are three ways of thinking about that destiny. The first is the current modus vivendi. But the historical conditions for its success are increasingly doubtful. What is replacing it is an intensification of the logic of 1947: Attempts at a deepening communal divide, ethnic cleansing and subordination in different keys, and a cult of violence. Is there a third option — a South Asia with states that reimagine the region not as joined by a murderous competition over community identity but as a new zone of freedom? This is a pie in the sky. But the thought that the only political language that unites South Asia is the deepening of the violence of 1947 is too dreadful to contemplate.

This column first appeared in the print edition on October 20, 2021 under the title ‘Single garment of destiny’. The writer is Contributing Editor, The Indian Express

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