South Asian Tragedy

The Rise of Religious Right

Subhash Gatade

It is important to note that ascent of Modi and rise of illiberal and majoritarian voices in this part of South Asia cannot be considered an exception. It is really a strange coincidence that while human rights activists and rationalists are debating ascendance of Hindutva Right here, situation in this part of South Asia looks very similar where majoritarian forces owing allegiance to a particular religion or ethnicity seem to be on the upswing. Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan—everywhere democratic forces being pushed to the margins and majoritarian voices gaining new voices and strength.

Not very many people would have imagined that people claiming themselves followers of Buddha—who is considered apostle of non-violence—would metamorphose into perpetrators of tremendous human rights violations in Myanmar. It was only last year that 'Guardian' had done a special story on the Burmese monk Wirathu—called 'Bin Laden of Burma'—who with his 2,500 follower monks has become a dreaded name in the country, instigating Buddhist fanatics to attack Muslims. The plight of Rohingya Muslims has become a cause of international concern. The military in Myanmar has provided tacit support to him or others of his ilk.

Or, come to Sri Lanka, few months back the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) started by Buddhist monks had reached headlines for attacking Muslims and causing loss of property and human lives. Since the suppression of the Tamil militancy the Sinhala extremist forces with due connivance of the Rajpakshe government has discovered 'new enemies'. If Muslims are target number one, Christians and Hindus are not far behind.

Or, go to Bangladesh or reach neighbouring Pakistan where one finds Islamist forces trying to play havoc with the lives of 'others'. It is true that because of a strong tradition of secular movement, situation is still under control in B'desh but Pakistan seems to be bursting at its seams where various fanatic islamic groups with their violenct acts against the 'others'—ranging from the Ahmadiyas, Shias, Hazaras, Hindus etc—have created a situation of implosion.

What is noticeable in this picture is that—
–    Perpetrator community changes as one crosses the national borders. In fact, one finds a reversal of roles. Perpetrator community on this side of the border metamorphoses into victim community on the other side of the border. In Burma, Buddhists seem to be the perpetrators and Muslims seem to be at the receiving end, in B'desh there is reversal of roles and likewise in other countries of the region.
–    It is disturbing to note in such a volatile situation one type of fanaticism feeds on the other. Buddhist extremists in Myanmar strengthen Islamists in B'desh and they further add strength to the Hindutva supremacists here. If the first half of 20th century of this area has been witness to anti-colonial struggles which had strengthened each other's emancipatory aspirations, in the first quarter of 21st century people all have been witness to explosion of majoritarian movements trying to put all the achievements of democracy and secularism on the backbumer.

And there are reports that different types of alliances are coning up between them.

One can look at the words of appreciation expressed by then RSS leader (and now 'loaned' to BJP ) Ram Madhav about the Bondu Bala Sena sometime back in this connection and also attempts by the Buddhist extremists to make a common cause with Hindutva Supremacists to form a 'peace zone' against the 'common enemy' (read Islam).

Bodu Bala Sena (BBS)—a Buddhist organisation many wish to call it Right or Ultra Right—is a new phenomenon in Sri Lanka. One may prefer to brand them in any manner one would like to. But the fact remains that this new outfit is slowly growing in stature and popular support in the country's Buddhist-dominated areas...
So far, the issues raked up by the BBS are worthy of active and sympathetic consideration...
—Ram Madhav
Attempts to coordinate activities against a 'common enemy' namely Islam had received a boost when the infamous Wirathu visited Sri Lanka last year and a proposal was put forward by Wirathu and BBS jointly seeking RSS nod to form what they called a "Peace Zone".

"The time has come to ally internationally," Galagodaththe Gnanasara, the leader of the radical Sri Lankan Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena, announced at a convention held in Colombo last month. The guest of honor was Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist radical whose picture Time magazine put on its July 1 cover as "The Face of Buddhist Terror." The government of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse ignored pleas by Sri Lankan Muslim and Christian civil groups, fearful of more anti-Muslim violence in their country, to deny Mr Wirathu a visa. Granting Mr Wirathu a visa can only reinforce the fears of many Muslims that the government—and perhaps more powerful regional allies—back Bodu Bala Sena, which translates as Buddhist Power Force.
Last week, Mr Gnanasara claimed he was in discussions "at a high level" with the right-wing Indian Hindu group Rashtriya Swayam Sevak to form what he called a "Hindu-Buddhist peace zone" in South Asia. A Rashtriya Swayam Sevak spokesman, Ram Madhav, promptly denied that there were any such discussions. But Mr Madhav, now general secretary of India's governing Bharatiya Janata Party, has written comments sympathetic to Bodu Bala Sena and Mr Wirathu's group 969 in Myanmer on his Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Looking at developments in India and the rest of South Asia, a picture may emerge that the world today is mere theatre of the rise of illiberal ideas and emergence of anti-human politics with people being turned into mere spectators. It has never been the case now and has never been the case earlier also.

It is heartwarming to see thousands and thousands of people in Europe holding demonstrations to welcome refugees from Syria and pressuring their own governments to change tough anti-immigration rules.

What does future hold for people in India?

Whether India would emerge as the new economic superpower of the 21st Century as claimed by the rulers and their cheerleaders or it will move towards another crude version of what Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India used to call 'Hindu Pakistan'. It was Nehru only who could foresee how communalism of the majority presents itself as nationalism in a multi-religious country and can one day overwhelm the state.

Situation here looks really grim.
'...[t]he centre of gravity has shifted perhaps decisively to the right, in three crucial spheres : economy, secularism and democracy.'

What can be done to halt this decisive turn to the right?

What should be done so that struggle against communalism, struggle for secularism and democracy and equity receives a new boost.

It does not need recounting how developments here affect developments in neighbouring countries. One can recall the period when for the first time Hindutva Supremacists reached echelons of power here under NDA-I, that was the period when Islamists who have been dominating social life since quite some time in neighbouring Pakistan won elections in two provinces for the first time after independence.

Or, how the ascendance of Islamists in B'desh as well as Pakistan and the growing Wahabbisation of Islam/Muslims—thanks to what Pervez  Hoodbhoy calls 'Saudisation' of Pakistan—has impacted social/political life of Muslims here.

And it would not be out of place here to underline that if secularism is able to retrieve lost ground here, neoliberal agenda is put on the defensive in these countries, then it would have a very positive impact on other neighbouring countries also.

Undoubtedly fighting neoliberalism —which is essentially capitalism of present age, under a bourgeois democratic state and Challenging the 'cultural politics' of the right in a society which has deeply entrenched pre-modern socio-cultural civilizational structures is not going to be an easy task. As of now one can easily see the enormity of challenge and the complexity of the situation.

Revolutionaries need to carve out a strategy appropriate to present times to carry forward popular mass struggle.

Vol. 48, No. 20, Nov 22 - 28, 2015