As if the anti-Muslim surge in India and Myanmar wasn’t horrible enough, Sri Lanka’s recently joining the club has rung many alarm bells among the Muslims of South Asia. The killing spree in the Aluthgama town in southern Sri Lanka has resulted in at least four deaths, with many houses and shops gutted in violence sparked by an anti-Muslim rally organised by an extremist Buddhist revivalist group, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Religion-based clashes, if they randomly occur hither and thither, should not be a cause of worry when properly tackled by impartial and effective state authorities, followed by punishment to the culprits after due process. But this is not how the whole tragedy is unfolding in the region traditionally fraught with religious friction and mob attacks on minorities. The dangerous part of this faith-based violence is the similarities in its pattern throughout the region — the ideology that underlies these attacks and the organisation of revivalist movements, which are able to hit their targets with impunity.
Anti-Muslim massacres of Gujrat in 1969, Moradabad in 1980, Nellie in 1983, Bhagalpur in 1989, with an accumulated death toll of more than 10,000, followed by the Babri Mosque-related Bombay riots of 1992 and the Gujrat massacre in 2002; all have a pattern of brutality and state collusion or inaction. Similarly, anti-Muslim violence in Buddhist Myanmar in 2013 and Sri Lanka in 2014 have the same features. Extremism, fed on a jihadist narrative, is also manifesting itself with similar brutality and state collusion towards other religions. Despite the fact that Muslim majority countries in South Asia have insignificant minorities, a constant sense of fear has gripped them.
Religion, as a solution to all the woes that the impoverished populations of South Asia faces, coupled with mournful references to past persecutions and fear of future expansion and domination by rival faiths, form the cardinal principles of violent ideologies. Restoration of the ‘golden era’ of the distant past where one’s religion ruled the world is an objective that sufficiently motivates large sections of society to become part of the ‘noble’ cause. Young devotees are prepared from a very tender age to be organised later into preachers, trainers and foot soldiers to spread this ideology, be it the RSS of India, the 969 movements of Burma, the BBS in Sri Lanka or the TTP in Pakistan. In many cases, state patronisation is also evident.
Consequently, religious revivalist movements are fast taking centre stage in South Asia — currently divided into nine states. Hindu revivalist movements in India are now almost two centuries old, having reached its zenith with Narendra Modi, a parcharak of the RSS. Nepal, with a dominating Hindu majority and Bhutan with a sizeable Hindu minority population, are naturally influenced by what happens in India. Buddhist revivalism is also emerging with equal force in Burma, Sri Lanka and Bhutan. The element of mass violence was added in Buddhist revivalism leading to deaths of many Muslims by the 969 Movement in Myanmar. And now, it has spread to Sri Lanka where the BBS has resorted to mob violence against the Muslim minority.
This holistic picture does not augur well for the dream of a peaceful South Asia, which will have implications for Pakistan. With more anti-Muslim violence in the neighbourhood, radicalism and the jihadist narrative will find more space to operate with added pressure on our state, which is already struggling hard to restore its writ. More radicalisation here will generate more apprehensions, hence more anti-Muslim violence in other South Asian countries. Is this the vicious circle of actions and reactions with enhanced levels of hate, fear and bloodshed the destiny we are heading for this is a question that merits the consideration of leaders in South Asia.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 27th, 2014.
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