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Tracing the influence of belief on the politics of South Asia


By Pankti Dalal and Jibran Setalvad Anand

When considering the issue of power and politics in South Asia, there are a multitude of unique factors which affect it and one of these factors is religion. The issue and role of religion in South Asian society is something which is far more than any other region due to the history and the traditions that exist there. Therefore, religion automatically plays a large role in politics and therefore power. This research paper will attempt to trace the influence of belief on the politics of South Asia not by referring to the multitude of examples evident throughout history, but instead focusing on how and why this relationship developed with the use of certain facts to support our analysis points.

Many scholars have noted that one of the most important developments of the 1970s and the 1980s was a global proliferation of very aggressive religious political positions in South Asia. These aggressive positions weren’t necessarily developed throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but were brought on to the national stages of these countries during this period because of a variety of other factors,. In India, religious violence came to the fore with the 1984 Sikh riots, the Babri Masjid demolition and subsequent riots and the 2002 Gujarat riots. All these events represented oppression by the majoritarian religion over the minority ones. In Pakistan this was seen when the government of Pakistan was partially toppled with Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto accused of being not aggressive enough for working towards the Islamization of the country. In Sri Lanka, the advent of religion and religious political conflict was in the 1950s with the declaration of a Sinhala Buddhist state from a traditionally secular one and then the 1983 riots which was followed by the 1983 civil war between the Sinhala Buddhists and the Tamils.

However, though the above examples distinctly highlight how religion not only played a major role in political conflict but also often started it, one often forgets the initial values that these religions were formed on. Traditionally, Hinduism promotes the idea of universality and universal acceptance where religious and other forms of tolerance are at its highest. Furthermore, traditionally Buddhism is a distinctly non-violent belief and is said to promote peace. Finally, Islam is considered to promote values of brotherhood and denouncing idol worship. Therefore, one could argue that religion inherently isn’t a corruptive force or a greater evil and more specifically, religion in South Asia existing as a social entity is something that though isn’t the perfect outcome with several complications existing even socially, isn’t the polarizing and violent force as can be seen in political sphere. 

When dealing with religion in the political sphere in South Asia, one can see a distinct pattern emerging. This pattern represents a dominant, majoritarian religion which has access if not to direct power but has the ability to control the central ideas in the political spectrum. Therefore, this majoritarian religion feels obliged to impose its will and ideas of change onto the entire country, intentionally subverting the influence of other religions as well as oppressing them. In the process of this polarization, the religion loses its focus on human and societal values and is instead governed by power and the idea of control.   

In the case of Pakistan, Its short  history  has  been one  of struggle  between  religious  parties seeking to impose  the full  corpus  of  religious  law  (the  Shari'a)  and  secular  parties more  interested in socialist or regional  issues. While initially the governments tried not to be extremist in their “Islamic” approach, there emerged leaders who used “Islamic fundamentalism” to increase their power. For example, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto facing increasing economic and political problems turned to Islam to justify his unpopular rule. It is then where he created further divide in the country already facing sectarian violence by declaring the Ahmadi sect as non-Islamic.

Moreover, Islamic fundamentalism came to its fore with the rule of Zia al-Haq. Zia’s personal religious beliefs stressed the need for strong Islamic policies for the country."  Whatever the degree  of Zia's personal  faith  and  commitment  to religion,  Islam  also  served  him  as  a  crucial  legitimating  instrument  for  his nondemocratic,  martial  law  regime.  Debate  has raged  over  the  degree  to  which  Zia  may  have  been  simply exploiting  Islam  for  his  own  political  purposes.  His personal and political motivations cannot be satisfactorily sorted out; both are clearly present."  Zia  sought  the support  of  the religious  parties  in  formulating his  own  policies,  both in  domestic  and foreign  policy;  religious party support  for his  Afghan  policies  was  quite  important for  a strategy  that  risked  the national  security  in  its  confrontation with the  Soviet Union.

In Sri Lanka, there were various reforms that were incorporated by the government that were pro Sinhala monks and gave them several privileges.  In 1956, they made Sinhala the official language, instead of the culturally neutral English. Furthermore, in 1972, the government gave priority to Buddhism without out rightly naming it the State religion. Furthermore, the name of the place was also changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka. This religious polarization eventually led to the civil war of 1983.

The reason why religion and the influence of religion on politics is such an important and threatening issue in South Asia is a unique phenomenon. Throughout Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan, religion has played, throughout time, an important role in society and this role and the values that it ‘enlightened’ the people with is something very dear to them. Therefore, when discussing the issue of power and how power can corrupt any ideal, due to the influence that religion has in society, it as a political entity has the capability to polarize a community like nothing else. This is evident in all three nations with Islamic fundamentalism, hindutva and hindu nationalism and Buddhist nationalism.

Therefore, one argument to deter the influence of religion on the power and politics of South Asia would be the establishment of a secular state such as India.

Now when dealing with secularism and the idea of secularism, there are two very distinct ideas that exist and in this paper we bring both these ideas out. These two types are secularism purely from the constitutional term of the word and the other is the regular practice of secularism.

Constitutionally India defined itself as a modern, secular democracy. From 1947-52, there was furious debate about the nature of the Indian country but with Nehru’s marginalization of the “soft” hindus, a distinct Secular platform, not only constitutionally but also in practice, was formed. The 1952 elections which resulted in overwhelming congress victory was an example of the Indian general support for secular ideas in a majority Hindu state of secularism. Therefore, Nehru’s strong stand became the legacy which India followed in for the next few decades and the one that the nation still tries to honor today. Nehru’s active stand allowed the nation to not only be constitutionally secular but also secular in practice. Therefore, India emerged as one of the pioneers of secularism in the modern world, something remarkable as the nation achieved it at its birth. However, in the 1990s, with the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the subsequent riots, everything which Nehru had tried to marginalize and therefore keep the nation secular on all levels, returned to national importance. And the debate between communalism and secularism, which has existed since then has represented the practical failure of secularism in the nation.

When dealing with communalism, specifically Hindu (hindutva) nationalism, questioning the conflict between the majority (hindu) and the minority (muslim) reveals interesting answers. Apart from the usual ideological perspectives, there is also a misguided belief among Hindu (hindutva) nationalists that independence in 1947, represented independence not only from 200 years of British rule but 700 years of Muslim rule. Furthermore, a Marxist interpretation of this conflict as well as the dominance of religion in politics and the subsequent horrific effects could be regarded as a strategy of the colonial powers as they reinstated communal violence by forcing partition. This can be seen as the price paid by the Indian bourgeoisies with British imperialism, which placed a burden on the shoulders of India, a burden of hatred and suspicion under which it threatens to founder.

When reviewing Hindu communalism and Muslim fundamentalism we can see two different reasons of emergence. Hindu communalism in India is developed from the misdirected idea of how independence and the changes associated with it didn’t bring about drastic changes and this lead to a frenzy instilled by the RSS. While Muslim fundamentalism began due to the migration of middle class educators to Pakistan and in their place only the upper-class consisting of real-estate entrepreneurs and other new rich to communalism.

Similarly the distinction between India and Pakistan lies in the fact that; In India- triumphant secular nationalism is battling with irrepressible communalism. While in Pakistan, triumphant communalism has choked out secular nationalism. In India, dominant secular nationalism is attacked by reconciled communal forces while in Pakistan Muslim communalism subverts secular aspirations.

However, though this research paper highlights the influence of religion on politics and power and how in the three dominant South Asian countries, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, there is one majoritarian religion which plays the role of oppressing other religions. Furthermore, we have debated the question of Secularism in India and whether this secularism which exists is indeed true secularism and I feel that both in order to understand the entire topic as well as understand the complex dimensions in South Asia and India especially, a quote from Mani Shankar Ayer is appropriate. Ayer says that “secularism in the Indian context must mean above all, opposition to communalism. It is not enough to be secular, one must be actively anti-communal”. Therefore the dimensions that exist in South Asia are different from the ones that exist in the rest of the world and this multitude of factors is what makes the topic of religion and politics in South Asia such a grueling, gruesome yet enthralling one.



Aiyer, Mani Shankar. Confessions of a secular fundamentalist. New Delhi: Viking, 2004. Print.

Chomsky, Noam, Peter R. Mitchell, and John Schoeffel. Understanding power: the indispensable Chomsky. New York: New Press, 2002. Print.

Douglas, Allen. Religion and political conflict in South Asia: India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Delhi [etc.: Oxford University Press, 1993. Print

Fuller, Graham E.. The future of political Islam. New York: Palgrave, 2003. Print.

Husain, Irfan, and Stephen P. Cohen. Fatal faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West. Rockville, MD: Arc Manor, 2012. Print.

Siegel, Paul N. The meek and the militant: religion and power across the world. London: Zed Books, 1986. Print.

Comments in Chronological order (1 total comments)

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Sun, September 20, 2015 04:45 AM (about 21263 hours ago)
What a original perspective
Beautifully crafted

Great to go ahead to be written in the times magazine
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