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Minorities in South Asia: A Secular Perspective

The policies of British Colonial rulers in South Asia deepened communal consciousness along religious lines and made religious identities salient over other identities like regional, linguistic or gender. The political process introduced by the British colonial power, particularly elections in late nineteenth century with limited franchise for local bodies, proved to be a deeply divisive process. Elections in a backward and feudal society triggered off competitive mobilization of voters along religious lines as the most effective and easy way to mobilize and participate in the impending elections for local self governance in a short duration.

Reading the writings on the wall in the emerging situation where British has consolidated their rule, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan branded Indian National Congress as party of Hindus and called upon the Muslim community to keep away from it. Muslims did not have a unified strategy and response to colonial rule. Badruddin Tayyabji and many others chose to ignore the call of Sir Syed and participated in the deliberations of Indian National Congress, and later was even elected as its President. Sir Syed’s effort was to pull out the community from deep traditional slumber and promote modernity using English education as a tool. Sir Syed sought to reinterpret Islam, dusting off the cobwebs that had accumulated in the process of religious elite’s resistance to western colonial cultural hegemony that had forced the community to gravitate towards conservation and attempts to restore the past.

Communal and minority consciousness among the Muslim community was formed as a response to two processes – resistance to British Colonial rule by the religious and feudal elite on the one hand, and the urge to get accommodated in the colonial bureaucracy by acquiring western education on the other hand. The former was natural response to loss of power to the colonizers, while the latter was a strategy to accept the new reality of colonial rule and to empower the community accepting colonial rule. Both strategies ironically achieved similar results so far as creating minority consciousness is concerned. The Wahabi and the Farizi movements in the early nineteenth century are examples of the former response, viz. resistance to British rule, while Sir Syed’s movement for English education was an example of the latter strategy to get members of the community accommodated in English bureaucracy and power structures.

The religious elite, ulemas and maulvis, used religious symbols and religious platforms and institutions for mobilization of the community to resist colonial rule. The Islamic revivalist movement focused more on the colonial rule, resisted western hegemony and influences on people’s lives and even sought to build solidarity with other anti-British forces and Indian nationalism. The religious revivalist movement led by the religious elite hoped that Muslims would have the liberty to practice their religion in any future arrangement. After the brutal suppression of the revivalist Wahabi and the Fariaizi movements in the first half of the nineteenth century, the revivalist resisters of British rule opened a seminary in Deoband to preserve Islam and its purity and to guide Muslims in Islamic affairs. The underlying current was, however, to oppose British rule in India and the Deobandis always aligned with Indian Nationalist movement, but with a sub-text and on assurance that Muslims would have freedom to practice their religion in any future arrangements.

Muslim League benefited from the legacy of Sir Syed’s modernizing and reforming zeal in some sense. In contrast to the revivalists and their resistance to colonial rule, the reformists and the modernists perceived the Hindu community as its competitor and an inimical force in negotiating its share for power with the colonial masters. Intermittently, it would seek to ally with the British rulers for more share in power and when ignored by the rulers, it would negotiate with the nationalist movement to accept its demands. The negotiations with British rulers or with the nationalist movement was nevertheless based on and promoted communal consciousness among Muslim community, which ultimately led to defining the community as a separate nation. The communal nationalists tended to problematize Hindu community as its competitors, if not as enemy and often allied with the British rulers to achieve its goals.

The Colonial rulers benefitted from minority consciousness among the Muslim elite’s feeling of exclusion, sense of competition and even fear of majority community. Minority consciousness could be trusted to be an ally of British rule. The British rulers promoted Minority consciousness consciously by resorting to communal historiography and periodization of the past into Muslim period and Hindu period and reconstructing past through communal rear view mirror. Separate electorates and a series of measures taken by British rulers deepened communal consciousness. Partition of Bengal in 1905 along religious lines, census enumerations, maintaining records of religious traditions and customs were other measures to deepen communal consciousness among the community. British policies thus nurtured minority consciousness and the discourse of minority rights and encouraged a sense of separatism.  Minority consciousness is therefore a construct and a response to British rule. For that matter, even the Hindu community as we know today is a political construct that emerged out of the writings of V. D. Savarkar which defined Muslims and Christians as foreign and inimical to the interest of Hindus and called upon the Hindu nationalists to defend the interests of Hindus. Hindu nationalists too, like the Muslim communalists saw British as an ally.

As religion became salient in defining the identity of the colonized, communal elite emerged competing for favours from the colonial masters and in the process legitimizing the colonial rule. The communal elite, often from feudal classes, mobilized their co-religionists using religious symbols and discourse, crafting and constructing overarching communal identities and communal consciousness to the exclusion of other shared regional, linguistic, cultural and historical bonds and shared humane values in the process of day-to-day existence struggle for existence. In the process of crafting communal identities, the elite carefully selected some religious traditions, discarded others and reinvented some traditions to promote homogenization of religio-cultural practices.  The unity among followers of religion was often sought to be built by communal elite not only by selectively using traditions and religious symbols but also in the process, conceiving and popularizing identity of the “other” community also with homogenized cultural traditions. The elite construct the identity of other as opposed to one’s identity, as a competitor whose existence threatens interests of members of one’s own community.

The whole political process in South Asia, and the process of constructing history of the colonized people thus created an overarching religion based communal identities with inimical interests and in the process helped create minority consciousness among the elite of numerical weaker religious community. Communal identities created the binaries of majority and minority community. Rights were bargained on the strength and legitimacy of one’s community.

Drawing boundaries on the maps in 1947 to accommodate the communal nationalisms did not solve the problem of minorities – it was further exacerbated on both sides of the borders. The boundaries were accompanied by violence that engulfed millions and displaced populations with memories. Majority in one country was minority in another.

South Asian states have a worst record of treating minorities within its boundaries. Minorities are distrusted by the majority community, discriminated by the state and state officials and discouraged from practicing their religion and being different than the majority. The Christians, Hindus, Ahmediyas and Shias in Pakistan face worst violence. Shias are killed inside their mosques, Ahmediyas are brutalised, Hindus are forcibly converted by religious zealots and their women abducted and forced to marry and convert to Islam. Christians are targeted under the blasphemy laws and even children are awarded death sentences.

In India, Muslims and Christians have suffered violence and worst brutalities with state complicity, branded as anti-nationals, traitors and terrorists and targeted by security agencies. Sikhs too have massacre in 1984 in Delhi. Communal violence has taken toll of 40,000 lives and lakhs injured. Discrimination of minorities in India in Govt. jobs, education, political offices and in Govt. contracts, bank loans etc. is now well documented by Sachar Committee report.

The right wing in Bangladesh too has targeted the Hindu minority with impunity causing them to seek refuge in India. The Sri Lankan war against ethnic Tamil minorities is reported to have violated human rights of the Tamil Minority in Srilanka. [Now Buddhist extremists targeting Muslim minority].We have Kashmiris on both sides of LoC divided between two states struggling for fair treatment by both the states.

South Asia needs a charter of minority rights as it will be mutually beneficial to peoples of all countries. For majority in one country is minority in another. Accepting and adopting best regime of rights of minorities will benefit all the communities. South Asia should become a model for granting liberal democratic rights to minorities. Minorities world over require three categories of rights – 1) right to security and freedom from communal or ethnic profiling; 2) Freedom to practice, profess and propagate one’s religion, develop one’s language and live one’s culture and to educate and bring up their future generations in their religion and way of life; and 3) right not to be discriminated by the state. Ethnic minorities should also enjoy the collective right to self-determination. These rights are possible only when we accept multiculturalism as a model way of life and for the state not to interfere in cultural rights of its people and citizens.

We do have precedence in the Liaquat–Nehru Pact which was signed between India and Pakistan in 1950 amidst the post-partition riots. The Liaquat–Nehru Pact was a bilateral treaty and it sought to guarantee the rights of minorities in both countries and avert another war between them. We need to have treaty for minorities of all South Asian states.

By Irfan Engineer, (Secular Perspective April 16-30, 2013), Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai. E-mail:

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