The Second Tyranny of Religious Majorities /*/

The first kind of tyranny that religious majorities frequently engage in is when -- in pursuit of total domination -- they persecute, even try to annihilate, religious minorities within shared national boundaries. It has been happening since time immemorial. Bosnia is only its most recent, massive reminder.

The Indian subcontinent has been no exception. Since the end of the colonial rule in 1947, politically ambitious groups within respective religious majorities in the three nations -- Bangladesh, India and Pakistan -- have repeatedly targeted for attacks followers of other religions. In every instance, they also found more-than-willing allies within established political parties. "Islam is in Danger" in Pakistan and Bangladesh was matched by "Hindus are Dying" in India, and both cries were glibly used to divert attention from the economic deprivation and political disempowerment that still afflict vast majorities in the three populations -- regardless of religious affiliations.

Pakistan, a Muslim majority nation, has minuscule Christian and Hindu minorities, but they must lead precarious lives. Innocent Pakistani Hindus are attacked whenever there is a major anti-Muslim incident in India, while Pakistani Christians are frequently accused -- quite falsely -- of blasphemy against Islam and its Prophet. Bangladesh, after a heady start as a secular democracy, has become increasingly more vulnerable to pressure from "Islamic" groups, and its non-Muslim minorities face harassment and discrimination. After the destruction of the Babri Mosque in India in December 1992, Hindu temples and private properties were viciously attacked in several cities there. But it is in India that the violence of a religious majority against a religious minority has taken on the most frightening dimensions. What used to be called communal riots have now become outright pogroms against the Muslims, as happened in Bombay last year and in Malyana and Bhagalpur earlier. That this could also happen to other minorities became clear in the attacks on the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984. In no instance, in all the three countries, did any member of the majority religious establishment take an unequivocal public stand against the behaviour of his coreligionists.

The gender emphasis above is necessary because all such establishments are exclusively controlled by men. No wonder they sound alike when it comes to issues related to women. The sadhus and sants who converged on Ayodhya to demand the destruction of a mosque for the greater glory of Hindu dharma, never took even one step to stop the dowry-related burnings of Hindu brides in Delhi and UP and the wanton attacks on lower-caste women and men all over India. Likewise, the mullas and maulanas who protested the destruction of the mosque were the very people who worsened the life of Muslim women in South Asia: in Pakistan, by enacting the "Hudood" and "Evidence" laws; in India, by not only blocking every reform in "Muslim Personal Law" but even making it more retrograde with the recently passed "Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill"; and in Bangladesh, by attacking developmental organisations that sought to make Bangladeshi women economically stronger and more independent. Simultaneous with this intense campaign to retain their patriarchal domination, these groups have also tried to enforce upon their own members essentialised versions of their religions and a militant nationalism that is no less totalising in scope. Those who destroyed the mosque in Ayodhya felt no qualms pulling down several small temples that were in the way of their grandiose goal. And Sunni mullas in Pakistan showed little regret when their followers bombed Shi'a mosques in Karachi and Jhang.

That is the second tyranny of religious majorities - the tyranny they inflict upon their own coreligionists by constructing a totally homogenous version of their religion, based on textual essentialism -- in societies where the illiterate far outnumber the literate! They call their version the "truth" and proceed to compel the state to enforce it.

Take the case of the Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan. These followers of a nineteenth-century claimant of visions and inspirations in the Islamic messianic tradition, are not unique in the history of Islam in the details of their beliefs. If they are at all unique, it is because in 1974 they were declared "non-Muslim," not by some religious establishment but by the national assembly of a modern nation. The mullas of Pakistan had attacked them for a long time, accusing them of heresy, and succeeded when it also suited the political ambitions of the autocrat then in power. The military dictator who came next, raised the ante -- and enhanced his political support -- by making it a crime for the Ahmadi Muslims to call their place of worship a masjid (mosque) or to use the universal Muslim call to prayer. Since then they have been discriminated against in jobs, educational opportunities, and social well-being. Many of them have been physically attacked for having a "Muslim" name or even for "looking like a Muslim." Of course, the greatest crime against them has been to dispossess them of their spiritual identity -- they can no longer call themselves Muslims in Pakistan, and can go to perform the ritual of hajj only at the risk of their lives.

Another, similarly beleaguered minority within Islam in Pakistan are the Zikris, an off-shoot of a fifteenth-century millenarian movement. It was launched by Miran Syed Muhammad of Jaunpur (India), who claimed to be the promised mahdi and whose tomb is in Farah (Afghanistan.) His followers in India, mainly in Hyderabad, are known as the Mahdavis. The Zikris in Pakistan, currently estimated to be half a million in number, are mostly in the coastal areas of Sindh and parts of Baluchistan. Turbat (Baluchistan) is considered a sacred place by them because the mahdi is said to have prayed and meditated there. The followers of the mahdi suffered some persecution in the fifteenth century, but since then have lived in peace with other Muslims. Evidently, having tasted success against the Ahmadis, the Jamiat-ul-Ulama-e-Islam felt encouraged to launch an attack against the Zikris -- just as other similar groups increased their polemics against the Shi'a Muslims. In March 1992, at Turbat, armed zealots of the Jamiat tried to disrupt the annual pilgrimage of the Zikris. Since then they have been demanding that the Zikris should also be declared "non-Muslims." To my knowledge, no Muslim religious leader in Pakistan -- or, for that matter, in the rest of South Asia -- has yet challenged that demand.

These religious parties in Pakistan were also behind the passage of the so-called "Blasphemy Law" in the aftermath of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Though it has not yet been used against any minority group as a whole, unscrupulous individuals have used it for personal gain./1/ Mostly Christians have been their targets, but Muslims are not safe either. The most notorious such case is of Akhtar Hameed Khan. A seventy-five year old social activist of international renown, he is best known for his "Comilla Pilot Project" in the former East Pakistan. Since 1980, he has been engaged in social work in Orangi, a "slum" of Karachi. Gang leaders and slumlords, who were affected by his work, discovered that the easiest and safest way to harass him was to accuse him of "blasphemy," in his case, of blasphemy against Ali, the fourth caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet./2/ For a while things became dangerously nasty, but eventually there was enough of an outcry to protect his life and his organisation. The case against him in Karachi was withdrawn, but another case, in far-away Multan, continues. Again, religious parties remained criminally silent.

The current murderous campaign against Dr. Taslima Nasreen in Bangladesh began when she published a short novel Lajja ("Shame") in February 1993, describing the loss of lives and property that the country's Hindu minority suffered after the destruction of the Babri Mosque in India. It was seen as a "betrayal" of Islam by those who had instigated the attacks. Since Dr. Nasreen had already written many newspaper columns and essays about the plight of Muslim women in that society, her two "crimes" coalesced -- in the eyes of the mullas -- into an almost heretical stance. When in May 1994 she gave an interview to The Statesman (Calcutta) and was quoted as saying that the Qur'an should be "revised" (a statement she denies she made), the zealots poured out into the streets. It must be reiterated, however, that the demand for her death as a "blasphemer of Islam" was made as early as October 1993 by her chief detractor, Maulana Habibur Rahman. It should also be noted that, at least in Bangladesh, a few religious leaders publicly criticised this outrage and several demonstrations were also held in her support. Even the government of Bangladesh took a fairly reasoned stand. If nothing else, it made it possible for Dr. Nasreen to go abroad.

Within the Muslim population in India, the Ahmadis and Mahdavis have not been attacked by the Sunni majority, except in the form of sporadic publications. Recently a fatwa was given in Hyderabad to declare the Mahdavis "non-Muslims"; but, lacking the force of the state to back it, it caused no trouble. Likewise, Shi'a-Sunni polemics have remained restricted to words. Apparently the charge of "heresy" cannot play out in the secular democracy of India the way it does in the Islamic polity of Pakistan. On the other hand, the charge of "blasphemy" has had there the same "success" as an egregious ploy for personal gain as in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Two most recent cases -- Dr. Abid Raza Bedar's at the Khuda Baksh Oriental Public Library, Patna, and Dr. Mushirul Hasan's at the Jamia Millia, New Delhi -- made that quite clear./3/

But a difference should be noted. Dr. Bedar, who was accused of "blaspheming" the Qur'an, was adroit enough to fight back with his own set of fatwas - he continues to hold his job effectively. Dr. Hasan, accused merely of criticising the ban on The Satanic Verses, relied for support on the administration of his institution and the civil authorities -- he too continues to hold his job, but cannot meet a class or even enter the campus, for fear of further physical attacks. There may not be a "Blasphemy Law" in India, but, by banning -- under the pretext of ensuring public peace -- a book that was alleged to be "blasphemous" by its detractors, the secular government of India gave its de facto sanction to the concept itself. Coming soon after the bill that restricted the rights of Muslim divorcees, this action implicitly further privileged religious organisations over the civic institutions concerned with justice and law and order.

Such persecution of a minority group or an individual dissenter within one's own religion is not exclusive to Muslims or to Pakistan. Militant Sikhs in India first gained prominence when they launched attacks in 1978 against the Sant Nirankaris, originally a splinter religious group within Sikhism. Their leaders were accused of being involved in the assassination of Baba Gurcharan Singh, the spiritual leader of the Sant Nirankaris. At the same time, these militants tried to enforce strict obedience to outer symbols of ritual purity upon all Sikh men and women, a coercive exercise that continued even after the death of their leader at the hands of the Indian army. Significantly, these actions of the militants were not questioned by other Sikh religious leaders; the latter, in fact, readily found ways to condone them.

More recently, Sikh religious establishment, as represented by the Akal Takht, charged two Sikh scholars with blasphemy. Dr. Pishaura Singh, who teaches at the University of Michigan, received his doctorate from the University of Toronto with a dissertation on "The Text and Meaning of the Adi Granth." He was accused of "doubting the authenticity of the holy scripture," a charge that he totally denied while publicly affirming his belief in the Sikh faith. His research was focused on a particular manuscript of the Adi Granth. Dr. Piara Singh, author of another book on the same manuscript, was also denounced as a blasphemer. The latter was the first to succumb to the attacks; he disowned his book and did a penance at the Darbar Sahib at Amritsar. Eventually, Dr. Pishaura Singh also had to save himself by recanting what his own research had led him to believe while he was no less a devout Sikh in his own eyes.

Such blatant cases have not yet occurred -- to my knowledge -- within the Hindu majority community in India, but totalising trends are visible among the proponents of Hindutva and the members of the Sangh Parivar. The destruction of a number of smaller temples in the vicinity of the Babri Mosque, together with the suppression of the other "janma-bhumi" temples in Ayodhya, is one such indicator. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and any number of prominent swamis now aggressively valorise a kind of textual essentialism at the cost of the diversity found in the lived religious experience of ordinary Hindus.

Clearly, in the South Asian subcontinent, a nexus has emerged between religious organisations and a range of political parties, each believing that it can exploit the other to its own benefit. But what might seem a cynical tactic on the part of the latter, is for the former an unambiguous step toward their greater objective: a non-pluralistic national polity and an undifferentiated national religion -- both controlled by the same small group of people. There is no trace of sharing or mutuality in this vision; on the contrary, it seeks total dispossession of the "other." It is also blatantly retrogressive concerning economic issues and women and other traditionally exploited sections of the population. Most significantly, this vision precludes any devolution of power from the centre to smaller, local units. Beyond paying some lip service to the concept of "state rights," this nexus has nowhere sought any structural change that would enhance federalism and help create smaller, self-governing local units.

Seemingly arising out of the failure to deliver the goods on the part of the nationalist movements in the three countries, this phenomenon is no less an artifice of the same nationalist bourgeoisie. This time around they wrap themselves in the green or saffron of religion more blatantly and make concessions to religious leadership more readily. The common objective remains the same: a highly centralised state, protective of patriarchal norms and little concerned with social and economic justice. It would follow then that only a substantive enhancement of federalism and secularism in the three nations would counter this nexus.

While federalism has lately gained much vocal and actual support in the subcontinent, secularism seems to be endangered. Even in India, it has now become increasingly common to condemn secularism -- the strict separation of religion and state -- by calling it a Western concept which does not accord with the Indian "reality." To my mind, however, if democratic polity has firmly to take roots and expand in India -- and the rest of the subcontinent -- and the civic contract between individual citizens and the state is to be truly actualised -- then only the strictest form of secularism will do. Only an absolute separation of religion and state can ensure protection to individual citizens from both the tyrannies that religious majorities frequently engage in: the tyranny against other religious groups and the tyranny against their own coreligionists.


/*/ Originally published in South Asia Bulletin 14,2 (1994).
/1/ See The 'Blasphemy' Episodes, a report (n.d.) by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. I'm grateful to Patricia Gossman of the Asia Watch for making it available.
/2/ Mr. Khan had written a poem in Urdu for children in which he used the phrase sher-e khuda, "Lion of God," for an ordinary lion. His accusers asserted that the phrase should only be used as an epithet for Ali! Mirza Muhammad Rafi Sauda, an eighteenth century poet of eminence, used the phrase as a mundane pun. On hearing that the Nawab of Oudh had bagged a big tiger, he made fun of him in a verse:

Yaro ye Ibn-e-Muljim paida hua dobara
Sher-e-khuda ko jis ne Bele ke ban men mara

"Friends, this must be a new Ibn-i-Muljim,
for he has killed the 'lion of God' in the Bela forest."

(Ibn-i-Muljim was the name of the man who assassinated Ali, and the verse gained more edge from the fact that both Sauda and the Nawab were Shi'a.)
/3/ See my article, "Minority Rights or Human Rights?" in South Asia Bulletin, 12:2 (Fall 1992), pp. 35-38. (Also included in the present volume.)

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