Religious Nationalism in Contemporary South Asia
- ISBN: 9781108825672
- Published By: Cambridge University Press
- Published: September 2022
In Religious Nationalism in Contemporary South Asia, Andrea Maljiexplores nationalism in the religious traditions of Sikhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism. She analyzes how it manifests in contemporary South Asian countries, includingIndia, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. She further points out “while South Asia and its expression are unique, understanding how religious nationalism has manifested in the region provides a stronger and more nuanced understanding of a broader global phenomenon that is increasingly common” (9). Religion and nationalism both provide a “sense of belonging and order for their adherents and both are tied to histories, iconographies, and myths that connect the community together” (12). In the 21st century, religious nationalism has resurfaced, posing a problem, especially for minorities in the countries of South Asia.
However, there are additional factors that contributeto the rise of religious nationalism.In secular nations like India and the US religious nationalisms more likely to occur.Further, religious diversity can generate religious nationalism if the dominant group sees such diversity as a threat to its demographic dominance.Diversity can result in exclusive beliefs and practices, as already seen in Sri Lanka and India.Minorities are seen as a demographic threat by the nationalists belonging to the Hindu (in India) and Buddhists (in Sri Lanka) faiths. However, in Pakistan, where Sunnis are the majority, Islamic nationalists do not see minorities as a threat to demography per se. Here, the threat is determined by who is a true Muslim and who is not, ultimately leading to conflict. Despite having democratic political parties and elections, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka have been unable to stop democratic backsliding.These countries are facing the challenges of the growing influence of nationalist parties, undermining the rights of minorities.Malji specifically examines Sikh nationalism in India, a religious nationalism grounded in minority communities, contrasting it to the nationalisms of the Hindu, Islam, and Buddhist religious communities.
The first segment of the book analyzes the theoretical underpinnings of both nationalism and religious nationalism in detail. The book illustrates the similarities between Sinhalese and Hindu nationalism, both of which are based on majoritarian politics.Muslims make up the largest minority in India and are considered a threat by Hindu nationalists.In Sri Lanka, Tamils have been marginalized for decades and currently Muslims pose a challenge to Buddhist nationalists.In Pakistan, nationalism is more sectarian and motivated by a fear of losing the identity that is defined by the majority Sunni Muslims.While a nationalism of minority community in India, Sikh, was driven by autonomy or independence.
The second section of the book discusses about Sikh nationalists, a past separatist movement. The demand for a separate Khalistan by Sikh nationalists escalated in late eighties and grew with the support of the diaspora in Canada. However, the Indian National Congress (INC) through inclusive policies was able to subside the movement in the late nineties.It , shows that “nationalist movements can end and transition into traditional political engagement” (19).
The third section examines how Hindu nationalism has changed dramatically over the past hundred years in India. By the 21st century, Bharatiya Janata Party policies had evolved from being on the fringe during the colonial era to becoming firmly entrenched.(BJP is now one of the two largest political parties in India.) The ideology of the organization was solidified with the aid of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist volunteer paramilitary organization. There has been an increase in discriminatory laws and a rise of violence, which peaked during the Covid-19 pandemic. A crackdown on dissent has also been carried out within the media and civil society organizations, as well as among academics and protesters.
The fourth section examines the evolution of Islamic nationalism in Pakistan. The nation has attempted to define the place of Islam in its culture and system of government since its inception. Strong democratic institutions could never be successfully formed, enabling the military to undermine civilian rule in the state. State-led religious nationalism emerged in Pakistan at a time when the place of Islam in society was unclear. Most of Pakistan's Muslims are Sunnis, and the country has a higher level of sectarianism. Members of the Sunnis majority attempt to define what constitutes a true Muslim, which has led to violence against Shias, Sufis, and particularly Ahmadiyyas. (Ahmaddiyas are officially declared non-Muslims in Pakistan.) Islamists have played a prominent role in the society, and enjoy close proximity to the politicians and the military. The threat to the region increased as a result of the Taliban's ascendancy after 2001 and its engagement in Pakistan.
The fifth section investigates how Buddhist nationalism has evolved in Sri Lanka. Nationalism in Sri Lanka grown from a movement that initially aimed to protect the Sinhalese language to one that passed legislation limiting Tamils' access to citizenship and cultural rights. In the post-civil war period in Sri Lanka, the Hindu Tamil minority population has not been reconciled with the majority Sinhalese population. Considering the growth in religious nationalism, continued democratic regress, and a rise in violence, the state is increasingly curtailing the rights of the citizens, especially critics and minorities. In the 21st century, Buddhist nationalism has reemerged and given rise to conflict with Muslims in the post-civil war period. The groups like Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) have been actively involved in spreading hate speeches and violence against Muslims.Hindu and Buddhist nationalists have closely aligned with the ruling party in India and Sri Lanka, so examining their roles vis-a-vis the state makes analytical sense (5).
The sixth and final section compares nationalisms, highlighting the similarities and differences. Religion and ethnicity form around deeply entrenched regional and caste lines in India. In Sri Lanka, ethnicity and religion are often used interchangeably which has been the source of conflict. Malji uses current incidents involving Covid-19 to illustrate how religious nationalists persecuted minorities. In both India and Sri Lanka,the Covid-19 situation was used to devise policies to target the minorties. The Muslim population in both countries were targeted during the pandemic with restrictions on their activities, including the burial of their family members who died due to virus. The spread of fake news and unverified viral videos contributed to the rise in hate speech against the Muslim community in both the countries. Similarly, Tamil communities were further marginalized through anti-minority policies under the garb of Covid. In Pakistan, the Islamists organization are close to the military and civilian leadership and have established laws to declare the Ahmadiyyas as non-Muslims.
Maljihas made a significant contribution to theexisting literature on religious nationalism in South Asia. In addition to the book's discussion of the majority-driven forms of religious nationalism in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, she also addresses Sikh nationalism in India.When combined with centralized power religious nationalism weakens the rule of law and human rights.Thus, the bookprovides an account of both majority and minority religious nationalism.For scholars doing research on South Asia, it is a great reference source.
Nazia Khan is a research officer/project coordinator at the Center of Excellence in Public Policy and Government at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Kashipur.Nazia KhanDate Of Review:August 28, 2023