Contributions in this volume
The volume includes seven country studies and an analysis of popular perception regarding the interplay of religion and politics in South Asia. The details of the interactions of religion and contemporary politics in seven countries, namely, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka are presented in each chapter. Although the authors have focused on the contemporary interactions of religion and politics in the respective countries, in so doing, they have taken the mid-1940s as a milestone.
In the background of the growing importance of religion, the rise of religio-political forces in politics, and increasing display offaith among South Asian people, Md. Sohel Rana in Chapter 1 analyzes the people’s perspectives on the religion-politics relationship in South Asian nations particularly in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, representing three major religions — Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Through an exploration of the extent of religiosity revealed in a series of public perception surveys conducted by various organizations, he examines whether the growing religiosity has implications for politics, particularly elections. The discussion shows that increasing religiosity leads to increasing tendency among the populations to support “political parties with religious beliefs.” However, South Asians citizens do not necessarily hail the “religious political parties” with significant electoral support. It concludes that the South Asian populations tend to support religious values in public life and practice faith in their personal lives but avoid giving their electoral support to religious parties.
Abdulkader H. Sinno, in Chapter 2, argues that the interplay of religion and politics in Afghanistan has a long history, although many observers have come to appreciate it only in the twentieth century, particularly after 1979. Islam is, and has been for centuries, the official religion of Afghanistan, the moral basis and reference for its diverse cultures, the foundation of national unity, and a hegemonic presence in every Afghan’s life. Islam unifies Afghans because it emphasizes faith over ethnicity in a mostly (i.e., 99 percent) Muslim country. Additionally, Islam and its symbolic use played a major role in mobilizing support against the plans of neighboring superpowers - such as British and Russian — to annex Afghanistan to their empires. The different types of Islamic rhetoric and symbols used by political actors in Afghanistan provide distinct advantages and liabilities. The strategic use of a traditional Muslim language facilitates mobilization better than nationalist and other symbols. To take some examples from recent history, during the resistance movement against the Soviet invasion (1979—89), Islam emerged as an ideology of resistance and the resistance leaders used Islam as a mobilization tool because it provided legitimacy. One of the key factors in the Taliban’s success in achieving power (1994—2001) in a short span of time was because the organization framed itself as the most Islamic of all organizations in Afghanistan, defined its goal as bringing religious law to the land, and used its Islamic image to undermine rivals in Pushtun areas. Sinno concludes that the strategic use of religion plays an additive role in the ability of some Afghan political actors to legitimize their actions, mobilize support, undermine rivals, attract foreign aid, and control populations. Not all Afghan political actors can use religious language or sanction — only those who transcend divisions within a local, tribal, sectarian, ethnic, or national space and do not have a history of behavior considered “un-Islamic” can benefit from its advantages within that space, but not necessarily beyond it.
The Bangladesh case, discussed in Chapter 3, shows how religion assumed a greater significance in the politics of the country despite inclusion of secularism as a state principle. This is a result of efforts from the above by the state and pressure from below because of the ubiquity in religion in social life and religious organizations over a long period of time. While the Islamization process has its roots in the legitimacy crisis of the military rulers of the country who usurped power in 1975, post-2013 history shows that it is not limited to the military rulers alone. The growing authoritarian bent of the incumbent has made it reliant on conservative Islamists. The acquiescence of the secularist parties has allowed the process of providing space to Islamist parties to continue, and use of religious rhetoric in politics has become the norm. Thanks to two major parties (Bangladesh Nationalist Party — BNP and the Awami League - AL) of the country who befriended Islamists for immediate political gains. Although the Islamists have very little electoral support, they have played a significant role, albeit disproportionately, in the past decades. The chapter also shows that within the Islamist political landscape, more conservative forces are gaining grounds.
While the domestic political environment (e.g., the crisis of legitimacy of the regimes, political expediency of so-called secularist parties, and acrimony between major parties) was pivotal in allowing the rise of Islam as a political ideology, external factors (e.g., the Afghan War, the rise of political Islam elsewhere, and the short-term migration of Bangladeshis to the Gulf) have played key roles, too.
India, often identified as the largest secular democracy, has witnessed the gradual erosion of democracy and secularist principles in the past decades. The rise of the Hindutva ideology and myriad organizations under the aegis of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have undermined the values, principles, and institutions which help a country to become inclusive of citizens irrespective of their religious identity. Anirban Acharya, in Chapter 4, examines the pathway to the current environment where religion is at the forefront of Indian politics. He has aptly showed that collective religious identities have formed and congealed since independence. It is in this context, he further argued, that religious identities are mobilized for electoral success, which is interestingly identical to the cases of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In post-independence India, there are several issues which demonstrate how religious identities and groups have shaped public policy. Acharya explores these through the status of Kashmir since 1948, the Shah Bano case and the related actions of the Indian parliament with the Khalistan movement, and the Babri mosque controversy. He locates the highly discriminatory Citizens (Amendment) Act 2019 within these broad political developments.
In Maldives, as Azra Naseem describes in Chapter 5, there is an ongoing clash between Salafism and democracy, and it has become a defining characteristic of both political and religious practices. The matter of contention between various political forces is who can represent the “authentic” Islam. This battle, in large measure influenced by political benefits, has not only created an environment conducive to the spread of radical and militant versions of Islam but has weakened the resolve to moderate their positions. For example, as Naseem noted, the rhetoric of “defending Islam” played an important role in the 2013 presidential election. Despite recent escalation, the growing salience of religion is a result of the long period of authoritarian rule of Mamoon Abdul Gayoom. The future trajectory depends on the commitment of political leaders to democracy and ability to address the growing disparity which is serving a source of radicalization.
In Nepal, religion played a central role in defining the state formation process, Subho Basu argues in Chapter 6. Since the inception of the modern Nepali state in 1769, monarchs have presented themselves as the custodians of Hindu cultural identity. They subtly invoked the idea of divine right to govern by cultivating the popular myth that monarchs are incarnations of Lord Vishnu. In the postcolonial era in South Asia, the monarchical regime sought to justify its existence through developmental policies. The idea of the monarch as the custodian of a distinctive Hindu national culture had been contested by other actors, ranging from democratic political parties and Maoist revolutionaries to international nongovernmental organizations and associated social movements. The struggle for democratization of the Nepali polity increasingly became also a movement for the separation of state from religion. This political contestation led to a new realization among democratic forces that Nepali society is a mosaic of diverse religious practices and not a monolithic Hindu society. Thus, Nepal was declared a secular polity when democratic forces finally accessed power in April 2006 and codified it in the constitution in 2015. In other words, in Nepal the relationship between religion and polity is crucially related to a process of transition from royal absolutism to democracy.
Pakistan, established as the homeland of Muslims in 1947, has a tumultuous history insofar as the role of religion in politics is concerned. Farhat Haq, in her analysis in Chapter 7 focuses on the paradoxical nature of the role of Islam in Pakistan, central and marginal at the same time. The chapter goes beyond the widely held perception of Pakistan as a place where influence of radical Islamists is growing and explains the various dimensions of lived Islam which is shaped by various actors, for example Sufis, ulama, and Islamists. The questions which have dogged the nation since its independence remains the question of identity: is Pakistan an Islamic state or a homeland for the Muslims? The chapter also examines the performance of the Islamist parties in elections and the role of religious rhetoric in shaping the political landscape.
In Chapter 8, Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri examines the rise of the Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-religious nationalism in Sri Lanka since the mid-1950s. He argues that this ideology became the rallying point ahead of 1956 parliamentary election and delivered the victory to the emergent political force. This political force was organized around the rural landowning middle class. This marked the beginning of an era in which religion became a pivotal issue in the electoral politics and political discourses. The victory march of this ideology was interrupted for almost two decades, but in the mid-1980s it reappeared on the political scene, largely through social and intellectual organizations. This filled in the void created by the weakening of left political forces and shaped the entire political landscape. In the backdrop of the escalating ethnic crisis, mobilization of Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-religious nationalism became a tool for mobilization and electoral victory. The “Temple Politics,” that is, using the temple as a site of political activities, became all too familiar in the late 1990s. This has helped Mahinda Rajapaksa win the presidential election in 2005 and paved the way for the victory of his brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in November 2019.