South Asian sectarianism is lost among the babble

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 3, 2015

Bollywood actor Aamir Khan was told to “move to Pakistan” when he complained about intolerant acts towards India’s Muslim minority. Punit Paranjpe / AFP

The debate about religious harmony and the sacredness of difference in parts of South Asia brings to mind the late Yogi Berra’s observation on the desirable balance between speaking and listening. “It was impossible to get a conversation going,” the legendary American baseball player once complained, “everybody was talking too much.”

Something similar may be said to be happening in India and Bangladesh. Too much talking, especially on social media, is preventing real communication about shared values – what to keep, what to junk and what, more crucially, to do about what matters. Both are constitutionally secular countries but seem unable to decide if secularism, the policy of each state, should be allowed to promote secularisation, which is a social process. Is the secular becoming too foreign and profane for South Asia?

India, for instance, is greatly exercised by actor Aamir Khan’s comments. Last week, he made so bold as to admit on television that rising intolerance – violent attacks on Muslims and intellectuals – was leading to a deepening sense of insecurity. He criticised India’s leaders for failing to speak up and enforce rule of law – an obvious if disguised reference to prime minister Narendra Modi and leading lights of his Bharatiya Janata Party. He added that his filmmaker wife had even wondered if the couple should leave the country, implying that India was failing in the practice of secularism.

This provoked fury on Twitter and television and a flurry of questions about Khan’s loyalty. Hardline Hindus urged him to move to neighbouring Pakistan, the default destination generally suggested for Indian Muslims unlucky enough to provoke right-wing anger. Mr Modi’s party spokesman said the actor had committed a “moral offence” by defaming India. Members of the exclusivist Shiv Sena party, which is powerful in Mumbai where the actor lives, announced a 1 million rupee (Dh55,100) award for anyone who slapped him.

These might seem like elements of an absurdist play but there is no disguising the utter seriousness of what was being discussed.

In neighbouring Bangladesh, the mood is even darker, with a series of unsolved deadly attacks on foreigners and freethinking bloggers this year. In late September, ISIL claimed as its handiwork the fatal attack on an Italian aid worker in the capital Dhaka. It was the first time that the group had made such a claim in Bangladesh, where it has not announced a branch. Just days ago, police revealed that at least 10 Christian priests in the northern city of Rangpur had received death threats. The unidentified letter-writer said Bangladesh would be governed under Muslim laws. A rash of social media comment about Bangladesh’s “lawlessness” and “culture of fear” inevitably broke out, amid criticism of the government’s apparent indifference to attacks on people who wrote or campaigned against extremism.

Somewhat like Mr Modi in India, Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina has said little about the domestic ferment over secularism and intolerance. While the omission may be unwise but unsurprising for Mr Modi, whose party has often taken a Hindu national stance, it is more significant for Ms Hasina. Her Awami League party has always described itself as secular. Five years ago, she supported the verdict of the Bangladesh Supreme Court in restoring the four pillars of the state mentioned in the 1972 founding constitution: democracy, nationalism, socialism and secularism.

The silence at the very top says a great deal about India and Bangladesh. Both countries, albeit in different ways, seem manifestly uneasy about the transplanting of the secularism label, which draws from European enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Spinoza and may consequently be considered an elite imposition. It is no surprise that this is happening now, 68 and 43 years, respectively, from independent statehood. In both countries, religious nationalism of a highly organised and occasionally violent kind is proving to be a dangerously spreadable social and political glue.

This is why India’s home minister, Rajnath Singh, was able to tell parliament on November 26 – the first officially observed event to mark adoption of the constitution on that day in 1949 – that the country’s “problems in ensuring social harmony” were rooted in the “misuse” of words like secularism.

Meanwhile, Ms Hasina could blame “illegal money or arms or terrorists” from Britain for the export of radicalism from West to East. Bangladesh’s next election is not until 2019 and it may be convenient for the prime minister to allow every side its way while she neuters the opposition by hounding its politicians at considerable cost to the country’s democratic and legal institutions.

In the babble, it is hard to tell where all this will end. What’s plain is that the artificial social media storms, which repeatedly roil the debate and buffet it into extreme them-and-us positions, are not helping. In the furore over Aamir Khan’s comments for instance, there was little thought to why a cerebral, much-loved actor with a well-documented instinct for helping social causes should have felt impelled to speak up about his fears. Instead, many thuggish hashtags including the ominous #AamirKhangetlost started trending, driven higher by India’s huge internet-user base.

It’s being called the “McDon­ald­isation of debate”, dishing out an instant popular protest menu that hides the failure of political vision and leadership and neglects to address national priorities. It may not necessarily portend an irrevocably hellish descent into social chaos for India or Bangladesh. Perhaps it is only a marker of how far the discourse must fall before it is recalled to its sense of self.

Rashmee Roshan Lall is a writer on world affairs

On Twitter: @rashmeerl