Tyranny of the majority: Review of ‘Politics of Hate’ edited by Farahnaz Ispahani

This book highlights the complicity of political leaders and the media in fomenting religious extremism in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.

Published : Jul 17, 2023 16:43 IST - 9 MINS READ

At the ‘Celebrating Hijab - Rally against hate’ in Kochi on March 12, 2022.

At the ‘Celebrating Hijab - Rally against hate’ in Kochi on March 12, 2022. | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

Identity politics in a liberal democracy seeks to homogenise national identities defined by history, community, language, or ethnicity, and ratchet up emotions and intolerance for alternative or minority religions, languages, and cultures. These emotions, which bear the potential for extreme frenzy, and a willingness to even kill and die, find justification in some sort of atavistic “ancient” animosity to construct a contemporary politics of hate and conflict.

Politics of Hate: Religious Majoritarianism in South Asia
Edited by Farahnaz Ispahani
Pages: 336
Price: Rs.599

The phenomenon has many names, both in academia and journalism: religious extremism, neo-fascism, authoritarian populism, illiberalism, right-wing nationalism, cultural majoritarianism, and reactionary exclusionism. The leaders of nations where such emotions run high today—India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, Poland, and the Philippines, among others—are popular, winning elections by riding the wave of sentiments that target the established political and economic elite. They run a sort of “national project” to concentrate power and resources in their hands, emasculate independent state agencies, discredit and, in some cases, jail or exile leaders from the opposition, and attack independent media by peddling fake news and conspiracy theories.

These populist leaders, with their anti-elite rhetoric, are generally neo-conservative right-wing, who embrace capitalism in its most exploitative forms and work to weaken organised labour, reinforce inequality and patronage, and develop crony capitalism. In order to maintain popular support, they thrive on hate and fear and wreck the structures of democratic and social protection and freedom. The geography of hate and fear allows social fault lines and socio-political crises to flourish and creates conditions where the leaders can generate existential phobia and extreme violence against the “religious” other in the name of “defending the nation”.

Politics of Hate, edited byFarahnaz Ispahani, builds upon the growing political emotions of hate, fear, extremism, authoritarianism, and violent penal populism prevalent in South Asia. It explains how religion fuels conflict and religious binary and inspires intolerant and irreconcilable images of that binary. In The Clash of Civilisations, Samuel P. Huntington spelt out this conflict: “Even more than ethnicity, religion discriminates sharply and exclusively among people… As people define their identity in ethnic and religious terms, they are likely to see an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ relations existing between themselves and people of different ethnicity and religion.”

Religious militancy, an upshot of fundamentalism—a term that first gained currency in the fundamentalist movement in the US in the 1920s—and a kind of militant reaction to the permissive tendencies of secularisation processes aligned with “modernity”, is increasingly manifesting itself in the form of “civilisational tensions” leading to barbarism—a term best explained by the idea of “preservation of oneself by the destruction of others”.  

Focussing on India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, this book seeks to locate the expansion of religious extremism in South Asia and advances a robust discourse on tolerance. In the first essay titled “Religious Majoritarianism in a Diverse Region”, Husain Haqqani sets the tenor for the four nation states on how minorities (interestingly one country’s minority is another’s majority) are seen as national threats, both real and perceived enemies, and deviants in their civic engagement.

In India, Hindutva votaries consider Muslims, Christians, and other ethnic minorities their opponents. In Pakistan—the “New Medina” as the historian Venkat Dhulipala calls it—it is the non-Muslim minorities, including Hindus, Christians, and Shia and Ahmadi Muslims, who are targeted by the conservative right-wing Muslim majority. Bangladesh witnesses communal clashes between the Muslim majority and Hindu minority and between Muslims of different sectarian backgrounds. And in Sri Lanka, the clash is between the Sinhalese Buddhist nationals and minority Muslims, minority ethnic Hindu Tamils, and minority Christians. Haqqani pins his hopes on constitutional republics, which is ambitious at a time when these nations have slipped into the morass of communalism and sectarianism.

Muslimophobia in India

The three chapters that deal with India discuss aspects of Muslimphobia, Hindu majoritarianism, and the media’s complicity in communal violence. A. Faizur Rahman asserts that it is historical “Muslimophobia”—the heightened fear of the Muslim’s demographic-political threat—that is majorly responsible for the geography of hate politics in India. His analysis of events such as the Arya Samajists’ attack on Islam (1880s), Partition of Bengal (1905), its annulment (1911), Punjab Land Acquisition Act (1900), Indian Council Act (1909), Lajpat Rai’s demand for partition (1905), Khilafat movement (1919-24), Ambedkar’s approval of partition, Savarkar’s Hindutva ideology (1928), Jinnah’s two-nation theory (1940), and the Partition (1947), indicate that enough ground was prepared for religious hate, communalism, and militancy in post-Partition India.

The Narendra Modi government has used these templates in a narrow conservative framework to build its Hindutva politics and the idea of a Hindu Rashtra. For Faizur Rahman, Muslimophobia in India is distinct from Islamophobia because the former is about Hindutva anxiety and fear of Muslim empowerment and its backlash, whereas the latter is about Islam, the religion per se, which is well-regarded by moderate Hindus. Faizur Rahman seeks to build up an information campaign to counter malicious diatribes against Muslims related to aspects such as demographic threat, religious conversion, Aryan theory, terrorism, and medieval Muslim religious rule. The way forward for harmonious living for Hindus and Muslims, he asserts, is to have a moderate interpretation of Muslim theology and a simultaneous counter to hate-filled political propaganda.

In his essay titled “Hindu Majoritarianism and Unmaking the Idea of India”, Niranjan Sahoo questions the implications of the RSS’ Hindu Rashtra project on India’s secular traditions, diversity, and inter-religious relations. For a country that began its independent journey, avowedly and constitutionally, as a secular republic, India is now fast transmogrifying into a majoritarian state. Sahoo is wary of the hate politics of Hindutva and believes that the increasing invisibilisation of Muslims in the electoral sphere could unmake the very core of secular and plural India. The BJP’s politics of polarisation has deepened existing social fissures, and civil society resembles a battleground for religious and ethnic supremacy, as evident in the recent Manipur crisis.

“The BJP’s politics of polarisation has deepened existing social fissures, and civil society resembles a battleground for religious and ethnic supremacy, as evident in the recent Manipur crisis.”

To what extent is the media responsible for the current state of affairs? In her essay “The Indian Media’s Role in Fuelling Communal Violence”, the veteran journalist Maya Mirchandani castigates mainstream media for spreading hate and bolstering a hate-for-profit culture. She exposes the media’s virulent propaganda against Muslims as seen in the Tablighi Jamaat campaign during the COVID-19 pandemic, the peddling of fake news by the BJP’s IT cell, the dubbing of inter-faith marriages as a Muslim conspiracy to seduce and convert Hindu women, and accusing Indian Muslims of “jehadi” radicalisation. She compares the media’s insinuations against Muslims as enemy number one with Nazi political propaganda and the rise of Hitler. For Mirchandani, the media’s peddling of hate-for-profit exposes its ulterior motive of consumerism and profit maximisation. All three authors on India, however, converge on a single axis: that the idea of a secular, socialist, democratic and republic India is under tremendous stress and threat.

Michael Nazir-Ali, Mohammad Taqi, and Farahnaz Ispahani, the three contributors to the Pakistan segment, acknowledge that Pakistan ethnically cleansed its Hindu and Sikh populations during Partition, and has systematically discriminated against and persecuted non-Muslims (Hindus, Christians, Sikhs) as well as Ahmadi and Shia Muslims.

Ispahani makes an important intervention by unravelling the Islamic State of Pakistan (Riyasat-e-Medina) and its constitutional-legal framework that assures the subordination of religious minorities. Pakistan has declared Islam its state religion, defined Muslims constitutionally (Article 260) for the purpose of legal affairs, accorded Ahmadis (both Qadiani and Lahori groups) non-Muslim status, has the strongest blasphemy laws in the world, and virtually disenfranchised religious minorities, all in the name of Islamisation—a process that cedes power to extreme Islamist clerics.

Michael Nazir-Ali’s essay, “Christians in Pakistan”, echoes Ispahani’s sentiments, and adds that Pakistan has systematically marginalised Christian minorities by enforcing Sharia and Hudood penal laws, whipping up mob hysteria, and inducing fear among Christians while stifling their freedom of expression, belief, and worship. Nazir-Ali points out that Shias, too, face the same ignominy and attacks as Christians. The deepening process of Islamisation, Mohammed Taqi argues in his essay “Genesis of the Shia Predicament in Pakistan”, led to the unofficial excommunication of smaller Muslim communities, including Shias, and concludes that the Shia predicament is the result of a multi-layered and jingoistic Islamic chauvinism by successive army regimes and the construction of a Muslim identity at the expense of diversity and pluralism.

The two chapters on Bangladesh—“Understanding the Radicalisation of Bangladeshi Society and Politics” by Ali Riaz and “Religious Intolerance in Bangladesh” by C. Christine Fair and Parina Patel—highlight the country’s trajectory which was initially different from Pakistan in terms of the rise of communal and sectarian intolerance, but has seen the radicalisation of Muslims and Islamist groups nevertheless. Ali Riaz focusses on the multi-layered processes of radicalisation in Bangladesh and concludes that it was accelerated by factors such as the rivalry between the two major political parties, increasing authoritarianism, and the emergence of two contesting social movements in 2013.

Interestingly, the “other” here is the “infidel” who supports pro-Hindu, pro-India, and anti-Islamic groups. Two contending social movements, Shahbag and Hefazat-e-Islam, have contributed to the sharp polarisation. In their essay titled “Religious intolerance in Bangladesh”, Fair and Patel use data and analytics to conclude that calling Bangladesh a “moderate Muslim country” would be a travesty. Increasingly, Bangladeshis have been pressing for more Sharia laws in governance, more prominent roles for religious leaders, harsher hudood punishments (whipping, amputation, and stoning), and a more intolerant approach towards non-Muslims.

While in the above three cases, Hindus and Muslims reversed roles in the majority-minority binary, the case of Sri Lanka, dealt with in two chapters, is essentially one of pitting the majority Buddhist Sinhalese against the minority Tamils, Muslims, and Christians. In the essay titled “Islamophobia and Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism”, Neil De Votte explains that the extremist Sinhalese, who hold political power, incite Islamophobia to humiliate and vilify Muslims while pursuing their political and ideological goals. Sri Lanka is rife with ethno-religious violence and the majority community profits from such hate and violence. In a paper titled “Fear, Radicalism, and Violence: Sri Lanka’s cyclic crisis”, Gehan Gunatilleke maintains that Sri Lanka is fully trapped in a “perpetual cycle of fear, radicalisation, and violence”. To exit from such a trap, he suggests that Sri Lanka must initiate a transformative discourse embedded in the real and imagined fears of the Sinhalese Buddhist community and invoke Buddhist values of metta (loving kindness) and karuna (compassion).

The four nation-states represent the varying conditions under which religious identity is related to hate and violence. The religious groups firmly believe that in order to protect their basic identity, it is necessary to employ hate tactics and force against the “other”. The book advances our understanding of the tyranny of the majority in South Asia.

Tanvir Aeijaz teaches Public Policy and Politics at Ramjas College, Delhi University, and is an honorary director at the Centre for Multilevel Federalism (CMF), New Delhi.

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