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Misappropriation of Religion by the State in South Asia

Dr. Bobby Luthra Sinha

On January 22, as the ‘momentous’ occasion of consecration of Ram temple in Ayodhya, a holy town of India takes place, this article expresses a concern for the increasing frailty of South Asian states and governments in safeguarding human rights as related to religious freedoms and builds a plea for separating religion from politics. Mixing state with religion as well as practicing a crony secularism both ruin communal harmony and reveal deep insecurities of frail political philosophies argues the author.

Remembering a shameful Hate crime in Keonjhar, Odisha, India

On January 22 1999 Graham Staines, a 58-year-old Australian Christian missionary, was burnt to death along with his two sons – 10-year-old Phillips and seven-year-old Timothy – on the intervening night of 22-23 January in Manoharpur Village located in the Keonjhar District of Odisha. Staines and his sons were sleeping in their station wagon in front of a church in the village, when the car was attacked by an irate right-wing mob who set the vehicle to fire. Father and sons, all perished leaving a permanent smear on India’s secularism and scars in the heart of the nation’s conscience. Can India, South Asia and the world honour religious co-existence to build just interfaith societies?

Religion as a Weapon to streamline Domination and Control through the ages

The misappropriation of religion by the state refers to situations in which governments exploit or manipulate religious beliefs for political ends, often resulting in the abuse of power, suppression of dissent, and violation of human rights. The use of religion as a weapon to streamline domination and control has been a recurring phenomenon throughout history, employed by various political entities to manipulate populations and consolidate power. This tactic involves exploiting religious beliefs and institutions to advance political agendas, suppress dissent, and establish authority.

South Asia is often described as a region marked by political volatility. Recent instances of unprecedented insecurity and human rights violations have positioned South Asia as a globally insecure area. The sub-continent has already witnessed two partitions and numerous conflicts of separatist forces on religious and ethnic grounds The influence of the Taliban has spurred Afghanistan and Pakistan into aggressive stances, further complicating the human rights situation. Additionally, the questionable role of the U.S. in Afghanistan has contributed to the worsening human rights conditions in the country.

India, in particular, faces a heightened risk of insecurity. International human rights organisations consistently express concerns regarding the alarming rates of killings, rape, lynching, hate crimes and torture, – targeting minorities. The overall human rights situation in India has drawn global attention. Neighboring countries exhibit limited democratic facilities, giving rise to Islamist militant groups in Bangladesh, recurring ethnic and political unrest in Nepal and Sri Lanka, and a multitude of challenges in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A political analysis of this strategy reveals common patterns and motivations across different historical and contemporary cultural contexts, as do instances from South Asia.

Historical Examples of Religious Sacrilege to consolidate Political Power

The Crusades (11th-13th centuries) in the medieval era when European monarchs justified military campaigns, by framing them as holy wars aimed at reclaiming Christian holy sites in the Middle East. Religious rhetoric was employed to mobilize armies and consolidate political power, leading to widespread violence and conflicts. Events under Spanish Inquisition (15th-19th centuries) were a set of a state-sanctioned efforts to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in Spain. These entailed the persecution, expulsion, and forced conversion of Jews and Muslims. The collaboration between the Catholic Church and the state aimed to enforce religious purity, with individuals often targeted based on suspicions of profanation, dissent and heterodoxy.

Modern Instances of Suppression of Religious Diversity and beliefs by the State

In the modern times, Soviet Union (1922-1991) under leaders like Joseph Stalin, sought to suppress religious institutions and promote state atheism. Churches were confiscated, religious leaders were persecuted, and atheism was actively propagated as part of the official ideology. The state aimed to replace religious devotion with loyalty to the communist regime. During the period of Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976), the Chinese Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, targeted religious institutions and traditions. Temples, churches, and mosques were habitually devastated, religious practices were banned, and religious leaders were persecuted. The state sought to replace traditional religious beliefs with communist ideology.

Following the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1979-present), the Iranian government transformed into its first modern theocracy, – an Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khomeini. Despite being officially designated an Islamic state, the government has faced criticism for suppressing dissent, restricting civil liberties, and using religious rhetoric to maintain political control.

Critics argue that the state has misappropriated Islam to quell opposition. By the late 1980s, Islamic political movements had emerged in Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Chad, Senegal, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even in Bangladesh.

In the mainstream western world, the religious prejudices of European states have become increasingly perceptible overwhelming people of multiple faiths and religions that now represent its demographics. European states have continued to privilege Christianity in one form or another. They have publicly funded religious schools, maintained real estates of churches and clerical salaries, facilitated the control by churches of cemeteries, and trained the clergy. The ‘democratic’ state of Israel suffers from exactly the same problem. Once it was declared a Jewish state, it could not but exclude from its full scheme of rights and benefits, – its own Arab citizens, continues to wage a toxic othering to Palestinians and vice-versa.

Freedom of Belief and Faith – A formidable Challenge in South Asia

South Asia stands as a region characterised by its rich multicultural and multi-religious tapestry, encompassing major traditions such as Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. Notably, a significant portion of the world’s economically impoverished population resides within South Asian countries, many of whom hold deep religious sensitivities, traditions and beliefs.

Unfortunately, South Asia grapples with religious and political instability, marked by a scarcity of civic amenities and persistent threats to religious freedom and minority rights spanning decades. Religious freedom, a fundamental human right, is imperative for fostering tolerance and preventing the rise of religious extremism. This article expresses a concern for the increasing frailty of South Asian states and governments in safeguarding human rights as related to religious freedoms.

The countries comprising South Asia, including Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan, have witnessed a distressing escalation of religion-based conflicts. Minor religious groups across various South Asian regions confront formidable challenges, becoming victims of persecution due to political turmoil, economic and cultural crises, misconceptions surrounding secularism and pluralism, religious extremism, and misunderstanding about religious harmony. Despite the recent as well as older incorporation of fundamental human rights in the constitutions of most South Asian countries, the practical implementation often contradicts these provisions.

There is a robust correlation between weak democracies, controlling states, religious fundamentalism, othering and terrorism. Weakened democratic structures in almost all South Asian countries exacerbate political and religious unrest, thereby fostering terrorism, political and hate crimes in various proportions. This phenomenon emerges as a primary obstacle to securing human rights in these regions, with consecutive acts of violence centered around religion and politics thus rendering profound challenges to various communities and groups.

In fact, countries of South Asia are often at loggerheads with each –other over religion and hate politics that often culminates into diplomatic breaches of trust. The ongoing spat between Maldives and India in the first month of  2024 is a relevant example here.

Misappropriation of Religion by the state in South Asia- A region in Turmoil

South Asia has witnessed several instances of the misappropriation of religion by the state, where governments have exploited religious sentiments for political purposes. Pakistan has faced criticism for its blasphemy laws, which are often used to target religious minorities and dissenters. While these laws are ostensibly designed to protect religious sentiments, they have been misused for political purposes, leading to the persecution of individuals from minority religious communities.

Babri Masjid Demolition (1992) in India wherein Babri Masjid, a 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, was demolished by a frenzied Hindu mob is one of the ugliest examples of India a mindless hate crime. Hindu nationalist groups, supported by some political leaders, claimed that the mosque was built on the birthplace of Lord Rama. In 1992, a large mob demolished the mosque, leading to communal riots and exacerbating religious tensions.

During the Gujarat Riots (2002) in India, communal violence erupted in the state of Gujarat, primarily targeting the Muslim community. The violence followed the Godhra train burning incident, and the state government, faced criticism for its alleged role in mishandling the situation. Critics argue that religious sentiments were exploited for political reasons during and after the riots. India continues to be in troubled waters in terms of religious freedoms and political games of domination and control over personal belief systems for manipulative electoral returns.

Separating Religion from Politics can build just, Interfaith Societies

The misappropriation of religion in the name of a deeply revered deity in India underscores the complex interplay between religion and politics. Millions of Hindus practice a diversity of beliefs and traditions worshipping a pantheon of Gods.  Yet, manipulation of these sentiments for political purposes and zeroing in on one dominant religion by the state has led to volatile polarisations, social tensions, communal disharmony, and challenges to the secular fabric of the nation.

It also raises questions about the separation of religion from political decision-making and the need to ensure that religious sentiments are not exploited for narrow political gains. Making India a better pace in terms of unorthodox freedoms and religious security demands that a peaceful co-existence of diverse belief systems prevails in the country. India is in dire needs of leading its teeming millions into a state of religious security. For South Asia, a peaceful India that practices religious co-existence is not just a matter of relief but also a hope for spearheading the prosperity and cooperation in an already fractured and drifting region.

Dr. Bobby Luthra Sinha is the deputy director at the Centre for Asian African and Latin American Studies (CAALAS), Institute of Social Sciences (ISS) Delhi.  She is the Director of Research at Un Paso Mas LLP and an independent author.

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