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CWA # 36, 26 June 2018

South Asia
Is religion redefining nationalism?: The Case of Myanmar, India and Sri Lanka

  Miti Shah

On unveiling these religious conflicts, what comes to the eye is the tyranny of the majority. The political parties and the religious majority oppress the minority to further their interests.

School of Liberal Studies, PDPU, Gandhinagar & Research Intern, National Institute of Advanced Studies, IISc (Bengaluru)

The influence of religious ideologies on state policies has transcended social boundaries. In Southern Asia, the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Myanmar, the dominance of the Hindutva sentiment in India and the violence of Buddhists in Sri Lanka highlights the influence of religious majority on state policies that overpower the minority groups. This religious divide is rooted in economic, social and cultural conflicts.

From the involvement of Church in abortion laws in the US, to Russia’s surge to subset the preservation of (religious) traditions with national security what comes to the eye is the increasing role of religion in shaping the political and national identities.

Myanmar: The Rohingya, land-grabs and dissension
Land grabs is a common phenomenon in Myanmar. The government often does it in the name of development. With 80 per cent of Rakhine state being populated by Rohingya, the native Rakhine was frustrated with Rohingya’s larger ownership of the land. Since they are not constitutionally recognized as citizens of Myanmar, it was even easier for the state to seize the land from them. Being powerless to oppose, they became an easier target for everyone.

Given their demographic concentration in the state of Rakhine, a predominant fear is that of this religious majority taking over. The Buddhist majority of the country united to influence the social policies. These policies monitored Rohingya marriage, family planning, employment and freedom of movement. This oppression led the Rohingya to rebel and form a mob: ARSA. The ARSA, rumoured to have its connections with ISIS, averted with an attack on the Rakhine.

In the past, Rohingya have also demanded a separate land which seemed to be a threat to the rest of the country. The state of Rakhine shares its border with Bangladesh, which is another country with Muslim majority. With India and China close enough, the Rakhine state in despair became a vulnerable spot and compromised the national security.
The oppression of Rohingya led them to flee to other countries. According to the UN, this resulted in the largest immigration crisis, making Rohingya the most oppressed minority in the world.

India: The rise of right-wing, RSS and violence
The rise of religious nationalism in India is due to the bias of the ruling political party: BJP that is backed by its close ally RSS- a Hindu nationalist group. The 2014 union elections favored BJP since it promised to replace the stagnant economy and the increasing cases of corruption with anti-corruption policies and increase in the transparency of government funds. However, it is speculated that since the government has been unable to deliver its promises, it is using its ties with RSS, to appeal the Hindu majority of the nation.

There is a rise in pro-Hindu ideologies which has resulted in the oppression of the Dalits, Muslims and people belonging to scheduled and backward classes. According to the National Criminal Records Bureau, the crime against Dalits has increased by 25% from 2006 to 2016. Beefeaters are beaten violently since the cow is revered in the Hindu religion. In Una region of Gujarat, Dalits were flogged for skinning dead cows which is an age-old livelihood for many. In many cases, members of BJP and RSS have interrupted inter-religion marriages.

Some pro-Hindu movements also took place in the name of government renaming the streets named after Muslim leaders to the names of the Hindu leaders. "Members of the ruling BJP tacitly supported these groups and used religiously-divisive language to inflame tensions further," Robert P George, McCormick, a former chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, told lawmakers during a Congressional hearing.

With the government having a religious tilt, these movements are equated as nationalistic and nationalism is redefined as a pro-Hindu movement in India.

Sri Lanka: The religious distrust
The identities of religion, ethnicity and race is intertwined and have often been a reason for unrest between people belonging to different groups. The death of Kumarasinghe, a Sinhalese living in Kandy by some Muslim men led to one such communal riot. The Buddhist monks who favour anti-minority ideologies got involved and there was a religious spin to it.

The Sinhalese are majority Buddhists while the other ethnic group Tamil is Hindu, Muslim and Christian. Hence, during his cremation, the Sinhalese community resorted to violence in some Muslim dominated areas. Many houses and shops were burnt.

However, the reasons for the dispute are varied. Since the end of the war between the Tamils and the Sinhalese in 2009, the religious divide has grown. There is a rise of Buddhist nationalist group that wants to protect their land. They are against the Muslims who they believe are stealing from the Buddhist temples. There is an increasing fear since they speculate Muslims converting others to Islam forcibly. One other reason was the involvement of the Muslims in Sri Lanka helping the Rohingyas immigrating from Myanmar where there is another Rakhine (Buddhist) – Rohingya (Muslim) conflict. This enraged the Sinhalese even more. The government declared a state of emergency and tried to curb the hate speeches online. However, there are not any steps taken to resolve the tensions and prevent the furtherance of this divide.

On unveiling these religious conflicts, what comes to the eye is the tyranny of the majority. The political parties and the religious majority oppress the minority to further their interests. Religious discrimination is only the final stroke on the existing communal conflicts. Societies that are already divided along the lines of economies, rights and inclusivity are overpowered by their religious identities. These identities then overpower politics and tend to manipulate the national identity.

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