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Rising Religious Authoritarianism on the Indian Subcontinent

In this episode of the Contours podcast series, Nicholas Heras is joined by two noted scholars and globally-recognized experts on religious authoritarianism on the Indian Subcontinent: Dr. Syed Mohammad Ali and Shweta Krishnan. These experts discuss the history of religious nationalism on the Indian Subcontinent since the end of British colonialism and the partition of India and Pakistan, the development of religious-political mass movements in India and Pakistan, and how elites in both countries are seeking to harness such movements now. They also examine the domestic pressures inside India and Pakistan that could lead to public demand in both countries for a religious conflict that would have grave humanitarian and geopolitical consequences.

Nicholas Heras: Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s segment of the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy’s Contours Podcast series. Today, we’ll be talking about the rising tide of authoritarianism on the Indian subcontinent, particularly in India and Pakistan. I’m joined today by two excellent guests who are experts on this topic. First, Dr. Syed Mohammad Ali. Dr. Mohammed Ali is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, and he teaches at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins universities. He frequently provides expert testimony for South Asian asylum seekers to immigration courts in the United States and the United Kingdom. He also works with several think tanks in Washington, D.C., and he writes a weekly column for Express Tribune in Pakistan.

I’m also joined by Shweta Krishnan. Shweta is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology here in Washington, D.C., at the George Washington University. Her research in Northeast India contributes to scholarship on religion, environment, and transnationalism. Mohammad Ali and Shweta, it’s excellent to have you join us today. Mohammad Ali, I’d like to start off by asking you a broader question about how the history of the subcontinent and the postcolonial legacy has contributed to manifestations of authoritarianism that we are seeing today.

Syed Mohammad Ali: I think it’s absolutely wiser to take a long view. We see with increasing concern authoritarianism spreading and manifesting itself in different forms in the Indian subcontinent and beyond, particularly when it comes to India and Pakistan. While it seems to manifest in different forms, and I’m sure we are going to get into those different manifestations, they do share a common legacy, and this is a legacy that’s also shared in the wider region, in Sri Lanka as well, and what is now Bangladesh. That post-colonial legacy and in fact, it has to do with the creation of colonial structures of governance.

It’s interesting to note how the Bavarian model and other evolutions in thinking about governance and trying to make that participatory and away from monarchical hold in Europe were happening at the same time that the colonial administration also was contending with the reality of dealing with these different ethnicities and different cultures and doing so in a manner which was largely extractive. As there was a loosening and an increased amount of accountability within Europe itself – here, I speak about Great Britain, in particular, the institutions of state that were being built in the colonial context were much more top heavy and were top heavy on purpose because their aim was resource extraction.

We wouldn’t have seen the Industrial Revolution taking off in textile mills in Manchester dominating world trade, if it wasn’t for the cotton being produced in India and elsewhere, with varied implications. Nonetheless, you had sociologists like Hamza Alavi coin this interesting term called the “overdeveloped state,” and that was a colonial legacy.

These were institutions of the state, which were on purpose meant to be top heavy. The civil servant was not really a civil servant; his job was to be a master. You had the magistrate who was judge, jury, and executioner. These kinds of institutional developments subsequently we saw manifested in the postcolonial state. In that process of independence, we saw on the one side, in the case of India, Gandhiji, for instance, he was able to articulate using Hindu mythology, for instance, like notions like Satyagraha, this mythological quest for self-determination. It resonated with Hindu mythology, but in the process, it created alienation.

Of course, there was a lot more going on and Gandhi was not the sole spokesman for Hindu nationalism, for Indian nationalism, I should say. In fact, at that time, even Muhammad Ali Jinnah was working in tandem with the Congress. Subsequently, it split. Now, when the Muslims felt underrepresented in the different ways of framing this. Some say that they would’ve preferred to have been bigger fish in a smaller pond as opposed to small fish in a big pond, and that’s why they opted for the creation of a separate Homeland.

But whatever the reasons for that bifurcation were, we saw, in the case of Pakistan, in the Pakistani movement was much more top heavy. In that demand for independence was led by a leadership that did not quite tap into the public sentiment. Subsequent to that, then the creation of these institutions, be it the bureaucracy, be it this burgeoning, the creation … of this bourgeoisie, if you will, the urban bourgeoisie, and then the rural zamindars, they were all perpetuating and benefiting from this patronage based system, which resonated with that earlier colonial model of working with the chief to rule a village and so on and so forth.

The Pakistani state emulated this model. Subsequently, we also started seeing a growing civil-military imbalance. The military was, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, largely fueled by this animosity with a much larger neighbor and exacerbated by colonial era disputes, territorial disputes like Kashmir, took place with the partition, and it was a bloody partition at that. A war in ’48, a war in ’65, a war in ’71 that reinforced the need for Pakistan to have a very muscular military.

That military subsequently began penetrating the political economy of the state as well. Ironically, this elite-led patronage-based system created a lot of resentment, not only amongst the not-haves across the country, but also within the different regions of the country. Balochistan, for instance, and East Pakistan, because ironic when Pakistan was created, it was this unique experiment where there were two distinct parts of Pakistan, East and West Pakistan, because it was Muslim-majority areas divided by a huge country in the middle, which was India.

Bangladesh was one side of India on the eastern side in Pakistan. The rest of Pakistan, the Western side. There was this brewing discontent, which actually disproved this idea of the two-nation theory created on the basis of religion because by 1971, Bangladesh, on the basis of ethno-nationalist disgruntlement with this top-down state declared independence. Rather than the state then looking inward and trying to create a more egalitarian, a more representative state, doubled down on this post-colonial legacy and the need for the army to be even more muscular and to take up more resources. That’s a legacy that in various shapes and forms, Pakistan is still contending with today.

NH: Well, thank you very much, Muhammad Ali for that very interesting sweep through how the history of the colonial legacy in Pakistan, in particular, shapes authoritarianism today. Now, Shweta, I’d like to turn to you to give us some added perspective on this and to help us understand even more completely the way that the past continues to resonate and rhyme in the Indian subcontinent.

Shweta Krishnan: Thank you for that question, and thank you for having me here. Since we are taking a long [inaudible] perspective on authoritarianism in South Asia today, and I think alongside everything that Mohammad Ali just underlined for us, something that I would like to add, and I think he already said this, and I’m possibly just marking it as something we need to pay specific attention to – is the ways in which the presence of European powers in South Asia over a long duration of time changes the way in which South Asians come to know themselves.

There’s a lot of knowledge production that happens, a lot shifts in the ways in which people come to know themselves, what they identify themselves as. These categories of identification that stem with colonial governance and is actually at a particular point in time, are more or less created for the ease of colonial governance, become part of that post-colonial legacy.

Today’s authoritarianism in South Asia is also based very much on the form of identity politics. What religion somebody belongs to, what ethnicity somebody belongs to, what nationalist identity somebody has. Where a nation ends, where another one begins, what languages do people speak. The ways of categorization of people, of land, and all of these things also emerged with some of these colonial regimes that Mohammad Ali already spoke about.

The bureaucracy, the police, the military, and all these institutions that he was demarcating for us, they derive on this knowledge production that happens. Something that I would like to point to here is that the authoritarianism in South Asia today derives on the colonial legacy in two ways. On the first hand, you have these categories that I was just underlining, which changes the way in which Europe comes to know South Asia and South Asia comes to know itself, and the ways in which it is useful for Europe, as I was saying.

But on the other hand, the anticolonial movements that come up at this time also draw on these very same knowledges of who is Hindu, who is Muslim. I think what we see today, movements that are stemming from the ways in which secular institutions are being pushed to their maximum capacity, as Mohamed Ali was talking about, like the police, the military, but we’re also seeing the rise of religious nationalisms, all of these derive on very particular moments in colonial history where people came to think of themselves in and through the terms that were being introduced for the ease of colonial governance.

Going back to something that Mohammad Ali was talking about, Gandhi, for example, and his turn to tradition and especially a Hindu tradition in order to frame Indian nationalism. Whereby he insidiously sort of introduced Hinduism into the spirit of what is Indian nationalism. Even that turn to what is tradition defined in a position to what may be seen as Western or European at that particular point in time.

The presence of Europe in South Asia at that particular point creates not only institutions, but institutions that are backed by these understandings of who is who and what is what. I think these epistemic framings that underlie the infrastructures and institutions that authoritarianism both wrestles with, but also relies on today in South Asia, I think it’s important to note these knowledge production practices and how they also continue to be part of the postcolonial legacy and how a lot of state practices still continue to produce more and more knowledges in these very same ways. That’s something that I wanted to add to this.

NH: Thank you very much, Shweta, for a really brilliant lay down of the history and the religiopolitics and how they shape authoritarianism in the Indian subcontinent today. Muhammad Ali, I want to pull on that thread. Could you give us more of a background on how these authoritarian states or these authoritarian tendencies in the Indian subcontinent interact with religiopolitical movements in both India and Pakistan?

MA: I might allude a little bit, because I want to make this a dialogue. There’s enough to talk about on the Pakistani side. It’s quite interesting, there was this dilemma when the demand for Pakistan was being articulated known as the two-nation theory. Fine, if we can’t get along with the Hindus and the Hindus are not being accommodative to a Muslim minority, which was itself had arrived in the Indian subcontinent on the waves of conquest and subsequent empire building.

But this, of course, was there are various differences between the creation of the Muslim empire and a lot of the conquest that was subsequently taking place where Muslims wrangling power away from other Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. It was distinct from the colonial experiment that was subsequently implemented in the Indian subcontinent.

However, when this kind of demand for a Muslim nation, this fueled by fear or vested interest, this idea of creating a distinct Muslim state, which is not overwhelmed by a Hindu majority within the Indian subcontinent, when that idea came to the fore, there was resistance within. For instance, a lot of the religiopolitical parties of the time, religiopolitical scholars were opposed to the idea of creating a separate nation-state. Because in their articulation of the Muslim identity, the notion of ummah reigned supreme.

The notion of ummah is transnational, because it’s based on the idea that the message of God is universal, and for everyone, and it’s not bound by a specific territory. For them, there wasn’t really a great demand for the creation of Pakistan and particularly in how it was unfolding and how it unfolded, we see that in retrospect. Besides Bangladesh that split away, even if you look at India itself, we are talking what, 150 million or so Muslims still residing in India today.

When Pakistan broke away, there was this sense that the religiopolitical parties really hadn’t backed the idea of Pakistan and used to speak about Muhammad Ali Jinnah Quaid-e-Azam being the leader of the nation. Muhammad Ali Jinnah was like a Lincoln-trained lawyer with a British accent and British mannerisms and the ways in which they spoke of him, I’m talking about the Muslim leaders, the religiopolitical ones, was in very unfavorable terms.

But subsequent to Pakistan having become a political reality and with the bloodshed that ensued in the partition of the Indian subcontinent, and when many of them came into Pakistan, then they had this imperative to re-create themselves. In that re-creation, they started eroding the idea of Pakistan being a secular state. Muhammad Ali Jinnah said that the state has no business with where you worship and how you worship, but the central ideas started being eroded. Around this time, we see Pakistan being declared an Islamic Republic and then increasing antagonism towards the minorities like the Yemenis. Framing them as being colonial sympathizers, undermining their claim of Muslimhood.

That movement gained traction to the extent that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the prominent [inaudible] political leader, and here we get the 1970s now. He declares the Yemenis to be non-Muslims, which was a big victory for the religiopolitical, like the Jamaat-e-Islami et cetera. Then we move into the 1980s, there’s the geopolitical aspect. This is the time with Saudi money and American blessing, Zia-ul-Haq positions himself as – Zia-ul-Haq being the military general who deposes and hangs Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the civilian leader, the prime minister of Pakistan.

He, then for 10 years gets a lot of support in basically helping organize and train and militarizing this notion of jihad, and this is, of course, the time when Ronald Reagan famously called them the holy warriors, and had many of them visit the White House as well. This is when they were doing the jihad against the Soviet infidel.

It’s around this time that you start seeing term of the Military-Mullah Alliance being coined. That had, of course, tremendous implications for the social cultural fabric within Pakistan. This is, of course, also happening the rise of Deobandi and their affiliation with the Salafi school, it’s also being exacerbated then the sectarian stripe within Pakistan is also being exacerbated by this proxy competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, because by this time we’ve had the Irani revolution as well.

We see 10 years of this, and even after withdrawal of the Soviets by 1989, some of the militant actors start being used allegedly by the Pakistani state to support the existing insurgency within Kashmir, Indian-held Kashmir. But that continues to spin off and there’s a lot of sectarian violence within the country, and many of these militant outfits, because they are performing this other function are said to be tolerated by the Pakistani state.

Come post-911, we see another religiopolitical group come to the fore, and now these are the Barelvis. The Barelvis were initially perceived to be like the more moderate Muslims. Again, ironically, come 9/11, we have another democratic prime minister having been deposed by another general, General Musharraf. Then he gets a long lease for his military regime, which again, lasts a decade also, because the 9/11 has happened, and Pakistan, for good or bad decides to become frontline state in the war against terror.

There’s a lot of contention around that as well. It creates a lot of turbulence between Pakistan and the U.S. regarding Pakistan’s role in the global war on terror and how it positioned itself in Afghanistan. But alongside that, we see an emphasis on trying to use the Barelvi, … the Sufi-loving culture as the more moderate version of Islam. To the extent that some of these groups like the Ahle Sunnat even get state department funding to come out and speak against this idea of suicide bombing, because Islam frowns upon this idea of taking one’s life, greatest gift by God.

But, I think, by a few years into using the Barelvis to push back against the Deobandis, we see the Barelvis also becoming [inaudible]. Of course, we talk about the Deobandis, I don’t mean … the Deoband is our religious school. But once talking Deobandi-inspired militant groups. Again, with the Barelvis, of course there is a vast theological engagement of the Barelvi school of thought within the Indian subcontinent. We can’t talk about all of them in this sense, but some of them operationalize and weaponize this notion of love for the Prophet.

This was, again, by the way, a colonial era rule to keep the Muslims and the Hindus and the Sikh to prevent communal strife. This was given teeth under the regime of Zia-ul-Haq in the ’80s. Come post-9/11, the Barelvis start using this notion to the most drastic thing that happens is that an adherent of the Barelvi school of thought who’s a bodyguard of the governor of the Punjab who had spoken up against the use, this weaponization of blasphemy against this poor Christian woman who had … There’s a problem of religious minorities on both sides and Christians with missionary work in the Indian subcontinent who had a lot of the suppressed caste, like being enticed by this idea of a new religion to escape their marginalization, which unfortunately didn’t occur on either side of the border.

Nonetheless, you had this poor woman who was accused of blaspheming, because there was a dispute over water sharing. He [inaudible] and there was a blasphemy case on her. The governor of the Punjab, the largest province in Pakistan speaks up and defends her and says, he doesn’t say anything about blasphemy itself, but he talks about the blasphemy rule and says that needs to be modified because it’s punitive, and it’s used to persecute minorities.

Lo and behold, his own bodyguard shoots and kills him, who was supposed to be safeguarding the governor kills him. That’s when the international community becomes increasingly uncomfortable, also, with the increasingly violent Barelvi group. Subsequent to that, we’re still living with the rise of the Barelvis. Just recently, the Pakistani government, again, now democratically elected prime minister has done a deal because after the killing of the governor, there’s a lot of support for the bodyguard who kills him.

While the state hangs him, there’s a shrine built in his name and gives genesis to the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which revolves around this idea of protecting and respecting the Prophet and the sanctity of the Prophet and takes this stance of defending the Prophet, not only within Pakistan, but elsewhere. With the Charlie Hebdo controversy, they have been demanding and they’ve been doing long marches and protesting and trying to pressurize the Pakistani state to expel the French ambassador.
It’s created a lot of pressure on the Pakistani state, and they have actually capitulated and conceded to this demand and released the current leader of the TLP — the original leader died, and now his son is in charge and they released him from jail. They have decided to debate the issue of whether to expel the French ambassador or not.

This is where things are currently. It’s not that the Deobandi groups have dissipated, and there’s no sectarian violence. There is. We even have the TTP, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, which I can perhaps talk about a bit later, but we have this new entrant into this violent religiopolitical space with the rise of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, and the Pakistani state’s capitulation to them.

NH: This is a very interesting story that you’ve unfolded for us, Mohammad Ali. Shweta, I want to turn to you and ask you know, as we have this rise in the religiopolitical movements in Pakistan and how it impacts through the internal dynamics of Pakistan. I can’t, but help wonder that also had some influence as well in India. Could you walk us through how religiopolitical movements in India have led to where we are today?

SK: Happy to elaborate on that. I think the religiopolitical movements in India, the most hegemonic one is the Hindu Nationalist Movement and its claim that India ought to be a Hindu nation. That claim is based on a supposition that in the past, before the coming of Muslims and before the coming of European powers, India was a Hindu nation.

To me, what this really points to is the fact that in order for any form of authoritarianism, but also here in particular, this religious authoritarianism to take root, it is almost important to narrate history in a very particular way, which leads to very particular omissions, which leads to very particular and convenient introductions of a much more broader history. In a certain sense, what really happened will have to be reduced, reframed and told in a very particular way, in order to support the claims that India was a Hindu nation at some particular point in time.

The reason I say this is if we were going to go back in time as Mohammad Ali just did with Pakistan’s history, in Indian history, India’s history cannot be narrated as simply as there was Hinduism, and then Islam came, or, and then Christianity came. Because all of this assumes two things. First of all, it assumes that Hinduism, Islam, Christianity are all static discourses, and they’re very well bounded discourses that just come and go.

They deny this rich history of dialogue between these discourses, and other religions in India. They also don’t allude to at all the internal ways in which these religions have evolved through revivals, framings, and reconfigurations over time. The very idea that today the religious politics in India can claim that there was a Hindu nation, is actually locked up in a lot of very reductive narrations of history.

Heading back into precolonial India, just for a second, and looking at the scales of religiosity there, it would be very hard to find a very well bounded object called Hinduism in the very first place. There was so many schools of Hindu practice all across India, and Islam came over a long period of time, unlike what is easily assumed in the public domain, in the public sphere across South Asia.

Not only were there military conquests, which were elemental in bringing Islam over, but there were also a lot of trade relations between precolonial West Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia. A lot of Arabic traders would come, and I think this is very well documented in Indian Ocean studies, a lot of Arabic traders would come from Egypt and Yemen and all these places, dock in South Asia, especially what is South India today, move up to Gujarat, to the region of Kutch, all the way to some of the seashore areas in Pakistan.

They would go around Sri Lanka and the Cape there to land on the East Coast in India, go all the way up, Odisha, West Bengal, Bangladesh. People landed and also continued their journey through land. The other entry points, you had the caravan traders, the Silk Route was open, so there was always a lot of trade via land from West Asia into these regions. People came through Central Asia, came through the mountain passes in the Himalayas and came down to India.

There’s a lot of movement into India, in and out of India, that happened beyond what can be narrated through a history of military alone. First of all, the rich ways in which people, goods, and discourses and everything moved in this region. I’m now only curtailing the telling of my own history to just West Asia and South Asia. But if you actually look at how South Asia was also in dialogue with East Asia, Southeast Asia, you get this rich history of movement in these places.

When there’s such a rich history of movement of people, and when we talk about people moving, we’re also talking about people moving, not just in the public domain, but also in the private domain, people intermarrying, new ethnicities coming up because of people intermarrying and things like that. We need to situate the development of religion in this rich history. Nobody just brought Islam to India the way in which a lot of people, especially the Hindu Nationalists will tell you in a very reductive way, strains and schools of Islam came to India.

Here, when I say India in the Indian subcontinent, came to South Asia, I should say, and developed over time within South Asia also. It’s not an outsider religion, it is a religion that has developed in dialogue with the other religions that were being practiced in that particular point in time in those regions. Beyond Hinduism, you have other aimable religions like Buddhism, you have Jainism. Sikhism developed there because of dialogues between these religions. Also, because of this rich history of trade and exchange, Christianity was already there in India well before European powers became colonizing forces in this region. There were Jews in India, there were Parsis in India.

This region is very rich in cultural exchange. As part of cultural exchange, religious exchanges happen. If you try to take this very broad, pluralistic history and try to bundle it into very simplistic narratives, where for the sake of governance, you want to demarcate a particular area of land as Hindu, a particular area of land as Muslim, I think you’re actually naturally going to run into a lot of problems, and on the one hand, some of this happened as I was mentioning in response to your earlier question, because of the convenience of European governance.

Europe arrives in this very rich pluralistic region, and it is important for them to classify it, categorize it, reorganize it in a way so that they can extract their resources, they can get the most out of this region for themselves. What we see is a history that’s playing out, that’s being disrupted by colonial forces that are then reorganizing this for the sake of their own purposes. Then they leave and then we’re left with these postcolonial legacies.

I think the telling of history isn’t as continuous as one would want it to be. The histories of religions have been narrated by these different forces who wanted to control the governance of this region in their own convenient terms at different points in time. I think what you see today as the religiopolitical authoritarianism in India also derives its strength by narrating the very rich history of this place in a very reductive way that is convenient to itself.

In that sense, I think, returning to the question of Hindu dominance within India, it definitely derives very much on the Hindu nationalist organizations, not all of which are political parties. There are lots of civil organizations in India, which believe in and strengthen the purpose of Hindu nationalism, and then, of course, they have political wings, which contest in elections, form governments and all of that.

If you look at the whole network of Hindu nationalism in India, I think it derives very strongly from this very reductive understanding that India used to be this Hindu country. Then outsider religions came and disrupted the preexisting cultures. Now, if we throw them out, somehow we can go back to the glory that Hindu India once was able to manifest and things like that.

The reason this kind of narrative becomes so believable is because once you take a broad pluralistic history and break it down into easy categories, then I think we are actually making way for reductive stories to have power and to have power over people’s imaginations and to allow them to believe this kind of political narrative.

I think you see the same thing in Sri Lanka, actually, you see that in terms of the way in which this nationalism has started to dominate the public imagination in Sri Lanka, has a lot to do, again, with narrating the history of Sri Lanka as a Buddhist history. Whereas, the history of Sri Lanka, once again, just as the history of India or the history of Pakistan, the history of Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, any of the countries in South Asia is actually almost always religiously extremely pluralistic.

Religions, although they were always entangled with state practices, they’re not necessarily the reasons why kings used to fight with each other. If you actually read the history in the Indian subcontinent, the number of wars that must have happened on the basis of religion will be much less than the number of wars that happen because of control over resources, control over ports, maybe even family feuds actually. It’s a very complex history.

To tell it completely as a history of a religion is in part a smart move on the part of these religiopolitical movements. In part, I think it is not even that much of an intended move, as opposed to even, they think that, that is the history of the place. That is because of how many times that reductive history has gone around. I think one cannot look at the authoritarianism that is there in the South Asian context without actually being attentive of to the ways in which the way we narrate the past structures the way in which we come to understand the present.

That is where I would situate the broader story of Hindu nationalism in India. But if you are going to look at more recent histories, I think there are two trends that I would call attention to. One is the secular parties in India, just as in an earlier way to this conversation, Mohammad Ali was pointing out how Gandhi, perhaps insidiously, read Hinduism into Indian nationalism. The secular parties in India, which are supposedly pluralistic and open to diversity and open to the presences of diverse religions in India, actually still, I think, at least implicitly, if not explicitly continue to consider Hinduism as some sort of original religion of the region.

At least in the public discourse, they continue to perpetuate that. I would say that they play a role alongside the more Hindu nationalist parties in co-creating the idea that India could easily be a Hindu country. Then, on the other hand, you have the Hindu Nationalist parties, who, unlike the secular parties have a very strong belief that India must be nothing but a Hindu nation. The Hindu Nationalist parties are, I think, very keen on not just structuring the present, but structuring the future of the country as a Hindu nationalist regime.

NH: Thank you very much, Shweta. I think this is a very good segue way into the big question that I want to ask you both. Because based on this discussion, it does seem, at least to an outside observer, outside the Indian subcontinent and outside of South Asia, that both India and Pakistan, because of religiopolitical movements and the impact that these religiopolitical movements are having on the domestic politics of both India and Pakistan, that this pressure is building towards both countries coming towards a significant altercation between the two of them, which would obviously have massive transnational effects, both in that region itself, but far beyond, and would put the United States in a particularly difficult position because of its longstanding friendship with both India and Pakistan.
I’d like to get both of your thoughts on how can India and Pakistan move away from a path toward, could be significant conflict because of these religiopolitical issues. If you were both advising the Biden administration on how to navigate the treacherous terrain of the India-Pakistan issue, how would you do it? Mohammad Ali, I’ll start with you.

MA: It’s a huge question. I think that since we are aiming for a layered approach, I don’t have the easiest answer for you, but I do think that there’s room for reflexivity on all sides. I think even the U.S., and I think the international community need to realize the kind of influence that they’ve been having in this region and are continuing to exert, which is not entirely beneficial.

But before I get into that, I’d like to, and I think it picks up on some of the stuff that we’ve been discussing earlier and Shweta was talking about. I think that first of all, before we talk about how tensions are being exacerbated across the border, I think the biggest stress right now of the religiopolitical rise and in intolerance is within those countries.

This has been going on for a while. Recall that Mahatma Gandhi was himself assassinated by someone with sympathies with the RSS. The RSS is the spiritual fountain head for the ruling BJP in India. There’s a lot of encroachment of intellectual space, encroachment of the more moderate even culturally and religiously Hindu communities within India, and you know what to say about the religious minorities, like the Sikhs and the Muslims and the Christians.

In the case of Pakistan, similarly, lingering sectarian, that rift between Shia and Sunni, and now with this weaponization of blasphemy. All that it takes is people to say that this person has blasphemed. It’s not only against the religious minority. A Muslim student was lynched in Mardan a couple of years ago on campus for alleged blasphemy, which subsequently was found not to have been the case even.
I think the first tension is within, but of course there is, going back to the partition of the subcontinent, the carnage within the Punjab, between the Sikh and the Muslim, between the Hindus and the Muslim. Writers like Saadat Hasan Manto and all have written beautifully about the tragedy that occurred where these communities that had been living together since centuries, with also these more synchretic ideas of mysticism, et cetera, and this communal camaraderie that they had built over centuries, that social fabric was torn.

Now, in recent years, the demolition of the Ayodhya Mosque, a historical mosque, and this is the rise of the BJP, where they went in believing that this is the birthplace of Rama, and they tore down that historical mosque. That led to a lot of communal violence. That had repercussions across the border. In Pakistan, you had the minuscule Hindu and Sikh minority, right – the desecration of the temples and places of worship. There is that lingering threat.

The Pakistani government I mean tiptoes around ideas of religious tolerance within the country, but keeps pointing fingers at the rise of the Hindutva ideology in India. It’s quite disconcerted, and here comes in the U.S. and other places. Now, if you look at the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom, which is a government mandated body, which comes up with a list of countries of particular concern, for a few years now, has been talking about putting India on that list too, alongside Pakistan, and of course, China and Russia.

Secretary Pompeo, when he was advised by U.S. staff to do that, refused to do so, which then undermines the legitimacy of that kind of a ranking. It’s not only a matter of the historical past and colonialism, I think that there is, there continues to be, besides the geostrategic engagement now, with the Great Game and the tightening, the U.S.-India embrace and the Pakistan-China embrace, how that’s exacerbating tensions. Then morality of course becomes a cudgel in that process.

People say that President Trump did more for the Uyghur Muslims than perhaps any other American president or Western leader, but of course he was doing that at the same time that there was a lot of anti-Muslim rhetoric within the U.S. But he was doing that to go after China. Pakistan talks about the Islamophobia and the threat that the Muslims face, but you will not hear Pakistani policy makers make any statements on the situation in China.

To have these kind of blind spots, and I think it’s important to recognize those blind spots, even internationally, and to recognize this geostrategic lopsided approach. I think that is the basic minimum. But I think even a more deeper reflection is required, because when you think about, we’re talking about colonialism and post-colonial legacies, if we look at the impact of neoliberalism on Shining India, and the hand-in-glove approach of the Indian strongman authoritarian-ish state and its emphasis on economic development, and who gets marginalized in that process. Similarly, on the Pakistani side, we have room for a lot more reflection by Western powers and their engagement with these areas of the world.

The Indian subcontinent, for instance, we’re talking about a sizable chunk of the world’s population, lingering animosity, nuclear weapons. Then we have the Great Game, which is hyping up the hysteria and fueling an arms race in the region at the same time. I think that basically it’s precisely discussions like these. I don’t know how much takeaway the policy makers would get out of this process, but I think that there’s certainly this deeper reflection is merited all sides, Nick.

NH: Thank you very much, Mohammad Ali. I find that very interesting how you link together all these global issues, including, I must say, a nightmare scenario of potential nuclear conflict with the transnational trends that have to do with identity and politics. Shweta, what is your perspective on the Indian side for these issues?

SK: Thanks, Nick. I’m just going to actually reemphasize some of the points that Mohammed Ali raised, because I think with India right now, one of the major problems is the rise in internal intolerance, which again, stems from a lot of things that we have been talking about before. But on the other hand, I think in a much more international or global domain, India still has this aura of being this cultural, spiritual center.
I think a lot of people struggle over reconciling their notion of India as this place of peace and nonviolence and Gandhi and all of those things, with the kind of images of religious intolerance that are coming out of India. I do think that this juncture, those two images produce actually does play a role in a way in which international forces are able to perceive what is happening in India.

I think being attentive actually to what is going on in the moment and setting aside those frameworks of when forces displaces religious, spiritual legacy to be, and to actually see the forms that the current political religious movements have taken would actually be very beneficial, to answer your question in one way.

The other part of your question was actually referring to the friendship between U.S. and Pakistan and India, the longstanding friendship. One thing that I would say is that yes, there is a longstanding friendshp between the U.S. and Pakistan, the U.S. and India, but also this friendship has been shaped very much by America’s own imperialist interests since after the second World War, especially as shaped by the Cold War and the long-term frictions with the USSR, and, of course, in the post-Cold War scenario, the rise of China as Mohammad Ali was already pointing to.

I think if the Biden administration would like to do something different, they would have to reexamine, I think, not just South Asia in terms of South Asia, but actually rethink how South Asia has been taken up within the context of U.S. international global policies, what forms of politics have shaped these friendships between the U.S. and India and the U.S. and Pakistan.

If the U.S. is going to mediate, both in terms of settling certain internal disputes within India and Pakistan, especially in relation to religious intolerance, but also disputes between India and Pakistan, then it may actually be very necessary for the U.S. to reexamine its own stance and rethink lingering effects of Cold War policies, and also the effects of policies that came up in the context of 9/11 in the South Asian context.

I think in a way, this is not as difficult as it seems, because we have so much research published from universities across the U.S. on South Asia, and we have so many organizations that are run by South Asian Americans in the U.S. that are actually writing very avidly about the problems of narrating India’s and broadly also South Asia’s history in very particular ways and allowing this history to legitimize certain religiopolitical authoritarian movements within these countries.

I think it’s really important to listen to what people are already saying. Especially a lot of them are South Asian Americans who are writing about and talking about these issues. As an example, I would say, under the Trump regime, we had this event, “Howdy Modi,” where Modi was welcomed with great pomp and show. There were a lot of protests at particular point to such an event taking place in the United States at the time when the same regime was really so oppressive to a lot of Indians in India.

I think paying attention to all these transnational movements, which are calling attention to these issues as they unfold, would actually be really the most interesting, but also the most impactful thing I think that this government can do. I think it’ll also help build alliances for the future, which are not grounded in imperialist attitudes and policies, but actually are much more grounded in practices of solidarity.

NH: Thank you very much, Shweta, and very practical and purposeful policy suggestions for the Biden administration and for a rising generation of U.S. policymakers, especially because, as you both have mentioned, and we all know, India and Pakistan are rising powers in this world. So much of the future course of human history in the 21st century will be determined by what happens in the Indian subcontinent and South Asia.

I want to thank you both, Shweta and Mohammed Ali, for your excellent insights into this most pressing question of state resilience and fragility and the riseing specter of authoritarianism and religiopolitical extremism in South Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. Thank you, and all the best.

Although transcription is largely accurate, there could be some inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.

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