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South Asia

Is secularism dying in India?

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Gauri Lankesh was shot to death on September 5, 2017.  A consistent critic of Hindutva politics and right-wing Hindu extremism, the journalist-activist edited Gauri Lankesh Patrike her own weekly.  She was not the first. 

In August 2015, Malleshappo M. Kalburgi, a noted scholar who was opposed to superstition in Hinduism, was assassinated.  Both Lankesh and Kalburgi were staunch proponents of the theory that their Lingayat religion was distinct from Hinduism.

Also in 2015, in February, it was Govind Pansare, a left-wing politician who also opposed religious superstitions (like, for example, the ritual to ensure a male child), and also lobbied vocally for the Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Act.  Then there was rationalist Narendra Achyut Dabholkar, who made debunking religious superstition and mysticism his life’s work.  In August 2013, he was shot and killed as he took his morning walk.  Following his death, the Anti-superstition act he had worked so hard without success to get through the Maharashtra state government was finally enacted.

The killings of three rationalists, i.e. atheists, and a strong dissenter have cast a pall.  Voices are being stilled.  There is much more as evidenced by the complicity of authorities in instances of mass killing, their mono-cultural narrow vision in a multicultural and multi-religious society, and insurgencies in many parts of the country.

Celebrating 70 years of independence last August 15, India has much to be proud of including strong economic growth.  Yet in this new century India’s steps are clearly faltering given its darker side, and, while it tries to assume a role on the world stage, the state within is cause for some despair.   

 Last month on August 25th, following the rape conviction of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh — a former Sikh, styled the guru of bling for his flamboyant lifestyle — thousands of his Dera religious supporters ran amuck burning buildings, vehicles, railway stations and bringing life to a halt in the states of Haryana and Punjab, and even in parts of Delhi.  More than 30 people died and a curfew was imposed.

Indeed gurus are popular:  Mr. Modi has appointed a saffron-robed, Hindutva firebrand religious leader, Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state.  This was after local elections there in which communalism was an essential ingredient of his party’s victory.

Also on August 25th, activists across the country observed Kandhmal day in memory of the victims of an anti-Christian pogrom in 2008.  Kandhmal is in the state of Orissa just southwest of Bengal and over a thousand miles east from Punjab. 

A 2016 documentary directed by K. P. Sasi vividly illustrates this notorious incident.  Titled Voices from the Ruins:  Kandhmal in Search of Justice, it relates the story simply and without resort to emotion.  The effect is devastating as the horror of pitiless violence unfolds.  In this orgy of arson and bloodshed, the victims were Adivasi and Dalit Christians — converts continue to be remembered as Dalits in their communities.  Dalits are the lowest caste of Hindus formerly known as untouchables.  The Hindutva perpetrators destroyed over 350 churches and 6500 dwellings.  Eight years later fear and intimidation still rule, and the more than 56,000 people who were displaced have not returned.  Churches and homes remain the ruins they were after the pogrom.  

Devastating as it was, it is an event not as well known as the 2002 Gujarat riots directed against another minority group, the Muslims, in which at least 1000 were killed.  Gujarat is a 1000 miles south of Punjab.  The geography of the three incidents is an indicator of how  communal hatred has infected people across the nation.

Rana Ayyub, (author of Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up and a friend of Gauri Lankesh) is the journalist who, at tremendous personal risk, exposed administrative and police complicity through a sting operation sponsored by Tehelka magazine.  She has just been honored in Vancouver with a Courage in Journalism Award.   On her heels, the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) has secured the convictions of 119 individuals including a minister (Indira Jaising, Outlook magazine, March 2015).  The founders of CJP are paying for their success:  Several cases have been filed against them, including criminal charges for such transgressions as accepting about $290,000 over a ten year period from the Ford Foundation.   Some use these cases to question their veracity; others say they are being subjected to a campaign of harassment in the courts.

The last twenty-five years have seen the delicate fabric of communal amity rent repeatedly for political gain by upper caste Hindu nationalist parties.  For instance, Prime Minister Modi’s new laws against cattle slaughter not only affect a $10 billion industry employing mostly Dalits and Muslims, but added to the incendiary rhetoric his ruling party have  fostered a climate of hate leading to tragic events.  Attacks against Muslims and Dalits have intensified. 

On June 22, 2017, three days before the Muslim holiday of Eid, four boys were returning home to Mathura on the train from Delhi following a shopping trip.  Recognized as Muslims, they were taunted as beef eaters and then set upon.  In a moving train with other travelers looking on, they were beaten severely and 16-year old Junaid Khan stabbed fatally.  One should note that much of southern India eats beef as does the northeast, and of course Christians, Muslims and Sikhs. Kerala’s legislature protested the Modi slaughter restrictions by having a beef breakfast.

Gau rakshak or cow protectors, whose vigilante bands now number over 200 in Gujarat alone, are terrorizing innocents.  Their attacks on meat-eating Dalits, who skin carcasses for sale to the leather tanneries, and on Muslims have led to several deaths hitting the headlines lately.

Thus on April 1st this year, a dairy farmer from Haryana was transporting cows purchased legitimately at a cattle fair in Rajasthan back to his home, when he was set upon by gau rakshaks.  Beaten mercilessly, Pehlu Khan died from his injuries two days later.  The police have done nothing so far to apprehend the suspects despite the man’s family traveling to the capital, New Delhi, and holding a vigil demanding justice.

Last year on September 13, 2016, two men again legally transporting a cow and a calf were attacked by a cow-protector gang and also severely beaten.  One of the men, Mohammad Ayub, died from his injuries shortly thereafter at a hospital in Ahmedabad.  The police first registered a case of attempted murder naming the vigilantes as Janak Ramesh Mistry, Ajay Sajar Rabari and Bharat Nag Rabari.  But as Pratik Sinha, a human rights activist, reported in a Facebook post after Ayub’s death, the police filed a second case underlining India’s present-day reality.  This time, instead of naming the assailants, they wrote down ‘unknown’.  The license plates of the cars involved in the attacks are also known.  Dalits and Muslims can expect little in the way of justice.   Except for a belated word, Mr. Modi has remained notoriously silent on the issue.

Overall figures for minority communal violence according to official statistics are  averaging 700 per year, leading to thousands of deaths.  In such an environment of hate, it is not surprising some were celebrating Pakistan’s recent victory over India in the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy finals by a record margin.  For this 15 celebrants were arrested in Madhya Pradesh and charged with sedition.  When this farce could not be sustained, they were charged with disturbing ‘communal harmony’. 

Legislators in the U.S. became concerned enough to send Indian Prime Minister Modi a letter.  Dated February 25, 2017, it was signed by 26 congressmen and 8 senators and expressed grave concern over the ‘intolerance and violence’ against religious minorities.  They specifically cited the killings of Hasmat Ali in Manipur, Mohammad Saif in Uttar Pradesh, and two Sikh men during demonstrations protesting the desecration of their holy book.  Innocent Sikhs were also the target of revenge attacks after Indira Gandhi was assassinated by a Sikh bodyguard.  Almost 2000 were killed.

In the April 2015 issue of National Geographic, a magazine few would call political, an eye-popping map of India is displayed in its signature graphic style. A rusty, dried-blood light brown, mapped carefully adjacent to areas of government control, it reveals almost a quarter of the country where the Naxalite rebellion coupled with the Adivasi (another minority) struggle for land rights has taken hold. The area runs south from the Nepal border, to Kolkata (Calcutta), then along the Bay of Bengal almost to Chennai (Madras).  Westwards, it approaches close to Varanasi (Benares) on the Ganges, then towards Nagpur in Central India and to Bangalore (India’s IT capital) in the south.  Add the insurgencies in Assam, Manipur (minorities) and Kashmir (minority Muslim) which is bleeding again, and fully a third of the country is in strife.  Figures vary but frequently quoted is 100,000 dead in Kashmir with no end in sight.

Post independence the promise of the first prime minister’s socialist secularism brought forth a focus on education and heavy-industry development.  Flourishing first class technological institutes and rapid industrial growth was one result.  Yet illiteracy proved stubborn, and the country mired by corruption and strife became bogged down in an inequality stasis with crushing poverty, where it still remains.  Jawaharlal Nehru had fought for India’s independence, and as India’s first leader strongly emphasized a secular state.  Wealthy and highest caste (Brahmin), educated at elite Harrow and Trinity College Cambridge before taking law and the bar exams through Inner Temple, he became a Fabian socialist.  One wonders if he is turning over in his grave.

Dr. Arshad M. Khan is a former Professor based in the US. Educated at King's College London, OSU and The University of Chicago, he has a multidisciplinary background that has frequently informed his research. Thus he headed the analysis of an innovation survey of Norway, and his work on SMEs published in major journals has been widely cited. He has for several decades also written for the press: These articles and occasional comments have appeared in print media such as The Dallas Morning News, Dawn (Pakistan), The Fort Worth Star Telegram, The Monitor, The Wall Street Journal and others. On the internet, he has written for Antiwar.com, Asia Times, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, Eurasia Review and Modern Diplomacy among many. His work has been quoted in the U.S. Congress and published in its Congressional Record.

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South Asia

Pakistan PM’s Saudi affair likely to backfire

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Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia flourished during the previous government headed by Nawaz Sharif, primarily due to his personal business interests in the Kingdom and friendly association with members of the Saudi royal family. Despite the criticism at home, Sharif never missed an opportunity to eulogize the Saudi rulers and support their wrongs.

During Sharif’s tenure as Prime Minister, while Pakistan’s ‘love affair’ with Riyadh blossomed, relations with Tehran plummeted. When the ambitious gas pipeline project was shelved by the Sharif government in 2015 under the Saudi pressure, some experts couldn’t resist the temptation of reading the obituary of Iran-Pakistan friendship. It seemed game over.

But the political transition in Islamabad this year rekindled hopes of a new foreign policy taking shape in Islamabad under the populist premier Imran Khan.

In his victory speech, Khan made it categorically clear that he would like to strengthen ties with allies in the Middle East, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. During his first meeting with the Iranian envoy to Islamabad, Khan reiterated his desire to bolster ties with Tehran and revive important projects that had been put on the backburner by the previous political dispensation, including the gas pipeline.

Experts termed it a “significant shift” in Pakistan’s foreign policy as his predecessor was seen overtly inclined towards stronger Pakistan-Saudi relations than Pakistan-Iran relations. Writing in The New Arab, Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui, a fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, said with the exit of Nawaz Sharif, Saudi Arabia had lost a reliable ally who never concealed his affection for the Gulf states in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular “for both personal and strategic reasons.”

It was widely believed that Khan’s approach will be different from Sharif and he will not yield to covert pressures from Washington or Riyadh. At least that is what appeared.
When Khan embarked on his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia, keeping alive the tradition set by his predecessors, he sought to underscore that Riyadh will remain a priority for Pakistan’s foreign policy. Pertinently, it was President Hasan Rouhani of Iran, not King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who first extended an invitation to him.

But the faith in his leadership or his vision for ‘Naya Pakistan’ (new Pakistan) was not yet dented. The massive army of his followers on Twitter ensured that the public opinion, or at least the opinion of netizens, was firmly in favor of his leadership and policies.

As the country’s fiscal deficit inflated to 6.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in the 2017-2018 financial year, Khan panicked. He boarded the plane to Riyadh again, this time to seek funds. To woo the Saudi rulers, Khan said Riyadh had “always stood with Pakistan in difficult times and the Pakistani government and its people highly acknowledge it.”
Speculation had been put to rest. Khan was walking in the footsteps of his predecessor.

Following his second visit to Riyadh, Saudi regime announced $6 billion in financial support to Islamabad. It corresponded with the international outrage over the cold-blooded murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Even as many world leaders boycotted a Saudi investment conference, the so-called ‘Davos in the desert’, over Khashoggi’s death, Khan attended the event.

On asked why he attended the conference when many other world leaders had turned down the invitation, Khan said Pakistan was “desperate” for Saudi loans to shore up the flailing economy.

“Unless we get loans from friendly countries or the IMF, we actually won’t have in another two or three months enough foreign exchange to service our debts or to pay for our imports. So we’re desperate at the moment,” he was quoted saying by the Middle East Eye.

Khan conceded that his immediate foreign policy priority was maintaining good relations with Saudi Arabia despite unprecedented outrage over Khashoggi’s murder by Saudi officials or the outcry over Saudi’s horrendous war crimes in Yemen.

Pakistan, which had previously maintained a neutral stance on Yemen war, might now be forced to support the Saudi onslaught there, some observers fear. If Khan can ignore a reprehensible crime like the killing of Khashoggi because of Saudi petrodollars, it can be expected that he will support the Saudi war crimes in Yemen also, although he has so far resisted doing that.

While Khan has adopted a strong and unwavering stance against the US, he seems to have succumbed to the temptation of being subservient to the Saudi Kingdom, for funds. That is where he risks losing the goodwill he has earned back in Pakistan and in the international community.

At a time when the world is saying ‘no’ to Saudi Arabia, Khan is part of a tiny minority that is going against the tide. This approach will only isolate Pakistan and it has isolated Riyadh and Washington.

Being subservient to Saudi interests also means that Khan will be forced to toe his predecessor’s line on Iran. If that happens, Islamabad will again be forced to shelve the gas pipeline project, which is being described as critical to Pakistan’s energy requirements.

Khan is walking a tightrope. Wisdom lies in taking informed decisions in the best interests of Pakistan keeping in view long-term goals. In the cricketing terminology, the cricketer-turned-prime minister could do well by playing the forward defensive shot rather than the mistimed stroke in the air.

First published in our partner MNA

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South Asia

Pakistan a peace loving nation

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Muslims when meeting each other greet “Peace be upon you”. Islam is the religion of Peace and Love, Islamophobia is the creation of a few minds only. There is no doubt that there exists few criminals in every society, every religion, and every country, but such exceptions, may not be used to blame the whole nation, religion or country. Since its independence Pakistan has been promoting peace and stability around the world. Pakistan’s Peace-keeping missions have been playing important roles around the world to maintain peace in troubled areas. We are major contributor to Peace-Keeping Force and have been part of almost all of UN Peace-Missions, during the history of 7 decades. Pakistan is supportive of any efforts by any nation towards promotion or maintenance of peace.

Recently, UNGA’s Disarmament Committee adopted Pakistan’s resolutions with an overwhelming support, in New York on 9th November 2018. Three resolutions proposed by Pakistan were adopted by the UN General Assembly’s First Committee with an overwhelming support. The whole world supported Pakistan’s resolution while India was the only country to oppose them.

In fact, the resolutions highlight the importance of regional approaches to disarmament, which complement global disarmament efforts and stress the need to promote confidence building measures for enhancing regional and international peace and security. The resolution on conventional arms control was adopted by a large majority of 179 countries. India was the sole country to vote against the resolution.

Earlier, a big victory for Pakistan came, on November 1stwhen the Committee also adopted Pakistan’s resolution on assuring non-nuclear weapon states against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons by 122 votes. The First Committee of the UN General Assembly which meets annually deals with disarmament, global challenges, and threats to peace that affect the international community and is mandated to seek solutions to global security challenges by considering all disarmament and international security matters within the scope of the UN Charter. Pakistan’s role in disarmament was admired and non-proliferation of uranium. We strongly condemn biological and chemical weapons and strictly adhere to UN decisions.

Pakistan is a responsible country and always exploring the opportunities of peace. Pakistan has always initiated the peace process with India and sincerely tried best to resolve all issues with India, including Jammu and Kashmir, by a peaceful dialogue. Pakistan respects UN, Respect UN mandate, Respect UN Charter, and wants others to do the same. It believes in diplomacy, and there is precedence that some of the more complicated issues around the world, has been resolved by diplomacy, then why not Pakistan-India issues be resolved by dialogue too.

We support the supremacy of UN and all nations must respect the UN. We always stand with the oppressed and raise voice for the victims. Our struggle for justice and righteousness is always admired. We keep on struggling for global peace and be part of any peace process around the world.

The Indian opposition to Pakistani resolution and persistent refusal to leave Kashmir has exposed the true Indian face. The recent International Amnesty report on Human Right violation in Kashmir was a big blow to India. Indian atrocities against its own minorities and lower caste Hindus is condemned widely. Indian opposition to the UN resolution on Palestine is also an example of India’s international position.

It is time that serious notice is taken by the UN, International Community and all conscious individuals to stand up for International Peace, Justice and Human Rights.  We all should keep on struggling for a better world for our next generation. We should be united for “Peace, Stability and Prosperity” for humanity globally.

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South Asia

The Making of Modern Maldives: A Look at Maumoon Gayoom

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Authors: Srimal Fernando and Pooja Singh

Former Maldivian President Maumoon Gayoom occupies an important place in Maldivian political history largely because he guided this equatorial island nation to unprecedented levels of economic growth and also through tough times when democracy was challenged. Gayoom has a national as well as international reputation that made his name familiar to the rest of the South Asian countries. It was after his return from Nigeria’s Ahmadu Bello University as a lecturer, Gayoom commenced his political journey as a close aid of prime minister Ahmed Zaki in mid-70’s and later as a cabinet minister under Ibrahim Nasir. Gayoom’s leadership embarked on a more reformist approach in the first two terms during his presidency. He was able to take credit for the rise of the tourism sector and an increase in the fish productivity. In Male, as well as in the rest of the Maldivian islands, building of small fisheries harbors were accelerated under the rapid development programs initiated under his presidency. When one looks at the Maldivian foreign policy, Maumoon was credited as one of the key founders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1985. Hence, he raised global awareness on climate change on the international arena. In this context, especially the awareness on small island nations facing rise in sea water levels which affects the livelihood of the islanders was a key theme which brought international attention. On the development side, the Hulhulemale reclamation project and the upgrading of roads and other infrastructure initiatives that he implemented are highly credited for by the Maldivians. In fact, the people’s president who visits the islands regularly was named as “A Man for All Islands” by the famous author in his book about Gayoom’s biography.

Early in his administration, former president introduced socio-economic experiments in reawakening the islands. His administration accelerated the economic growth in the twenty Atolls from Northern Haa Atoll to Southern Seenu Atoll instilling a degree of optimism and enthusiasm among the Maldivians. Yet another economic achievement in the tourism sector was the increase of luxury resorts from two in 1978 to hundred by 2008. Gayoom’s career is most relevant due to his performance and for changing the country’s political system to a multi-party democratic system where the power is vested on the citizens.

Another milestone during his tenure was to expand the average income of Maldivians from US$ 377 in 1978 to US$3,654 in 2008. However, towards the end of his presidency, the first signs of irreconcilable difficulties with the Maldivian opposition led by Mohamed Nasheed, the leader of Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) started emerging in 2000. The Maldivian pro-democracy movement started in Male in 2003 and then moved to other Islands. As a result, Maldives adopted a multi-party political system and in 2008. In the same year the presidential campaign came to a climax where in the second phase of the presidential elections, the confident president had felt a constant sense of uncertainty since most of the opposition presidential candidates supported Mohamed Nasheed, the leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party. Gayoom lost the election and Nasheed the opposition leader assumed presidency.  The courageous former president Gayoom transferred the presidential powers to the newly elected president smoothly.

In fact, the reformist former president Gayoom formed the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party and later, he was one of the key founders of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) where his half-brother, Yameen Abdul Gayoom shared powers within the party. Hence, Qasim Ibrahim, a former finance minister under Nasheed’s government and also close confidant of president Gayoom led the Jumhooree Party (JP) which combined with PPM in 2013 presidential elections.

Unfortunately, in 2012 the overthrow of president Nasheed one of New Delhi’s closest allies in South Asia shocked the diplomatic circles on both sides of Asia as well as in the west. It took more than five years for Gayoom’s PPM party under the presidency of Yameen to return to power. However, due to widespread corruption and authoritative rules under Yameen’s presidency, many of the opposition party members such as former Maldivian president Nasheed, Jumhooree Party leader Qasim Ibrahim and many other political leaders who opposed the undemocratic rule were prisoned through unlawful means.

During the darkest period of the Maldivian politics from 2017 to September 2018, the lone voice of the public opposition belonged to a few opposition leaders such as, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih cannot be forgotten. In the same period, former president Gayoom, Nasheed and several opposition members created a united opposition to unseat president Yameen and his majority party rule through democratic non-violent means. One of the major reasons for this change by Gayoom in Yameen’s leadership was the widespread corruption and the authoritative rule. Finally, president Yameen prisoned former president Gayoom and his son, Faris Maumoon. This was one of the main reasons where large number of Gayoom supporters broke away from PPM led by president Yameen. This reason influenced the 23rd September 2018 presidential elections where opposition common candidate Ibrahim Solih saw a massive victory margin against president Yameen.

One could argue that, Gayoom, the president who guided Maldives to economic prosperity was the same charismatic leader who guided the South Asian Island nation towards democratic maturity. Maumoon Gayoom has been the most unpredictable political influencer in the modern political making of Maldives.

*Pooja Singh, a scholar of Masters in Diplomacy, Law, Business at Jindal School of International Affairs, India.

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