Far right religious nationalism is growing in South Asia. Fuelled by the experience of colonialism, the resulting internal tensions since independence, and powerful civil society movements.
Burma is a country in the middle of political transformation. Since 1962 it has been under a military dictatorship, where divide and rule policy and crackdowns on Muslim and Christian groups helped keep a lid on opposition to the regime. Now that we are seeing the painstakingly slow process of reform, the forces created by five decades of dictatorship are coming to the surface.
The latest episodes of violence, predominantly against Muslims in Arakan, has been well-documented by the media. Much of the analysis has been surprisingly nuanced and critical instead of falling back onto lazy clash of civilisations explanations common during the War on Terror.
However, Burma is not the only country in South Asia to have seen a far-right movement become a powerful national force. In India, the Hindu Nationalist movement is a national political force on the verge of regaining power. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, far-right groups claiming to draw inspiration from Buddhism have entered the national political scene. So, what are the common themes of these far-right movements?
Burma, like many former British colonies, was subjected to 'Divide and Rule' policies. These have had a lasting impact on Buddhist-Muslim relations. Under the British, Muslims were present in government and civil society, and in the struggle for independence. However, after the 1962 military coup, General Ne Win passed a series of discriminatory laws aimed at removing Muslims from public life and institutions. This included denying citizenship to Muslim Rohingyas on the grounds that their ancestors were not resident in 1824, when the British took control of the country. Human Rights Watch noted in 2002 that special identity papers and travel restrictions were being systematically used to keep Muslim communities in check.
India's ethnic and religious tensions were also shaped by British rule. From the censuses dividing communities along religious and caste lines, to the manoeuvring around partition in 1947, colonial rule still runs through Hindu-Muslim tensions. The RSS and other associated Hindu Nationalist organisations have immense power and influence, with their political wing poised to take power in the next general elections.
Sri Lanka has a similar story of British manipulation of local differences with catastrophic results for its present-day politics. Under colonialism, ethnic differences between the Sinhalese and Tamils were ruthlessly exploited to control the plantation economy. After independence, a brand of aggressive populism and nationalism became dominant, and led to the Civil War. Since the end of the Tamil Tiger rebellion, nationalist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (the Buddhist Brigade) have directed a campaign of rallies, boycotts, and direct action against Muslims in Sri Lanka.
One other common feature, derived from the experience of colonialism, is the perceived unity of 'the enemy'. Hence the quest by these movements to suppress internal pluralism and the creation of a unifying set of beliefs and symbols.
Looking at the Hindu Nationalist movement, French historian Christophe Jaffrelot has argued that the Nationalists used a dual approach of hostility towards their enemy, whilst also copying those elements which they believed to be at the root of their strength, that he summed up as “stigmatising and emulating threatening others”.
A typical view is that the 'Other' does not belong to the nation, by virtue of religion and/or necessity. For example, Hindu Nationalists in India often claim that Christians and Muslims are not loyal to India because their holy lands and sites are in the Middle East.
Far right movements generally look back to a Golden Age and past glory. For Burma this is pre-1824 when the British arrived and therefore Buddhist (and by inference pre-Islamic) and for India, pre-Mughal (pre-Islamic) and therefore Hindu.
Borrowing heavily from western political thought and theories, the idea of religious nationalism is constructed to recreate these golden ages. The development of religious nationalism in all three countries has included the direct involvement of religious organisations and the prominent role of monks.
Far right groups, such as the 969 Movement in Burma, the BBS in Sri Lanka and the Sangh Parivar in India often share a fear of 'demographic siege' and being 'out-bred' by their perceived enemy. Human Rights Watch noted in Burma that:
“Over the decades, many anti-Muslim pamphlets have circulated in Burma claiming that the Muslim community wants to establish supremacy through intermarriage. One of these, Myo Pyauk Hmar Soe Kyauk Hla Tai (or The Fear of Losing One's Race) was widely distributed in 2001”
Dibayesh Anand in his work on India, analyses the common idea present amongst Hindu Nationalists that Muslims are out-breeding them – part of what he terms porno-nationalism. “Muslim hypersexuality is ascribed to religion, diet, culture, physicality, living pattern, and morality.” According to Anand, this myth provides an all-important source of moral superiority together with a threatening masculine ‘other’ to be fought.
In Sri Lanka, these same concerns of conversion (by Christians and Muslims) and over-breeding are common despite the evidence that both the Muslim and Sinhalese populations have shown very slight growth.
Such anxieties play out in national policy. In India, there have been large campaigns and laws passed against conversion to Christianity, as a part of this anxiety of demographic siege. In response to recent violence (predominantly directed against Muslims), the Burmese government announced a 'two child limit' on the Muslim community, and a ban on polygamy (This is despite the lack of population data - there hasn't been a census in Burma for decades). This echoes calls in India by the BJP for a ban on anyone with more than two children being able to stand for Assembly and Parliamentary elections.
In Burma, Sri Lanka, and parts of India, the rise of the far-right has seen a rise in state collusion with the agenda of these movements. In recent days, the Burmese regime has been criticised for failing to intervene in violence directed against the Muslim community. In 2002 Human Rights Watch published a report on this subject and on state involvement. The HRW report details incidents where attacks were led by 'Buddhist Monks', alleged to be police in disguise. In a damning summary it stated,
“The government has failed to take effective action to protect Muslims in Burma, imposed restrictions on Muslim religious activities and travel both inside the country and abroad, and taken no action to punish those responsible for destroying Muslim homes and mosques.”
In the same year in Gujarat, India, a pogrom was initiated against the local Muslim community. Subsequent reports and inquiries detailed a staggering level of state co-operation and collusion, with one minister subsequently jailed and the First Minister denied entry to the UK, EU ad US for over a decade.
In India, Hindu Nationalists in government have been partially able to communalise the state. This included publishing school text books at a national level heavily compromised by Hindu Nationalist ideology. At the local level, the ability of elected representatives to distribute contracts to supporters has allowed organisations like the Shiv Sena in Mumbai to create powerful and deep networks through which they can distribute resources and jobs in order to build the strength of the movement.
In Sri Lanka, the BBC reported that the Defence Secretary recently opened a training school for the Buddhist Brigade. He spoke of the trainees’ purpose to "protect our country, religion and race". Similarly, the security forces have been accused of allowing violence to take place. These incidents point to a growing influence in government.
Far right religious nationalism is growing in South Asia. Fuelled by the experience of colonialism, the resulting internal tensions since independence, and powerful civil society movements. In India, the strength of religious nationalism and its associated far-right movements has started to recover after its decline in the 2000s. In Burma and Sri Lanka, long and bitter civil wars pitting communities against each other continue to play out, with authoritarian governments trying their best to turn these developments to their advantage. Whether other popular movements will be able to become established and counter the rise of the far right is still something that remains to be seen.