Muhammad Abdul Bari asks why so much social and political turmoil is taking place in South Asia.
Is the historic Indian subcontinent, that was once a cradle of civilisation, facing another disaster along the lines of Indian Partition in 1947 or Bangladesh's bloody birth in 1971? So much disturbing news is coming from the region that many here - who can trace their roots back to that part of the world - are feeling very perturbed. And there are potential ramifications for us all.
South Asia is the home to about a quarter of humanity. It occupies a strategic geopolitical location. Yet from Pakistan to Burma, Bangladesh to Sri Lanka, it is - in parts - succumbing to chaos.
In the west of the region, Pakistan is the world's second largest Muslim country, marred for over a decade by sectarian violence. Its central government is weak and violent religious extremists butcher the minority Shia population, as well as launch attacks on Christians. With its apparent complicity in US drone attacks, which has killed hundreds of its own people (with a remarkably low success rate against genuine terrorists), the Pakistani government has miserably failed to protect its own citizens.
In the east lies Bangladesh. It is the world's third largest Muslim country and so far recognised as one of the 'moderates' in the world. However, it too is rapidly losing its way. Its post-liberation trauma ended with a two-party, family-owned democracy in the early 1990s, following earlier military rule. The ruling party, the Awami League, had a two-third parliamentary majority in the last election. Instead of using this for nation building it decided to punish its one-time political ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, for alleged war crimes of some of its leaders in the 1971 independence struggle. The Awami League did not raise this war crimes issue when previously in power (1992-95 and 1996-2001). This time it bulldozed a unilateral decision through Parliament to selectively punish Jamaat leaders.
Since then, the respected International Crisis Group painted a very bleak picture of the country in its June 2012 report "Bangladesh: Back to the future". Bangladesh is now going through a traumatic phase: the judiciary is known to be taking orders from the Government; ruling party cadres are mobbing the streets of major cities; politicised secular civil society is hiding behind recent Shabag protests and demanding death sentences for alleged war criminals from the public square; and the opposition Islamic party is not allowed to organise demonstrations. Meanwhile the government has signalled that it will ban the Islamic party and many institutions run by it. The situation has become toxic and the country could, literally, implode with these tensions.
Even further east, in Myanmar (Burma), some Buddhist monks have resorted to startling violence against Rohingya Muslims in the south-west Rakhine region. This hate-mongering of Buddhist religious leaders, calling Rohingya 'vipers in our laps', is a far cry from the Buddhist precept of avoiding harm to living creatures. The world community has now come to call the Rohingya people "one of the world's most persecuted minority groups." Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims are now internally displaced in a land where they had been living for hundreds of years; nearly one million are now treated as stateless by the Myanmar government. The irony is the Nobel Laureate and one-time political prisoner in Myanmar, Suu Kyi, has remained curiously silent on one of the most urgent humanitarian issues facing Burma.
In the south, in Sri Lanka, 26 years of civil war have brought into focus the human rights violations from both the Sinhalese-led central government and the separatist 'Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam'. The dangerous after-effects of this war (which the Tigers lost) has seen sections of the Sinhalese majority turning against minority religious groups. The recent call for halal boycott by a hardline vigilante Sinhalese Buddhist group is unheard of; Muslims constitute about one tenth of its population and have had historic good relations with the Sinhalese majority. There is shock at the recent turn of events.
In the middle, the giant India is holding its democracy together with enviable persistence, though there have been occasional violent outbursts by Hindu extremists against minority communities such as Dalits, Sikhs and Muslims. In recent decades orchestrated atrocities have tainted Indian democracy: the killings of thousands of Sikhs in retaliation to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguard; the demolition of the historic Babri mosque brick-by-brick in 1992 under the right-wing central government and ensuing inter-communal riots that resulted in at least 1,500 deaths; another spate of killings of Muslims in 2002 in Guajarat under a state government that failed to protect its minority citizens.
What's the State for?
Millions of people in this region are living, literally, a sub-human life. If political leaders fail to address socio-economic challenges South Asia will fail to rise above its current impasse.
There is a common thread here: the role of politics and civil society on the one hand and the influence of religion and place of secularism on the other. Three major world religions - Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam - are faced with major social challenges in this region.
Constructive political engagement and religious dialogue will be essential to strengthen civil society and protect these countries from the spectre of communal violence and political despotism. Otherwise high-level corruption and chauvinism, plus playing politics for short-term gain, will be fatal to the developing countries of South Asia and their once-burgeoning democracies.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, writer and freelance parenting consultant (www.amanaparenting.com). Follow him on Twitter: @MAbdulBari