Roots of South Asian rage, from cricket to war

Updated February 16, 2015

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This piece is about the debilitating trends of three South Asian nations which can give the world a pounding headache.
This piece is about the debilitating trends of three South Asian nations which can give the world a pounding headache.

After Bangladesh lost the 2012 Asia Cup title to Pakistan, the Bangladeshi premier, Hasina Wajed claimed in an interview to a local daily Amardesh that her country could have won the final had “lovers of ISI and Pakistan” not come to the stadium to see the match.

It was a derogatory reference to the BNP leader and former Bangladeshi PM Khaleda Zia’s presence at the occasion. How exactly could one person or party’s presence affect the outcome of the match was not explained.

These were not just the remarks of a livid politician, heartbroken by her country’s defeat — granted that earlier, during the final minutes of the match, she broke down into tears — but from the tone of the interview, it was clear that she meant what she said.

Bitter rivalry between Hasina Wajed’s Awami League and Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh National Party now threatens not only to polarise the society, but to cause more violence, destabilise the country’s struggling democracy again, and in doing so, also strengthen religious radicals.

Some Bangladesh watchers view it as an extension of the India-Pakistan confrontation that never ceases to exist.

The India-Pakistan hostility has a life of its own.

Since I began this piece by narrating a cricket anecdote here is another one for you:

The Pakistan Cricket team was in India from December 25, 2012 to January 6, 2013 for a cricket tour that took place after a 5-year hiatus.

Comprising of two T20 matches and three ODIs, this tour went in Pakistan’s favour as its team after the drawn T20 series managed to win the ODI series.

The last match was played on January 6 and within hours, violence broke out between the two nuclear rivals across the Line of Control in the troubled Kashmir region.

It wasn’t the first time such a development took place after a cricket match between the two countries. People who have served in places like Siachen often speak of similar skirmishes, following a win or loss in matches.

Cricket in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh is not just a game. It is politics. Almost everything else here is too.

And there lies the tragic flaw that threatens to undermine the great potential of this otherwise gifted region.

This piece is about the debilitating trends of the three nations of South Asia which once were together and how, if allowed to grow unchecked, these trends can give the world a pounding headache.

Please notice that while eight countries are now officially a part of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), it is the instability within these three that destroy the entire region and the SAARC initiatives.

The madness within

Books upon books have been written on the creation of these three nations, most of which narrate harrowing tales of the bloodbath in 1947.

In their book Freedom at Midnight, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre tell about the human toll and suffering.

Whenever communities fought they took it out on the women and children. Collins and Lapierre mention episodes of violence where hordes of women from the opposite community were forced to run around naked; their mutilated bodies slowly very slow deaths.

The corpses of newborns and toddlers were brandished about atop spears.

This wasn’t peculiar to one community; this was what the people of these countries were capable of when angry.

The madness witnessed before and during the days of independence never quite went away. It was only suppressed as the focus shifted to the more pressing issues of state formation.

Hate, cruelty, misogyny, infanticide all still lurk quietly in the corners of public subconscious, and stage a comeback whenever law and order breaks down.

An estimate 200,000-500,000 thousand lives were lost in this carnival of hate witnessed in the religious riots in Punjab alone. According to UNHCR’s estimate, some 14 million Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims were displaced during these riots in 1947.

While the division of a country is painful in itself, what exactly forced people, of more less the same racial stock, to turn on each other in such violent manner?

Something similar was witnessed during the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. While Pakistani and Bangladeshi sources differ wildly on the responsibility of the violence they both agree on the nature of it all.

The year 1971 witnessed a mass massacre of the worst sort. Let me also point out that this wasn’t for the first time such episodes had occurred in Punjab or Bengal, divided and undivided.

The original sin

In a violent pre-modern society, 90 years are nothing when it comes to the evolution of indigenous political thought.

India, which was ruled by various kings and emperors, many of them of foreign origin, through repression knew only a tense calm. Then, during the last days of the Mughal era, it was invaded by the British colonial forces.

In a fractured society, political thought worked on a subconscious level. And when after the failed rebellion of 1857, it raised its head again, it internalised the elements of communal hatred.

I am sure the divide between the religious communities must have been actively encouraged by the colonial masters. But mostly, it was the pre-Mughal era misgivings that resurfaced in the disjointed society.

Before and during the division of the subcontinent, the newly emerging political establishments of India and Pakistan allowed religion to be used as a weapon of hate and violence.

From Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Akali Dal to unnamed Muslim tribals, the communities were torn apart. The bloodbath ensued. And despite the criminalisation of the polities, when the new states emerged they did not punish the criminals; at best ignoring them, at worst using them in a narrow pursuit of state interest.

The Indian side used RSS in Kashmir, and Pakistan sent its fundamentalist tribals to strengthen its position.

That is precisely why after 68 years of independence extremists on both sides are, to this day, exacting their pound of flesh.

The British role is important here too. At the time of their departure, our colonial ex-masters should have known that East and West Pakistan could never work as a viable unity. Instead of dividing Bengal and Punjab, they should have ensured that Bengal emerged as an independent unity.

That never happened.

The unfinished agenda of the partition and independence shed more blood in 1971, and continues to do so in Kashmir and adjoining areas.

The nature of fractured societies

I have grown up listening to the intellectuals and the religious class, both at home and abroad telling us how unviable the Pakistani state and society are.

Such a wide mix of varied nationalities we are told, lack the common thread to keep them united.

But, if truth be told, Pakistan is merely a microcosm. You want to try out the actual viability challenge? Look at India, which compounds the problem with numerous others of its own. It is a huge country.

During the Mughal era and the colonial times, regardless of whatever passes for nation building were taking place, at no point was there a part of India that was not revolting, parting ways and through many methods of repression, being brought back to union.

When you have so many nationalities clubbed together this is bound to happen. That realization, and its resulting fear and vulnerability, is the heart of darkness in these South Asian states.

They simply do not trust their people and use one method or another to force them to subjugation. These methods range from brutal use of force to the use of propaganda and the use of soft power. Even today, there are many insurgencies in India and Pakistan.

But apart from the sub-national fractures there are many others.

Pakistani society was essentially of a pre-modern feudal character. In such societies, class difference is very pronounced.

But India had bigger demons of its own. One is communal that has been highlighted above. The other is of the caste system. When feudal, tribal, communal and caste divides are mixed you have on your hands a terrible recipe for disaster.

What is more, both countries have a population control problem.

With 1.2 billion people, India is significantly bigger. Narendra Modi euphemisms like demographic dividend. However, when a state with archaic bureaucracy is supposed to take care of such a large population, it is bound to fail.

You have heard a lot about India’s GDP growth. However, when you look at the per capita GDP and human development in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, you will feel ashamed.

These are poor societies where the states and political classes allow caste, creed and class to be used to keep the population under control — the result of this simmering frustration is hatred and extremism.

While Pakistan and Bangladesh have paid and are still paying massive prices for placating such perverse trends, India is gradually losing control to the extremist monster, a tragedy it hasn’t realised yet.

The Hindutva campaigns “love jihad”, “ghar wapsi” (a homecoming euphemism for mass conversion to Hinduism), “bahu lao-beti bachao”(bring daughters-in-law from other communities but save your daughters from them) are a sign of this extremism.

The fate of the three founding fathers

Mohandas Gandhi reverently remembered by the Indians as Bapu (father), was the moving force behind the Indian freedom movement; he was killed early 1948 shortly after the independence by a religious extremist.

Pakistan’s founding father Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah is said to have died of natural causes but under suspicious circumstances in an abandoned ambulance in 1948.

Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman also known to his people as Banglabandhu (friend of Bengal) was killed by coup makers on India’s Independence Day in 1975, only a few years after his own country’s independence.

Within no time after the emergence of these nations on the world stage, the madness within had consumed their father figures. That should tell you a thing or two about the perils of these retrogressive trends.

What remained was up for grabs.

India was relatively luckier that it got an able ruler in Jawahurlal Nehru who stayed in power for a considerable time. But as he had chosen a socialist model, steeped in denial, to govern the country it meant there would be big government, fattened by an extractive bureaucracy, pre-modern if exploitative capitalism. And so, the poverty, mercantilism, hate and extremism never really went away, it was only papered over for a little while.

Two Zias and one Maududi

Before Zia-ul-Haq imposed his martial law in Pakistan, another General Zia managed to take over in Bangladesh.

Major General Ziaur Rahman became the first martial law administrator of Bangladesh in November 1976. In July, General Zia-ul-Haq took over in Pakistan.

Both Zia’s allowed the religious undercurrents to be formalised through constitutional amendments and alliances primarily because their predecessors were closer to secularism.

Before General Zia, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had already made this task easier by pandering to the religious right. But what was to follow, radicalised Pakistan beyond recognition.

Looking for political support, Haq built an ideological alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami, books of whose founder Maulana Abul Aala Maududi, found place in military libraries and the Services Book Club.

The religious influence thus obtained was employed in training and exporting the militant killing machine in the shape of the Mujahideen to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation.

Our generation knows Maududi as an intelligent, well-informed and politically savvy cleric. But, he was much more than that. And here lies the troubling weakness of the modern political Islam as it exists in Pakistan.

The Maulana never received formal religious education. His knowledge of Islam, while commendable in some aspects was mostly self-taught. Ambitious as he was, he entered his study with preconceived notions and overlooked apolitical nuances that were embedded in the educational fabric of the seminaries of that time.

To Maududi, everything in Islam was political.

The purpose of the state of Pakistan, which he opposed until its very creation, was to enforce his brand of political Islam.

The Jamaat-e-Islami played a troubling role in the war that was fought by the Bangladeshis to win independence. It was later banned for having sided with the Pakistani state in the fight.

Ziaur Rahman and later, his wife Khaleda Zia were to ease pressure on this religious group and build alliances. So deeply entrenched is the JI’s influence in Pakistan and Bangladesh that even the secular Pakistan People’s Party and the Awami League of Bangladesh occasionally had to build tactical alliances with it.

From South Asia, the JI’s influence was to spread throughout the world where, along with Sayyed Qutb’s ideology, it was to nurture monsters like al Qaeda and its affiliates.

Imperial hubris and the need for outside validation

This may sound strange but both India and Pakistan often have an attack of imperial hubris; both have nuclear arsenals at their disposal.

While India sees itself playing an influential role at the global stage, Pakistan considers itself a heavyweight of the Muslim world being the only nuclear power there is.

India has even tricked itself into believing that its moment has arrived and its expected role is to confront the rapidly emerging China.

This is an interesting perspective but fails to take into account the changing rules of the game. The world is a changed place and now it is economic, not political considerations, that play the major role. And, though a political world order could not come to terms with multipolarity, economic order can.

Remember, China over the years has shown keen interest in reforming itself. So the perception of a clash goes out of the window.

Still not convinced?

Just open a search engine and look up the per capita GDP and the position on the human development index of Norway, United States, China, India and Pakistan — the contrast will shock you.

Pakistan’s situation is even more precarious; it is almost a stranger in the Muslim world. Had both countries, instead of their craze for military hardware, spent more money on human and resource development they wouldn’t have needed to frantically remind the world that they are important. However, since the colonial times, both nations have an insatiable need for external validation, which keeps bringing them ever so dangerously close to self-immolation.

Of vicious ruling elites and insensitive states

Pakistan, India and Bangladesh were all once ruled by a colonial power. This left a dangerous colonial imprint behind.

The national institutions that were inherited from the colonial era were extractive in nature. Not much was done to change the nature of these institutions. And, where it was need of our former colonial masters to weaken the polity through communal strife (consider the post-1857 British policies), their successors in the new states continued to use same methods with great diligence to their own narrow-minded ends. Hence, the strife in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, the states here opted for the easiest route and kept pretending that no such thing existed; as a consequence, people die every day.

The way out

These South Asian countries can progress if they stop taking politics so seriously, and focus instead on development, particularly human development.

The India-Pakistan confrontation strengthens radicals on both sides; they will have to mend fences.

In Bangladesh, the tiff between the AL and the BNP is empowering fundamentalists and terror apologists.

If all these countries do not stop playing with fire and placating extremist, superstitious and violent forces, their very existence may be in jeopardy.

In addition, all three will have to realise that in attempting to destabilise others, they will more often than not, destabilize themselves.

Pakistan is, at the moment, at least trying to reverse the trend. The other two appear to still be in denial.