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South Asian Conference on Fundamentalism & Communnalism

(Talk delivered at Dhaka on June 01-02, 2001)


I believe I reflect the sentiments of almost all people assembled here for this Conference when I say that its importance can hardly be over-estimated by the South Asian family - regardless of individual perceptions, predilections or persuasions. It is ‘timely’; because, unless all concerned who have a horror of fundamentalism start uniting and mobilizing their resources to fight this scourge they will find that it is only a matter of time before they too are engulfed in its onward march. During the discussions many will be using the terms fundamentalism, militancy, religious bigotry, religious dogmatism, and the like with precision - related to the context of what the speaker wishes to project - or in other cases, loosely and imprecisely.

Therefore, at the outset, this writer would like to give out his understanding of what constitutes the essence of fundamentalism or any of the connected terms that have just been mentioned. Simply put, in its broadest sense, fundamentalism can be described for the purposes of this discussion as any system or group that seeks to impose its own values and beliefs on other people through coercion or violence. Any system or regime that demands absolute conformity in thought, conduct, mode of dress and the like and that which continues to enforce its tenets through violence or the whip to the exclusion of all other beliefs, values or modes of conduct is fundamentally abhorrent to human dignity and progress.

It is easy to create fervour through militant or militaristic propaganda and fanaticise a population through coercion as has been demonstrated in almost all societies through the ages. History is replete with many such examples. It is not necessary to go very much back in time. The twentieth century - just left behind - provides many illustrations. Take the case of the Nazis in Germany, from the middle of the twentieth century. Did they not start off in the same manner as most fundamentalist dispensations of today? They brought discipline, dogma and militarisation into their creed and ended up by herding the German populace into a mental straitjacket that could not tolerate any ideas other than those propagated by Nazi ideology. Did not the same thing happen during the ‘cultural revolution’ in China where even an indoctrinated communist society, already inured to a monolithic creed, was horrified by the excesses of the rampaging cadres that were let loose upon them. Iran went through a similar turbulence.

I dare say, and many would agree with me, that the process of ‘talibanisation’ of society that is sought to be imposed in parts of South Asia has many similarities with what happened on those earlier occasions. Here talibanisation is being used as a generic term for the 21st Century to distinguish it from what went before because, in its own way, and in spite of the similarities it is a new phenomenon, unique in many respects.


Such fundamentalist groupings, irrespective of hue, generally reserve their harshest brutalities for the weakest segments of their societies, the women. The women of Afghanistan who suffered the most in the war-ravaged countryside are being brutally crushed as never before. It may not be long before the same treatment is extended to the liberated segments of Pakistan society - a far cry from the dream of Pakistan's founding father. It has taken the military and the mullahs just fifty years to turn his legacy on its head. Here is what Mr. Jinnah had to say on the status of women:

" No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you; we are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live." (Emphasis added).

Pakistan's founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, in a speech in 1944.

As reported in the press (The Statesman, July 30, 2000) the recent arrest and imprisonment of an American grandmother - Mary MacMakin, 72, who spent 24 years as an aid worker and set up the Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Support for Afghanistan (PARSA) in 1996 - signaled the start of a new wave of repression by the Islamic regime. She blames the development on the Taliban's heavy casualties in its annual summer offensive in the north. "Its put them in a bad mood and they are taking it out on women".

The mobilisation of religious orthodoxy for giving battle to an entrenched ideology (communism), in a country under occupation (Afghanistan), makes an interesting case study in itself. Of greater interest at the present time is the study of the chilling transformation that was engineered in the purely 'defensive' mobilisation of the religious orthodoxy (for vacating aggression) to one of 'offensive' religious fundamentalism with pan-Islamic overtones, capable of conducting terrorism on a global scale. Religious mobilisation by itself, however, could not have succeeded in repelling aggression without massive military and financial assistance. Circumstances have since changed. Global alignments have changed. Foes have turned into friends; if not in South Asia, at least in several other parts of the world.

The silent majority of the people in Pakistan have been watching with dismay the gradual erosion of their liberties. The educated elite hope that world opinion will come to their rescue should things really get out of hand. These are vain hopes, of people unable to bestir themselves to oppose the creeping talibanisation overtaking their land. They too have had ample warning. Should they fail to mobilise themselves to defeat the jehadis, while they are able to, they might have to meet the fate of the women of Afghanistan. The monsters being nurtured for cross border terrorism could well turn upon them one fine day. It has happened before, it can happen again. It would be facile for the world at large to dismiss the hydra/headed monster being spawned in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a regional problem affecting India, South Asia, and the Central Asian Republics and some other neighbouring countries. While it is a major problem for the neighbours the global dimension of the problem is equally important.


An even deadlier menace is emerging from Afghanistan and Pakistan, namely, criminals committed for heinous offences are being promised their freedom should they undertake killings across the border. Not infrequently their targets turn out to be defenseless women and children, victims of indiscriminate bombings in the market place. It calls for not only international condemnation in the strongest terms, but suo motu action by the International Criminal Court, Interpol and other concerned international agencies.

At the moment the activity is mostly directed against India and a few other countries where the jehadis are active. If it remains unchecked, it is only a matter of time before these criminals are let loose on civilised society anywhere. It needs to be understood that criminals who have committed heinous crimes generally have psychopathic tendencies. Letting loose such individuals amongst law-abiding citizens should be deemed a crime against humanity. The guilt for such crimes rests with heads of organisations that use them for such ends as well as the heads of the concerned governments. They are as guilty as the criminals committing the outrages. Their prosecution should be authorised by the concerned international courts and international warrants for their arrest issued accordingly. It is one thing if underground 'criminal' organisations indulge in such activities. It is an entirely different matter if 'states' permit them as state policy. Should the international community not address the issue urgently the world may well witness an increase of this phenomenon - worldwide.


While Kashmir continues to be a convenient casus belli, the religious significance is deeper, not only for India, but for the world as well. The fundamentalist variety of Islam, except on the fringes, was not a natural phenomenon in the modern era on the subcontinent. It became a religious ploy that suited interested groups in Pakistan, a sure-fire remedy for keeping them in business. The difference being that the rabidity at the fringes could become the norm should the world not act decisively. The combine in power, with military support from China, could soon be in a position to raise the nuclear ante at the subcontinental or global levels.

The Kashmir valley was not a territorial prize per se. For the first set of raiders in 1947 the real prize was loot and rape. For their successors the prize is the quality referred to as 'Kashmiriyat'. A unique blend of sufi mysticism, religious tolerance and a liberal, joyous outlook on life that would be anathema to religious fundamentalists anywhere. They cannot accept 'a heaven on earth' with gurgling springs, laughing belles, haunting melodies and joie de vivre that over the centuries symbolised the beautiful Vale of Kashmir. A religious harmony that was a living challenge to their fundamentalism. For the A-P fundamentalists it became their poisoned chalice. Were it to be allowed to continue to blossom, its heady fragrance of a tolerant, humanising creed would imperil their hold. The two are incompatible. Kashmiriyat had to be destroyed, whatever the cost. Kashmir is the red herring. Even there, demographic swamping in Pakistan occupied Kashmir and the so-called Northern Areas (Gilgit, Baltistan) directly administered from Islamabad has considerably altered the demographic dynamic. Not to mention the ethnic cleansing that has been engineered through terrorist acts across the border.

" Is the world seriously expecting India to countenance with equanimity the talibanisation of the Vale of Kashmir"! Three supplementary questions suggest themselves: “Has the talibanisation of Afghanistan brought peace and prosperity to Afghanistan or the region”? Next, “Has the creeping talibanisation of the Pakistan Army brought peace and prosperity to Pakistan or the region? And lastly, “Will the hypothetical talibanisation of the Vale of Kashmir bring prosperity to Kashmir or the region?


Historians writing about the French Revolution make the point that the disoriented people of France - nearly 27 million of them - allowed Robespierre and his small band of followers to actually coerce them through terror into accepting his dictatorship. What followed is well known. Over a quarter million people were sent to jail and about forty thousand guillotined after mock trials. When the people finally mustered the will to stand up it was found that at the outset the hard core had consisted of just a handful of people, precisely twenty-two. The people of Pakistan and, for that matter, law abiding citizens everywhere who see a gradual erosion of their freedoms under jehad type dispensations must realise that they alone are the guardians of their liberty. If they do not organise themselves to resist terror when it 'first' starts manifesting itself they too could go under one day.
In fact there are not many places left in the world, besides India, where the ordinary Pakistani is welcome. Who is to blame for this state of affairs? The military, the mullahs or the average Pakistani citizen for not standing up! Unless the people of Pakistan themselves decide to throw off their yoke the world could well decide to leave them to their fate.

The diplomatic isolation, which is a recent phenomenon, could become a permanent fixture should the military-mullah combine continue to brandish its new found nuclear might. It is not adding to their stature. Only making the world aware of the need for concerted global action. Even a statesman of the stature of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore was apprehensive on account of the growing fanaticism. After referring to the travel possibilities of Pakistan’s “Muslim” nuclear weapon, Mr. Lee is reported to have said in an interview published recently in The Washington Times:

“ Rational people don’t worry me. China is rational, so is India, America, Europe and the rest of the world. But not the Islamic fundamentalist elements. I am very worried because this fanaticism is growing in Indonesia which is next door to us”. (The Hindu, May 20, 2001).

Mr. Lee Kuan Yew does not hold a brief for India, China or anyone else in the world. The remarks of the elder statesman from a country situated close to South Asia should be taken seriously by South Asian society. In the global consciousness Bangladesh is not yet linked to fundamentalism. Hence the world in general looks benignly at Bangladesh. Should there be a rise of fundamentalist elements in Bangladesh as well it would be many decades before Bangladesh got back into the global mainstream.

The world of the 21st century cannot countenance the barbaric practices of earlier eras of human history where women were trampled under foot as a matter of course. It cannot remain a mute witness to institutionalised savagery on any segment of the population. In cases where it is undertaken as a policy sanctified by religion or any other dispensation of a similar nature it has to be fought by the global community as a whole. Inhuman practices from the dark ages enforced upon hapless citizens through brutality and terror demand that the perpetrators of these misdeeds on women and children be themselves brought to book. A distinguished writer had this to say on the subject:

" Please do not try to find points of contact with barbarism".

India International Centre Quarterly, Spring 2000, p.31

Instead of 'trying to find points of contact with barbarism' the answer would lie in demanding compliance with global norms for the treatment of women before any aid is dispensed in the region. Aid would become conditional to educational institutions being set up for women with the help of global agencies in demarcated compounds. Aid sent to tyrannical regimes of this nature first invariably fattens the tyrants and only leftovers are made available to the remainder.

This is not simply a matter concerning any given country where fanatical elements have seized power through violence. Whatever the initial justification, it ceases to have relevance where the medieval codes have to be continuously enforced through coercive action - with the greatest vehemence against women. If given the freedom to choose, the majority of the women under the Taliban dispensation would unhesitatingly be glad to remove the yoke.

Put more succinctly: "the crisis facing the subcontinent and points north, west and east is no longer limited to the question of territorial adjustments. It has assumed the larger ideological dimension of militant Islam versus liberal Islam". The absence of any real democracy, proliferation of small arms, and easy access to drug money have all played their part in keeping the region on the boil. Up till now the brunt has been largely borne by India because Pakistan was able to convince the Western world that the problem related to Kashmir and nothing else. It took full fifty years for the rest of the world to come to the same conclusion as the Government of India, that Kashmir provided a convenient camouflage for the larger game plan. By the time the realisation came the elements pushing the fundamentalist creed had been immeasurably strengthened. When the West saw the light of day it was almost too late.

It would be facile, and possibly tragic to call the struggle that will follow as a 'clash of civilisations'. It is certainly not the case. To give a civilisational veneer to the indoctrinated fanatics spilling out of the madrasas in Pakistan and elsewhere or those who mastermind the terror would not only be a travesty of fact but a monumental error of judgment. Should the highly imaginative theory going by that name gain currency it could deal a body blow to Islam, not only in South Asia, in many other parts of the world as well.

India is perhaps the only country that can prevent that tragic outcome. Regardless of its differences with its hostile neighbour to its west it is home to nearly 130 million Muslims and any number of illegal migrants who keep pouring across the borders in search of a better life. Without saying so openly many Pakistanis, not wedded to militancy, do privately admit that India remains the only real bulwark against the terminal madness engulfing their state. Thus while the world puts into effect the tough measures to contain the menace emanating from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, India's efforts - besides toughening its stance against terrorism - should be directed towards strengthening liberal Islam in India and the subcontinent.

It is not simply a coincidence that for over fifty years the brunt of the menace of terrorism has been borne by the few million people of the beautiful Kashmir Valley. It continues to remain the focus of the jehadis. The reason has been alluded to earlier in the paper. The Valley, in a manner of speaking, was a shining example of the Sufi spirit in India. The militant beast comes not to ravish the beauty, but to destroy it. The tragic tale unfolds poignantly in the Akshara Theatre, New Delhi documentary, The Kashmir Story and docudrama, The Sufi Way. If the beauty perishes Kashmir perishes. Should the beauty remain the beast is slain.


Those at the helm of affairs in India have also to realise that Islam, although a transplant, helped to create one of the most magnificent Islamic heritages of the past thousand years. Beyond the killings and suppression of the adherents of the older Indian faiths lay the synthesis of a unique blend that led to a cultural efflorescence, the parallel to which would be difficult to find except in the European renaissance. Hence, an essential element of the fight against Islamic militants which India, the Central Asian Republics and other countries facing this threat may have been neglecting - by concentrating solely on the military dimension - is the need to strengthen liberal elements at the grass roots. India has to take the lead in preventing the jehadisation of Islam.

The vast majority of ordinary Muslims do not wish to see their religion degraded in this fashion. They have failed to organise themselves against the fanatical fringes in their respective countries, simply because the latter happen to have embraced terror. The excerpt that follows sums up the situation admirably:

" Yet, for all the cruelty and obscurantism associated with religion, hidden within the great traditions of faith are precious resources for the future welfare of humanity and these are too important to be abandoned to the extremists"(Emphasis added).

Marcus Braybrooke, IIC Quarterly, Spring, 2000.

Extremism can only be established through extreme violence visited upon innocent, law-abiding people. Once established it can be perpetuated only through mindless savagery. Exactly what is being witnessed in Afghanistan; and that which is sought to be imposed on parts of Kashmir. But the world has just started emerging from one dark tunnel of this nature. Thirty years ago the experiment of extremism was tried out in Iran, although the case of Iran was very different. Nonetheless, after decades of suffering the people have had enough of the draconian enforcement codes. They have started mustering the courage to start protesting. They have a long road ahead.
Nobody, however, doubts that a moderate and tolerant regime, which is the natural state for any civilised society, will eventually be established in Iran. Do the people of Pakistan, who still haven't gone under as a country, wish to again enter the dark tunnel. The difference would be that this particular tunnel might have a blocked exit. The Iranians have started seeing the light. Iranian reformers have started openly accusing their government of past excesses:

" Your management of the judiciary in the past several months has not only created hopelessness among the people, but it is also leading to a future full of anxiety and apprehension". (Emphasis added). {The Pro-reform Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF), in an open letter to the Judiciary. (Times of India, July 17, 2000)}
The people of Pakistan, mainly on account of apathy and inertia, are entering the region of darkness. India might no longer be interested in pulling them out at the other end. The words that follow have been spoken by a Pakistani:

"perhaps does not realise that a sovereign Pakistan will go more swiftly to its doom than a Pakistan restrained by its external obligations".

Khaled Ahmed, Lahore based journalist, writing in The Pioneer, July 15, 2000.


The moderate leader of Iran, President Khatami, in a moment of eloquence, spoke of a 'Dialogue of the Civilisations'. It was widely reported in the world press after the interview to an American television chain. Wise words from a wise leader, aware of the difficulties that will have to be surmounted in mitigating the hardships to his people, resulting from past excesses. The even greater difficulty of prising loose from the vice-like grip of the self-anointed repositories of the ultimate wisdom, the draconian powers still wielded by them. The question is not only relevant for Islam but for the world that has achieved scientific breakthroughs of a type that could not have been even remotely guessed at by the founders of the great religions of the world.

Therefore, should the moderate and the liberal elements amongst the people of the region practicing Islam succeed in overcoming their more obscurantist counterparts whose practice of the great religion begins and ends with the whip the prospect for global harmony would be immensely strengthened.

Should the powers who are in a position to influence events in the region temporarily sink their differences to neutralise the menace emanating from it so that not even a residual strain remains the world of the 21st century would start looking a different place. Were a condition of stability to prevail the advantages that would accrue to almost every country are inconceivable at the present juncture.

First and foremost, like the days of yore, Marco Polo type of journeys along the Silk Route would be possible, to and fro, across the vast Central Asian expanse for people from the north, south, east and west. A family from Vietnam could plan to drive to Helsinki, a Chinese family to London, a Swedish family to Goa. The possibilities for easier travel across the Eurasian landmass are endless. The economic benefits unsurpassable. Fifty years down the road national boundaries would only be delineated on maps. The kabuliwallah of the subcontinental folklore of an earlier era would again roam freely in the bazaars of Bombay, Calcutta and even Shanghai. The Ladakhi would be able to cross Tibet in peace and reach Korea, if he wished to do so.

The Central Asian Republics could become a loose confederation along the lines of the European Union, sharing their oil and water for the benefit of the region as a whole. Pipelines could be laid from anywhere to anywhere, following alignments that were economically and ecologically the best options, bringing prosperity in their wake from the Caspian Sea to Colombo.

The 'Demilitarisation of the Himalayas as an Ecological Imperative' could commence within the next two to three years. The proposal put forward by the Ecology Monitors Society in November 1998 at an international conference held at New Delhi could then be progressed with greater confidence.

Each one of these aspects which might appear to be unachievable now takes on a different hue once the true measure of a demilitarised, 'de-fundamentalised' South Asian society are viewed from the perspective outlined above. By just excising the cancer from Afghanistan and Pakistan – a seemingly tall order just yet - a dozen other trouble spots will subside. The vista that could then open out for Central and South Asia would be truly magnificent.


Religion is being used as a tool for the most irreligious mayhem in the world. The problem will have to be dealt with globally at several levels. People who underestimate the potential of the menace being introduced into the global blood stream should recall how a mere handful of terrorists without the means of mass destruction available to them in the 1970s and 80s were able to create havoc in some of the most advanced societies in the world. In the present case the state itself becomes the master terrorist. Compared to that earlier period the evil being spawned now is several orders of magnitude more horrid than what went before. When the jehadis get hold of low yield suitcase nuclear devices - and it is only a matter of time before they do - the world will realise the folly of its inaction when the evil could have been nipped in the bud.

The Great Game is over. It has nearly gotten out of the hands of the powers that be. In the era of weapons of mass destruction almost all the big games are over. Only foolish people, die-hard diplomats from an earlier period, or the uniformed fraternity can really think of playing games on a global scale.

It is time to take stock.

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