South Asians sans prejudices
By Babar Ayaz
National, religious, ethnic, gender and caste prejudices fog people’s mind. Ability to think positively and rationally on issues serious is marred. Prejudices complicate the issues make their solutions difficult and at times bloodier. Whether it is inter-states tensions or wars, or internal conflicts the worst affected are the common people.
Not many people are enlightened enough to rise above such prejudices and see things not through jaundiced eyes. They have a humanist perspective. Their only litmus test to look at policies is whether they are good for common people, or not.
Meeting such enlightened humanists from South Asia in Colombo was reassuring that there are human rights activists who are fearlessly raising voice against violations of people’s rights of their respective countries. The opportunity was provided by South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR). Enlightened activists were invited by SAHR President Hina Jilani, from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Except for India, the democracy is in infancy in all the South Asian countries. The undemocratic means adopted by various players to resolve the internal conflicts needs to human rights violations hence the state of HR in these states should be assessed in that perspective.
Though the Indian democracy is almost 70 years yet human rights violations by the state and by the extremist groups have increased manifold in last few years. The Indian delegates are worried about the rising intolerance and religious extremism in the country. Modi’s government narrative has provided space to the non-state actors to preach extremism of Hindutva against the non-Hindu Indians which include the Dalits. During Modi’s election campaign it was evident that the extremist views and communal and ultra-nationalist politics. I had three opportunities to speak at various forums in India in the last 12 months, where I had to emphasise that Pakistan blundered to mix religion with politics from the very beginning and is now paying a heavy price in blood for making this lethal political formulation. India, I observed should learn from our mistakes as bringing religion in politics would breed intolerance in the society.
Today human rights activists around the world are worryingly looking at the rising tide of intolerance and shrinking space for freedom of expression in India. Leading intellectuals like Romila Thapar, Arundhati Roy and many artists have openly condemned the government for promoting intolerance in the society.
But I have been always optimist that there is a secular India beyond Modi’s Hindutva, as there is a peace-loving Pakistan beyond Hafiz Saeed’s Jihad. Let’s take a look at India’s religion-wise demography. According to the census 2001, out of 1028 million population, 80.5% are of Hindu religion, 13.4% are Muslim (latest survey shows Muslims sharing population has risen to around 14.6%), 2.3% are Christian, 1.9% Sikh, 0.80% Buddhist and 0.4% Jain. In addition, over 6 million have reported professing other religions and faiths including tribal religions, different from six main religions. In some of the states of the union the ratio of non-Hindu population is higher than 20%.
This is not all. Indian Dalits (oppressed the name adopted for schedule caste by Dalit leader) are a mixed population consisting of groups who speak different languages and practice different religions. Officially defined as schedule caste in India, they are are 16.6% and together with 8% schedule tribes they form 25% of India’s population. Though Dalit or schedule caste are classified as Hindus in the Indian official documents, the Dalit intellectuals from the architect of the Indian Constitution Dr. B. R. Ambekar to Kancha Ilaiah, the writer of ‘Why I am not a Hindu,’ have clearly maintained that Dalits are not Hindus, even the gods they pray to are not those of Brahmanism. “ (Kancha 2006). Now if we segregate 20% non-Hindu population and 25% of the Dalit and others, almost 45% of India’s population cannot be subjected to the Brahmanism/ Hindutva.
They were also vocal about human rights violations in Kashmir. A young journalist Alka stated that many Kashmiris have been picked up by the security agencies and their whereabouts are not known for years now. Wives of such people are suffering as they cannot claim their rights on their missing husband’s property. Tragically, such women are called half-widows.
The Sri Lankan human rights activists led by Dr. Nimalka Fernando had also similar stories about the victims of the long drawn war for Tamil’s rights. Though this war was declared over in 2009, the rehabilitation of Tamils is still an issue. Many Tamil fighters died in the war, their wives are running from pillar to post to claim their rights over the small property left behind by their husbands. Since they were in a state of war it is very difficult for Tamil women to produce the necessary papers proving their claims over the property. In the war for separation Tamil women fought shoulder to shoulder with men for their independence. But now these women are finding it hard to get married as the men do not want to marry the fighters for independence. In the South Asian culture men look for women who can be dominated and cannot stand up for their rights and fight.
Militarisation of Tamil areas is resulting in violation of local people rights. Many Tamils have been displaced and are now living in poor conditions. The government has promised compensation for Tamils who were affected by the long war, but there is not much to show on the ground. However Sri Lankan activists were hopeful that those who were involved in the systematic rape of Tamil women may now get punishments. Through their struggle the human rights activists of Sri Lanka managed to get a 25 years imprisonment sentence from the court against four soldiers who were involved in Tamil women’s rape.
Bangladesh is no different as its democracy history is as chequered as that of its cousin Pakistan. It is going through a struggle between the secular and Islamist forces. In this conflict both the state and the Islamist are violating human rights. Leading secular bloggers and activists have been murdered by the Islamists. On the other hand the state is sending 1971 independence war criminals to the gallows who belong to the Islamic parties. The judicial trials are attracting criticism from the human rights activists in Bangladesh and abroad.
Muktasree Chakma Sathi of Bangladesh was also critical of the militarisation of Chittagong Hill tracts (CHT) where local people have been struggling for their rights since the last many decades. Majority of these people are either Buddhist or have their tribal religions. To change the demography profile of the CHT, the government is settling Muslims in these areas. Almost 250,000 Rohingyas, who migrated from Burma because of their persecution, have been settled in CHT. Irony is that these very people who have been victims Myanmar are now victimising the local people of CHT.
Listening to them I could not help but to think that there is no difference between the devious tactics of rulers of the colonial period and the postcolonial states of the subcontinent. When solution of complex political, economic and social issues are left to the military their response have been equally erroneous in South Asia. Pakistan is no stranger to such tactics, we have seen that the establishment has encouraged proliferation of the Madaris in Balochistan where the people fighting for their rights are mostly secular. At the same time Balochistan nationalists suspect that the grand design to develop Gwadar Port is likely to bring many outsiders in the province which would turn the Baloch into a minority in their own province.
Nepalese activist Bidur Subedi observed that people were happy that the country has finally adopted a secular democratic constitution. He explained that the government has proposed amendments to meet the two main demands of Nepal’s Madhesi community: proportional representation in government and changes to the way electoral constituencies are drawn up. Though human rights activists were supportive of many demands made by Madhesis who live along the Indian border, they were also critical of India for instigating the unofficial blockade of Nepal. The worst affected of this blockade of landlocked Nepal, they pointed out are the poor people, as prices of goods have skyrocketed. And of course the beneficiaries are the smugglers and black-marketers.
Maldives activist Ismail Ibrahim was critical of the government highhandedness in dealing with the opposition and any dissent. They were also worried about rising religious extremism in the country. The lawlessness, they said, has increased drug trade and human trafficking in the country.
Afghanistan has suffered civil war the last 35 years. The country is bleeding at the hands of the Taliban. But that is not all the security forces are also violating human rights by indulging in extrajudicial killings, torturing and abducting people without any regard for their civil rights
Afghanistan delegate Palwasha Hasan explained that though women have more rights under the present government, many war lords’ forces are actually responsible for the excesses against the people. This lack of control of Kabul over most of the country gives Taliban an opportunity to win the people’s support. She also said that most of the people blame Pakistan for their distress as it has been supporting Taliban. Very few people in Afghanistan according to her know that people in Pakistan are by and large against supporting Taliban and do not want to meddle in any other country’s affairs.
This led to the proposal at the meeting that SAHR should organise more bilateral people-to-people meetings in which not the governments but the people’s perspective on the conflicts between the two states is known to each other. The issue of misunderstanding each other is not only the problem between the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is also evident when it comes to people of Pakistan and India, and Pakistan and Bangladesh. The presence of the dominant official perspective gives wrong signals to the people of these countries. Sadly the media mostly amplify only tainted official ultra-nationalist narratives in South Asia. It is only when people meet each other on an individual level or at non-official meetings and conferences they realise that at people-to-people level there is no animosity and if the foreign policies and national security policies would reflect the people’s aspirations most interstate conflicts could be resolved. It was thus agreed at the meeting that the South Asians who believe in peace should get-together and construct national security narrative from people’s perspective to challenge the one which is propagated by the obese war economy beneficiaries in the South Asian countries.
The writer can be reached at ayazbabar@gmail
He is author of ‘What’s Wrong With Pakistan?