Majoritarian politics in South Asia

From left: Dina Siddiqi, Professor of Anthropology at New York University and an expert on Bangladesh; Raza Rumi Ahmed, a Pakistani academic and Director of Park Center for Independent Journalism at Ithaca College; and Ravish Kumar, an award-winning author, and TV anchor in India
Monday, November 12, 2018

Majoritarian Politics in South Asia is a riveting issue, and in 2018, a particularly topical one. The South Asian Studies Council was pleased to host a panel discussion on October 22 with journalists and academics from the region offering their reflections on the subject. The panel brought together Ravish Kumar, an award-winning author, and TV anchor in India; Raza Rumi Ahmed, a Pakistani academic and Director of Park Center for Independent Journalism at Ithaca College; and Dina Siddiqi, Professor of Anthropology at New York University and an expert on Bangladesh. 

The discussion was moderated by our own Rohit De, Assistant Professor of History at Yale University. He began the discussion by flagging the importance of the topic today: at a time of a ‘surfeit of elections’ in South Asia, with all three countries having an unprecedented level of loud media houses and large public debates, questions on the nature of democracy grow more urgent. 

Dina Siddiqi opened her remarks by framing what she termed the “tamasha” of democracy and politics in Bangladesh, a word that resonated across everyone present. She spoke of the media clampdowns, the arrest of journalists like Shahidul Alam, and even the appropriation of recent movements against sexual misconduct in order to arrest and silence journalists critical of the Awami League. In her words, Bangladesh faced a form of ‘secular authoritarianism’, with the idea of the secular and the national performing clear and incontestable ideological tasks, almost a form of secular blasphemy. This scene, she argued, was complicated the politics of development aid, and of security politics and the specter of Islamic violence. Its most recent form has been the draconian Digital Security Act, that plays on the fear of the erosion of secularism. Siddiqi cautioned the audience, however, against forming a dichotomy of religious and secular violence, pointing out, for example, the violence of development that comes with certain forms of economic production widespread in Bangladesh. 

Raza Rumi spoke of similar dynamics in Pakistan, which, he argued, was facing a securitization of religion, nationalism and media freedoms. To Rumi, these problems are almost a continuation of colonial legal and political structural frameworks; South Asia was ‘locked in the colonial moment.’ He was incredulous over the fact that an 1861 act continues to have legal effect today. This, like in Bangladesh, was complicated by the fact that official frameworks are couched in Islamic terms, leaving space for discrimination. He also located strongmen and strongwomen in power today among a global trend, pointing to a region-wide clampdown on certain media freedoms. Together with the corporatization of media and the influx of a new neoliberal order, the capture of electoral processes and the undemocratic nature of the very political parties that participate in democracy, the picture painted by Ahmed was a foreboding one. 

Ravish Kumar had a number of wonderful insights from his own experience as a television anchor in India. He adroitly pointed out that majoritarian politics do not come with a nametag, but, through the re-writing of history, slowly change our mindsets. He referred throughout his talk, somewhat (but not entirely) tongue-in-cheek, to WhatsApp Universities or ‘WAUs’, that produced an unfaltering slew of memes without references that have replaced evidence-based 

discourse. The national syllabus of these WAUs, he claimed, was Hindu-Muslim conflict. The picture he painted was the academic’s (and the well-meaning citizen’s) nightmare: Nehru and Gandhi have been attacked and appropriated respectively as historical figures, Akbar is forgotten while Hindu leaders are vaulted, and BJP leaders and IT cells now recognize and use their own content. He lambasted PM Modi as the ‘Prime Historian of India’, but one not of history, but alt-history, which erases India’s recent past and speaks instead of a time when Muslim invaders ‘corrupted’ India. 

The result? Lynch mobs armed with a brazenness that fears neither karma nor justice, millions of voters fed information that makes them believe in the political correctness of subjugating Muslims, and even a change in how the opposition operates, with the Congress Party itself aiming to claim a piece of the ‘Hindu’ pie and be seen as a Hindu party. Ravish bemoaned the fact that no party has been willing or effective in standing up and opposing current trends, without which, he claimed, ordinary men and women can achieve little in terms of a traction-gaining alternative. 

Ultimately, all panel members agreed that the control of information was key to the trends across the region. Above all, they argued, the danger all three countries face is of a single narrative.