Thursday, April 14, 2011
Whether led by mature middle-class people or otherwise, the extremist religious movements draw most of their following from the new urbanite classes. In most cases, they have become the source of religious violence
Pakistanis must ask a central
question: were we really tolerant people before Zia’s Islamisation or we were only naively indolent, prone to be violent at any moment? It is a common belief in Pakistan that when Zia, alongside the US, created violent jihadi organisations, they created hysteria in the public with narrow-mindedness ruling and people killing for frivolous reasons. Two questions come to mind about this explanation. One, were we really consciously ever a tolerant society for the jihadis to destroy? And two, how can we use this explanation to explain the parallel rise of extremist political Hinduism in India?
While talking about the killing fields that jihadis have created, we forget that the carnage of 1947 in Punjab cost more lives than the total number of people killed by jihadi violence in the last 20 years in Pakistan. Everyone blames the people of ‘other religions’ for the 1947 tragedy but, wherever Muslims were in overwhelming majority, they killed Sikhs and Hindus. Conversely, they faced the same treatment in areas where they were a minority. Amrita Pritam rightly said, “Aaj sabhay Kaidoo hu gaiy, husan ishaq de chor” (Today, everyone has turned into a villain, enemy of love). What happened in 1947 is closely linked to what is happening now and what occurred in east Punjab’s Khalistan Movement, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
Most of the 1947 killings were concentrated in the rural areas; there were some in urban centres but they were limited. Most of the stories I have heard from Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs migrating from Pakistan indicate that the urban non-Muslims did not lose their family members while the stories from the rural areas are horror tales. One of my maternal uncles was killed in a village in Gurdaspur but at the same time none of the two neighbouring village’s Sikhs were spared — entire villages were murdered. How can so-called innocent rural people become murderous?
It can be argued that from the second to third centuries, the way the Gupta dynasty established self-sufficient but desolate and isolated village communities contributed to the religious violence of 1947, and even presently. When the Maurya Dynasty’s state ownership of entire land and manufacturing became unsustainable, it was replaced by self-sufficient village communities. Every community was required by the king’s law to have all kinds of artisans who were given a little land, residential and agricultural, and fixed shares of peasant produce. Consequently, the village communities had no need or desire to interact with other communities or reach beyond their own. Only a few traders and vendors were the link between the village and the rest of the world. The vendor, or vanjara in Punjabi, became a hero in folk songs because he was the only link with the outside world.
Due to the total absence of interaction and exchange of thought with the rest of the world, the village communities became lonesome entities. Mental horizons shrank and one generation of people was replaced with an identical next one. The village was considered a homeland or country whose honour was to be protected. This is why, during inter-village festivals, people would carry weapons as the possibility of war between the people of different villages was very real.
In eastern Punjab, some village communities were comprised of people of all religions but, when the British colonised western Punjab through an irrigation system, the village communities were established exclusively on religious basis. Therefore, another layer of separation was put in place where people of one religion became aliens for the other. The British education system did not mitigate such a separation because of the imposition of Urdu and denial of Punjabi identity. As a result, Sikhs limited themselves to the Gurmukhi script and Muslims to the Persian script. This was another fundamental divide created by the British. In Sindh, where Sindhi was made the official language and everyone used the same script, inter-religious hostility was a little less and did not lead to carnage in 1947. In the urban centres of Punjab where, despite furious religious political divides, the interaction between people was much better and the level of violence was also lower in 1947.
After the creation of India and Pakistan, the isolation of village communities continued. However, communal violence remained contained. It was tolerance by default and not a conscious decision made by the communities. However, when in 1970, mechanised farming, radio, TV and telephone made their way to village communities, 2,000 years of isolation were broken. A massive migration towards the urban areas started and in no time the cities swelled with the first generation of rural people. However, their thinking process, coming from thousands of years of isolation remained static, little altered or subverted. The contemporary cities of north India, including Pakistan, are overwhelmed by new urbanites who lack urban civic sensibility, and every town is entrapped in the worst kind of anarchy.
The old ideological mindset of the new urbanites was not sustainable in the changed environment. A vacuum of ideology emerged, which was readily filled with fundamentalist religious ideologies that were seemingly more rational than their semi-superstitious rural belief system. Whether led by mature middle-class people or otherwise, the extremist religious movements draw most of their following from the new urbanite classes. In most cases, they have become the source of religious violence.
It can be concluded that we were neither a consciously tolerant nor violent people — we were indifferent and isolated and therefore appeared to be tolerant of different faiths. As rural isolation ended and phenomenal urbanisation got underway, extremist religious movements emerged. The rise of the Khalistan Movement and the Hindu Saffron Movement along with the jihadi upsurge in Pakistan are interlined with a common cause. It is true that Ziaul Haq and the US used this emerging trend and turned it into a lethal force, but that is only one scene in a several acts stage play. Furthermore, Ziaul Haq was also a product of changing circumstances — we should not forget that Islamisation was initiated by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who himself was a staunch secular person. His embracing of Islamisation shows that the socio-economic conditions were too powerful to be resisted even by him.
The degenerative process could have been contained by good governance and an intellectually mature ruling class but that was not the case. It can still be done if the ruling elites understand what is going on and find ways to harness the energy of new urbanites.
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