Archive for April 2019

By Sonia Sarkar

World’s largest democracy, India, is electing the representatives for its next Parliament but a large section of people in the Indian–administered Kashmir has chosen to boycott. Amid the unprecedented deployment of security forces and internet shut down, nobody came to vote at 122 polling booths in Kulgam of Anantnag constituency on Monday.  The trend was similar in other two constituencies – Srinagar and Baramulla.  No votes were cast in, at least, 107 polling booths there a fortnight ago.

Srinagar-based Asma Firdous, who had taken to streets against Indian security forces with Franz Kafka in her bag and stone in hand, refused to get her finger inked in the ongoing elections. This 26-year-old postgraduate student, who often chanted slogans of  “Azadi (freedom)” on the streets, says –“We don’t consider ourselves as Indians, nor do the Indians consider us as one of their own, why vote for India, then?

Like her, many Kashmiris allege, India is only concerned about retaining Kashmir as its territory but never considered them as its own people. This disillusionment has been growing among Kashmiris ever since the Hindu-nationalist Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – came to power in 2014. The party articulated its core agenda to abrogate Article 370 and 35 A, which give autonomy to Kashmir and permanent residency to state subjects under Indian Constitution, respectively. Kashmiris allege, BJP is trying to change the demography of Muslim-dominated Kashmir, the strife-torn Valley of India over which at least two wars have been fought with Pakistan.

Poll boycott in Kashmir is a stern message to New Delhi and Narendra Modi that Kashmiris don’t trust them, Srinagar-based political scientist Sheikh Showkat Hussain says. “This is also an indication that the alienation has reached at such a level that people have become indifferent now.”

In 2014, BJP also formed a coalition with Kashmir’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to govern the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Thereafter, it intensified Army excess – crackdown, detentions and killings. At least 100 civilians were allegedly killed and hundred more were blinded by pellet guns when they protested against the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Wani, a Kashmir boy. Human rights activists claim, at least, 57 civilians killed in 2017 and 80 in 2018 allegedly by security forces during street protests. In 2017, an Army officer even tied up a Kashmiri to the front of his jeep and used him as a human shield to ward off stone pelters.

Kashmiris argue they have no reason to vote for a country which uses its brutal forces against them.  “India is a land of Nathuram Godse, the man who killed Gandhi, the peacemaker. Why vote for a country run by fascists?” asks human rights defender Khurram Parvez, who was detained for 76 days on charges of being an “instigator “of violence three years ago.

The latest bone of contention of Kashmiris is the gag order from New Delhi banning civilians from travelling on a key highway, which connects Kashmir to its twin city, Jammu, twice a week. The ban came after Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed’s Kashmiri militant killed 42 Indian soliders in a suicide attack on the same highway. Kashmir doesn’t like this high-handedness by New Delhi. It started an arms movement pressing for the right to self-determination in 1989. After a lull period in the mid and late 2000, youths have started joining militancy again – 191 joined in 2018 and 126 in 2017, as per Army records. But the anti-India sentiment is so strong especially among the educated middle class that they call them “our boys,” not terrorists. A common narrative is – “If there is terrorism in Kashmir, it is in the hands of men in uniform.”

It is this hatred against India that pulls  them  away from the democratic process of polling. Kashmir never witnessed huge turnout in parliamentary elections — it was 50 per cent in 2014 — highest as compared to 40 per cent in 2009 and 35 per cent in 2004. But this year, it looks abysmally low so far. Out of the six parliamentary constituencies in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, three –Srinagar, Baramulla and Anantnag – are in Kashmir Valley, others in Jammu and Ladakh. The voter turnout was 34.1 per cent in north Kashmir’s peaceful Baramulla constituency, still five per cent less as compared to the last general elections in 2014. Barring the Congress bastions of Dooru, Kokernag and Shangus, the turnout was exceptionally low in militancy-hit south Kashmir’s Anantnag constituency, where polling is scheduled in five phases, last one slated for May 6. Anantnag’s Bijbehara, the home turf for PDP head and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, recorded only 2.04 per cent voting as opposed to 36 per cent in 2014. No votes were cast in 40 polling booths in Bijbehara. Fearing resentment of people, who feel betrayed by PDP for joining hands with BJP, Mehbooba couldn’t campaign there. It’s a different story that the allies fell out and Kashmir is under President’s rule now.

In an exclusive telephonic interview, Mehbooba Mufti tells me, her party’s “credibility has been tainted.” “People are angry and disillusioned. They feel democracy is limited to elections, there is no democracy after elections,” she says.

People allege, both mainstream politicians –Mehbooba and her rival Omar Abdullah of National Conference – never kept their promises of demilitarization. “People know these leaders can’t do anything in Parliament without orders from New Delhi,” says Parvez of Srinagar, where the voter turnout was 14 per cent as compared to 26 per cent in 2014.

Barring a routine boycott call by Hizbul Mujahideen’s Kashmir chief Riyaz Naikoo on social media and a press note on the same by separatist alliance, All Party Hurriyat Conference, there has been no organised campaign on poll boycott unlike previous years. “At this juncture, people don’t need any leader to decide for them, they boycotted voluntarily,” says Firdaus Ahmad Shah, chairman of Democratic Political Movement, part of the alliance.

It is believed, those who voted are party cadres, relatives of political parties and tribals in the hilly terrain. Political activist Javaid Trali of Tral in south Kashmir, Burhan Wani’s home district, says, he would vote on May 6 because he “believes in exercising his democratic right.”

People who vote are stigmatized as “traitors” by many.  “When people vote, India tells the world, Kashmir is with us, which is not true,” adds 35-year-old pharmacist Nasir Patiguru of Anantnag.

The participation of villagers, who vote for better roads, electricity, water, employment,  and not much influenced by the sentiment of “Azadi.”has been less too this time, “There is no promising candidate; even if we vote, they won’t do anything for us,” alleges 39-year-old Sarir Ahmed Bhat of Srandoo villange in Kulgam, where the voter turnout was 1.7 per cent on Monday.

Former civil servant Shah Faesal, who resigned to protest against “unabated killings” in Kashmir and formed his own political party- Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement – says, many villagers moved around the polling booths, finished their daily jobs but didn’t go to vote.

There are some who voted to register this dissent. Government clerk Ashiq Hussain Bhat of Srinagar, who voted for NOTA (None of The Above) says, “I voted against poll boycott of separatists. I also voted against ‘mainstream’ politicians who are concerned about capturing state power and resources and don’t want any resolution of Kashmir conflict.”

Meanwhile, Mufti promises to do take up some “confidence-building” measures among people. Is this another poll promise?

(A version of the story with additional inputs has appeared in DW:


A 37-year-old White man sailed to Singapore on Jan. 28, 1819, and transformed “an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis.” Or so the story goes — never mind that British statesman Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles’ mission was actually part of the colonial plan. Today, his marble statue stands tall at this site — as if he’s looking at Singaporeans with a sense of pride. And a bicentennial is on throughout the island nation with art installations, musical performances, exhibitions and multimedia-storytelling to “commemorate” Raffles’ arrival.

But many Singaporeans are in no mood to celebrate. Instead, they’re raising a pertinent question: “Is there a need to celebrate the arrival of a colonizer?”

In this nanny state, where free speech isn’t encouraged, people have taken to social media to register their protest. One post on the official Facebook page of Singapore Bicentennial mockingly says: “By PAP’s [the ruling People’s Action Party] logic, I think, we will soon celebrate the Japanese occupation from 1942–1945 renaming Singapore as ‘Syonan-to’ [Japanese renamed Singapore Syonan-to meaning ‘Light of the South’].” Another Singaporean’s post says, “The romanticized version of Raffles and British Empire in Singapore highly questionable” given the “atrocities committed by the British Empire in their colonies,” including the murder of many indigenous people.

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The marble statue of Sir Stamford Raffles looms large in more ways than one in modern Singapore.


That sentiment is echoed by a section of students, historians, sociologists and political analysts. “The celebratory emphasis of the bicentennial adds to the impression that there is less desire to have a serious conversation about the less palatable aspects of colonialism and its consequences,” says Ja Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore.

But there’s a reason why it makes sense for Singapore to look uncritically at its colonial history. Recalling the British era with fondness helps draw a line of continuity that justifies why so many of the country’s policies, institutions and mechanisms still mirror colonial rule. Singapore still relies on laws of repression from those times, such as the Internal Security Act. This allows preventive detention of those committing acts deemed subversive by the regime, and it’s been used against political opponents and trade unions. Then there’s mass surveillance — the government has the right to access all communication data of citizens — that remains a reality for Singaporeans. The country’s heavy reliance on “low-wage labor, particularly from Bangladesh and the Philippines, who live and work in quasi-slavery conditions,” says historian Pingtjin Thum, also carries shades of the indentured labor brought to the Malay peninsula by the British in colonial times.



For sure, the British colonial period saw economic prosperity and stability that remain hallmarks of Singapore today, including that it has the world’s eighth-highest per capita GDP, second only to Qatar in Asia. The city’s free port, built by the British, is one of the world’s most important maritime hubs. But British rule also came with a significant human cost.


According to historical evidence, the British segregated the working class into enclaves according to race and forced them to live in subhuman conditions. Critics have accused the British of fanning racial conflicts first, then suppressed them with laws in order to exercise “control.” Opium addiction took a toll on the working class. You won’t find these dark tales at the bicentennial though.

In that embrace of colonialism, Singapore is rare. Other ex-British colonies in Asia, such as Malaysia, Indonesia and India, have been overtly critical of their former colonizers.

What’s also irking many Singaporeans is the narrative that Singapore’s success story began only with the British — devaluing the contributions of Malays, Javanese, Bugis, Indians and Chinese, who were part of the island’s history long before Raffles arrived. “Nobody is being told the pre-colonial Singapore was already modern,” says cultural critic Nazry Bahrawi of Singapore University of Technology and Design. He points to the 17th-century Johor Sultanate naval base on the island by way of example.

Only recently has Singapore installed statues of four early community leaders, including of Prince Sang Nila Utama, who founded the Kingdom of Singapura (pre-colonial name of Singapore) in 1299, next to where Raffles stands today on the banks of the Singapore River. Multimedia messages about Bugis, Javanese, Orang Lauts and other communities who lived in the precolonial era have been posted on the Facebook page of Singapore Bicentennial following the criticism. But the celebrations remain centered on the British period and its legacy.

There’s another reason to view the bicentennial celebrations with skepticism. The PAP has ruled Singapore continuously since the country’s separation from Malaysia in 1965 — and even earlier, when it was part of Malaysia. For its political future, the party needs to defend the country’s modern history with pomp and show — the PAP, after all, can’t blame anyone else for continuing colonial institutions and laws. Four years ago, in August 2015, the PAP government marked 50 years of separation from Malaysia with extravagant celebrations — just before elections that brought it back to power by defeating a fragmented opposition.

So, it was really no surprise when, at the inauguration of the bicentennial celebrations, Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong was uninhibited in his praise of the British colonial period. “Without 1819, we may never have launched on the path to nationhood as we know it today,” he said. So it’s a legitimate question to ask: Are the bicentennial celebrations also a political ploy in the run-up to the country’s next elections next year?


This story appeared in on April 25, 2019:

By Sonia Sarkar


(NEWS ANALYSIS) Sri Lankan Christians had reason to worry much before the six serial blasts on the island that killed more than 300 people on Easter Sunday.

April 14, 2019: A Methodist prayer center was attacked in Anuradhapura, a three and a half hour drive from the Sri Lankan Capital, Colombo. The president of the Methodist Church, Bishop Asiri Perera, was held hostage along with a number of church members by locals.

April 7, 2019: At 9:10 am, six Buddhist monks and 50 villagers entered the premises and questioned the pastor during the Sunday worship service at a church at Morawaka, a three-hour drive from Colombo. The monks allegedly accused him of carrying out religious services illegally. A policeman dressed in civilian clothes arrived to look into the legal documents and allegedly assaulted a congregant who tried to record the proceedings.

April 2, 2019: At 11:30 pm, a pastor’s home in Medirigiriya, a four-hour drive from Colombo, was allegedly attacked by unidentified individuals.

March 19, 2019: At Ja-Ela, a suburb of Colombo, a mass protest reportedly led by over 1,000 people held outside a church demanding its closure.

On Tuesday, ISIS claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday attacks on churches and upscale hotels, targeting Christians and citizens of countries fighting ISIS. Based on early investigations, the Sri Lankan health minister Rajitha Senaratne had blamed the homegrown Islamic militant group National Thowheed Jamaath for the attacks. ISIS has repeatedly called on its followers worldwide for attacks on churches.

Sri Lanka is 70 percent Buddhist. Just over 15 percent are Hindus, about 10 percent Muslims and seven percent Christians. Christians are often ostracized and labeled as “unpatriotic.” For example, the majority of state-run schools do not teach Christianity as a subject but teach Buddhism or Hinduism. And while Sri Lanka calls itself a secular state, its constitution calls for the state “to protect and foster… the teachings of the Buddha.” Other religions are not given the same fundamental right of state protection.

In the past two years, Sri Lankan Christians have been attacked by various hardline Buddhist and Hindu groups. Minor Matters, a public movement dedicated to protecting the rights and liberties of religious minorities in Sri Lanka, recorded 40 incidents of discrimination, violence, and intimidation targeting Sri Lanka’s Christian community so far this year. The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), a collective of 200 churches and organizations, reported 86 incidents of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians in 2018.

In September last year, a group of about 100 people stopped the worship of a church at Beliatta, Hambantota District. They damaged the window of the church and two motorcycles parked outside, and removed religious symbols hanging at the front door. In 2017, after a Sunday morning service, a group of about 50 people, including Buddhist monks, forced entry into a Christian Fellowship Church in Ingiriya and threatened the priest. According to NCEASL, there were 97 incidents of attacks on churches, intimidation and violence in 2017.

Recently, there has also been tension between Hindus and Christians. Last year, some Hindus allege that more than 200 Christians in Mannar led by a pastor attacked a group of Hindus when they were building a temple on land reserved for them. Some Hindus also allege that a Christian mob tore down a Hindu temple archway in March. Meanwhile, Christians are concerned about a growing number of radical Hindu groups under the umbrella of the India-based Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP).

Sectarian violence in Sri Lanka has also made international headlines recently after a series of attacks against Muslims by the hardline Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Last year, a young BBS monk raised a battle cry against Muslim Sri Lankans by saying, “The sword at home is no longer to cut jackfruit; so, kindly sharpen it and go.” Again last year, monks circulated posts on Facebook accusing Muslim shopkeepers of mixing sterilization pills in food meant for Buddhist customers.

Some sections of Sri Lankan Buddhists continue to justify the actions of the BBS as preventing what they see as an erosion of Buddhist values and the dominant place of Buddhists in Sri Lanka, according to the Colombo-based International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES).

The Muslim community had always been a staunch supporter of the Sinhala-Buddhist political establishment, as it similarly suffered at the hands of the LTTE rebel group, more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, who expelled all Muslims from northern provinces. The anti-Muslim propaganda has been widely spread across the country.  Now that the ISIS has taken responsibility of the Easter attacks,  Muslims in Sri Lanka may be subjected to more atrocities owing to public outrage. No one knows yet what that will mean for Christians.

A version of the story appeared in Religion Unplugged on April 22, 2019:

Wednesday was Indonesia’s big day. For the first time in the country’s history, the elections for the president, the vice president, and members of the People’s Consultative Assembly, took place on the same day. But a section of the Indonesian millennial, who comprise around 40 per cent of the 190 million voters, chose not to vote. They got their middle finger inked, destroyed the ballot paper and walked out of the polling booth. It’s part of their campaign called, “Saya Golput (I abstain),” because they have lost all hope in politicians.

Thirty-one-year old Lini Zurlia went to her polling booth, marked her presence, punched the white part of the ballot paper, got her middle finger inked and walked out. Within minutes, she clicked herself flaunting her inked middle finger, and tweeted her image saying, “Hello, have you been to the polling station? I have and of course #SayaGolput.”

“It is my right to go to the polling booth, and it was my choice not to vote. So I destroyed the ballot paper and walked out of the booth,” says 31-year-old Lini Zurlia who was at a polling booth in south Tangerang in Banten, located on the southwestern border of Indonesian Capital, Jakarta. “I have no hope in these politicians, so I chose not to vote,” reasons out the queer feminist activist.

In Indonesia, the social media — Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — are full of images of young men and women who chose to abstain on the polling day. Donning the white tees with ‘three’ fingers imprinted on them, they posed in front of cameras, declaring, “Saya Golput.” Three is the number for Golput while 01 is for Joko Widodo-Ma’ruf Amin and number 02 is for Prabowo Subianto- Sandiaga Uno — the pairs running for the post of President-Vice-President. Posts saying, “Your Ballot Box cannot contain my dreams,” “Whoever use my vote, use it wisely,” and “It was Golput” have flooded the social media.

A teacher at a Jakarta university, who too abstained from voting, says, “Choosing not to vote is a Constitutional right, we are exercising our right, there is nothing wrong in it.”

The word “golput” has been derived from “golongan putih” or “white group,” because protesters cast a blank vote by punching the white part of the ballot, not a party symbol or candidate’s picture thereby making the vote invalid. The term, ”golput,” was coined by students’ activists in 1971 elections during the presidency of Suharto. Over the years, it has gained popularity among the youth. In recent years, the term has been also used by those who choose to abstain. Under electoral laws introduced in 2003, “golput,” is no longer an electoral offence.

According to The Partnership for Governance Reform and Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem), 48.3 million voters abstained in the 2009 elections and over 58.9 million voters chose to “Golput” in the 2014 elections.

A fortnight back, it was Lini Zurlia, who started a social media campaign to abstain. All of four foot and a few inches, the bespectacled Zurlia, became an internet sensation in Indonesia minutes after she tweeted her photo with a sticker saying, ”Saya Golput.” It was her way of telling the world, she would abstain from voting this elections, and asking others, “And you?”
Within a few hours, she got over 1,481 retweets for the post.

Zurlia is disillusioned by the politics of today’s Indonesia which is being fought on religious lines. Joko Widodo, popularly known as “Jokowi,” joined hands with a conservative cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, to fight the Prabowo Subianto and Sandiaga Uno pair, who have garnered the support of over 10 religious groups including the disbanded extremist group, Hizb-ut-Tahrir
Indonesia, which wants a Caliphate in the country. A secular country with over 260 million Muslims, comprising nearly 85 per cent of the population, is slowly turning conservative, hence political parties choose to woo the religious groups.

“None of the candidates are talking of the real problems of the country — unemployment, human rights violations by police, land-grabbing by the capitalists and radicalisation of the youth. Therefore I choose to abstain,” reasons out Zurlia.

A coalition of civil society groups recently rallied for boycotting the election calling it a political right protected under the Constitution. A large section of young LGBT and human rights activists, students, artists, labour and farmer union members chose not to vote this year.

Political scientists say, a section of the Indonesians do feel disillusioned, they have lost trust on politicians. “When Jokowi came to power in 2014, he projected himself as liberal and progressive. He had lot of support of the civil society. But in the past five years, he has disappointed them, hence they don’t want to vote for him,” says Bandung-based political scientist Hikmawan Saefullah. “They find Sandiaga Uno all the more regressive because of his alliance with the religious groups, hence there isn’t any choice for them.”

Over the five years, there has been a series of human rights violations under Jokowi regime. As per the Human Rights Watch, religious and gender minorities continue to face harassment. Authorities continue to arrest, prosecute, and imprison people under the blasphemy law. The former Jakarta Governor Basuki Purnama was sent to jail for two years on charges of blasphemy, after being testified by Ma’ruf Amin. In May, militant Islamists attacked and damaged eight Ahmadiyah houses on Lombok Island. “Jakarta police data indicate that police killed 11 suspects and wounded 41 others from July 3 to July 12 for ‘resisting arrest’ during an anti-crime campaign linked to the city’s preparations to host the 2018 Asian Games,” says a 2018 Human Rights Watch report.

Like Zurlia, many LGBT activists have called for a boycott because of the state violence against the community especially in Aceh province, where Sharia Law is applicable. In 2017, two gay men were subjected to 85 lashes for being in a same-sex relationship. In 2016, Jokowi’s running mate, Ma’ruf Amin, chairman of Indonesia’s Ulama Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, or MUI), the semi-official umbrella organization of Islamic group and the supreme leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama — Indonesia’s largest mass Muslim organization — justified a fatwa issued by MUI calling for the criminalization of LGBT activities. He had said, “homosexuality, whether lesbian or gay, and sodomy is legally ‘haram’ and a form of crime,”
Such a fatwa, activists allege, legitimized arbitrary raids by Islamist groups on private LGBT gatherings.

In 2009, the MUI had also issued a fatwa calling Golput “haram (un-Islamic).” Interestingly, the extremist group, Hizb-ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), which doesn’t support democracy is in favor of ‘Golput.’ It urges all its supporters to not participate in the elections.

But the free-thinkers of Indonesia certainly have nothing to do with the diktat of HTI. They choose not to vote for their own political reasons. Dede Oetomo, a Surabaya-based LGBT activist, went to the polling station at Sambikerep Ward, voted for the parliamentary candidates but didn’t vote for the post of President and vice-president. “I invalidated the presidential-vice presidential ballot by piercing both boxes. I am disappointed of Jokowi because he hasn’t done much to protect human rights. Plus, he has chosen the conservative cleric, Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate. I see no hope in him,” Oetomo, founder of GAYa Nusantara, the first organization for LGBT rights in Indonesia, says. “I voted for candidates I trust on the parliamentary ballots.”

Jokowi’s rival, Prabowo isn’t any better. He has joined hands with the religious extremists including Hizb-ut-Tahrir Indonesia which asked for a Caliphate in Indonesia for winning the elections. “If he wins, he will do exactly what these extremist groups want. There will be a ban on same-sex relationship. Moral policing by Islamist groups on the streets and night clubs would get a new lease of life. There will be more human rights violations. So I can’t vote for him either; hence I chose to abstain,” adds Zurlia.

Like Zurlia, a large section of the millennial in Indonesia, are politically conscious. The choice to not vote is also a political decision. Interestingly, it is the millennial that all the parties tried to woo with music videos, comic strips and rock shows during their poll campaign.

But the youth of Indonesia seems to have grown up. They have moved over fantasy; they are more glued to the real world!

By Sonia Sarkar

JAKARTA — On Saturday evening, thousands of men and women cheered as rock band Radja played at the last public rally of the incumbent Indonesian president Joko Widodo at Jakarta’s Gelora Bung Karno stadium. Widodo, a well-known metalhead and Metallica fan, laced this musical campaign with ‘sholawatan’, traditional songs of praise and devotion to the Prophet Muhammad.

A week before, at the same venue, his rival, Prabowo Subianto, organized a mass prayer for his supporters, many of them Muslim clerics. The Rizieq Shihab of the moralist radical group, The Islamic Defenders Front, addressed the crowd via a video message from Saudi Arabia.

Indonesians will vote in their presidential election on April 17, and religion is a rallying point for the major political parties.  Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, joined hands with the 75-year-old conservative cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, to fight Subianto and his running mate Sandiaga Uno. The duo is supported by over 10 Muslim organizations, including the disbanded extremist group, Hizb-ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), which wants Caliphate in the country.

Jokowi is off to Mecca for a visit before the elections Wednesday. So is Uno, but media reports said he will also be making a special visit to Indonesian Islamist scholar Rizieq Shihab who lives there in Saudi Arabia.

A secular country with over 260 million people, more than 85 percent of them Muslim, is slowly turning conservative. Religious groups of all kinds – mainstream, regressive and fundamentalists – seem to influence the electoral choice of the people. So politicians too are turning to religious groups for their support, experts say.

“Religious identity has become something very important in contemporary Indonesian politics,” Bandung-based political scientist Hikmawan Saefullah said. “There is an attempt by conservative religious groups to assert the idea that Islam should play a key role in Indonesian politics. Politicians are simply playing to the gallery.”


Even Jokowi, who won the last election as a “liberal” and “progressive,” is now turning towards a religious icon in Amin.  Being a senior leader of the mass Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and quasi-state body MUI (Indonesian Ulama Council), Amin is like a certificate showing proof Jokowi is a “good” Muslim. In fact, in one of the recent poll campaigns, Amin claimed that Jokowi is also a santri, a student of an Islamic boarding school.

“Even though Jokowi is politically secular, he has worked at co-opting religious identity as a political tactic in order to both fend religious-based attacks from his opponents, and also to help secure support and votes from mass religious organizations,” said Indonesian observer Ian Douglas Wilson, a lecturer at Australia-based Murdoch University.

Indeed, instead of challenging the growing influence of conservative and reactionary Islamists in the society, Jokowi is becoming an active participant in the game. He joined hands with a man who is against the spirit of democracy. “As the head of the MUI, Amin had issued a fatwa [in 2005] opposing religious pluralism, liberalism and secularism which has had a negative impact upon Indonesia’s progressive Islamic landscape,” Wilson pointed out.

Amin is also the same man who had sent Jokowi’s close friend and former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnamato, a Christian, to prison for blasphemy by testifying in the court two years ago. One of the main reasons for bringing Amin into his fold is to dispel rumors spread by the opposition camp that he is not a pious Muslim and will ban azan, the amplified call for prayer from mosques, if voted to power.


“Every time, people say, Jokowi is not a pious Muslim, he will ban azan if voted to power again, we have to say, that’s not true, he is a good Muslim,” Amin’s 29-year-old granddaughter Syaikha Aulia said. “Even his mother is a good Muslim, she prays five times a day.”

Aulia is running Jokowi-Amin’s campaign to millennials.

Amin may have managed to convince moderate Muslims to vote for Jokowi, but hardliners aren’t just going to Jokowi because of Amin.

“Conservative hardliners are not convinced if Jokowi supports their aspirations or his alliance with Amin is just a poll tactic,” Saefullah said. “They are with Prabowo because he promised them that he will guarantee their political aspiration.”

Even though Prabowo didn’t pick up Salim Segaf or Abdul Somad as his running mate, as suggested by Rizieq’s Islamic Defenders Front and other conservative groups, the president of the Islamist party PKS (Justice and Welfare Party) called Uno a “post-Islamism santri,” meaning he is devout but doesn’t exhibit signs of piety. The fact is, Uno, a wealthy businessman, studied at a Catholic school.

Interestingly, a lot of young men and women, support the Prabowo-Sandiaga pair for their immense fan following of the FPI and HTI. These groups have called for a ban of same-sex relationships. There is an increase in moral policing on the streets, night clubs and social media asking the youth to be good Muslims. Hijrah, also called hejira (referring to Prophet Muhammed’s flight from persecution), communities have popped up across the country to help young Indonesians leave all the vices of life, read the Quran and become pious.

A poster of Tabligh Akbar praying for the Prabowo-Sandiaga Uno alliance. Photo by Sonia Sarkar.

A poster of Tabligh Akbar praying for the Prabowo-Sandiaga Uno alliance. Photo by Sonia Sarkar.


Political observers believe, the Islamists of Indonesia started emerging stronger during the 2014 presidential elections. There was a smear campaign against Jokowi, then governor of Jakarta, questioning if he is a genuine Muslim. He won with a margin of about six percent after a hard-fought campaign, but the Islamist groups never fell silent.

Soon after Jokowi left his post as governor to take up the presidency, his deputy Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, was to assume office. But Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian, faced huge resentment from large sections of people. Islamists led a vitriolic campaign against him in 2016. The Friday sermons at the mosques were full of hate speech and people were actually threatened not to vote for Ahok.

The anti-Ahok demonstrations gave birth to the “212 movement”, which had Amin at the helm issuing a fatwa against Ahok saying that his citation of a particular Quranic verse during his election campaign defamed Islam. During his election campaign for governor, Ahok had said people were deceived if they believed that the Quran prohibited Muslims from voting for non-Muslim politicians. Ahok was sent to prison for blasphemy for “degrading Islam.” The anti-Ahok movement of 2016-17 led to the formation of the 212 Alumni Brotherhood (or PA212) and the National Movement to Safeguard the Fatwa of Ulama (GNPF-U). After serving two years in prison, Ahok was released in January 2019, which angered many Islamists.

The Islamists were also not happy to see Amin joining hands with Jokowi. Jokowi tried to consolidate mainstream Islamic parties and organizations to split the Islamist coalition that made the 212 movement successful, analysts say.

Prabowo sought support of the hardliners instead. In September 2018, the conservative Muslim body Ketua Gerakan Nasional Pengawal Fatwa Ulama (GNPF-U) held a conference where Prabowo signed a 17-point Integrity Pact with Muslim scholars and activists where he promised to uphold religious values, pay attention to “religious people’s interests” and guarantee the return of cleric Rizieq Shihab, who was chased by the Jokowi government over a pornography case, though the police later suspended their search.

Prabowo’s has been hobnobbing with Islamists for many years now. As a former army general, he was known to be a member of the green military faction, with generals who were close to, and supported, Islamic groups. The red-white faction of the military comprised generals who took a neutral position, not siding with either Islam or the state.

Now the Jokowi-Amin pair is also trying to win votes from Islamic groups. They are promising religious education institutions will be given the responsibility of providing “national character education.”  Also in the works is a special “santripreneur” program, an initiative between Islamic boarding schools and the business sector.

“Ma’ruf Amin’s approach is extremely progressive,” a Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) official said. “His purpose is to give education and empower the youth.”

Interestingly, the Prabowo-Sandiaga pair has also promised to increase the quality of religious schools in the country, establish a haj-focused financial institution and even negotiate with the government of Saudi Arabia to allow Indonesia to build its own accommodation there for pilgrims. Plus, it has asserted, if voted to power, it would protect religious leaders, groups and Muslim clerics, citing their significant contribution to win the country’s independence.

But Wilson feels, all this is an attempt by Prabowo to tell people he is a pious Muslim, and he would dump the extremist Islamic groups later.

“If voted to power, it is unlikely Prabowo will grant hardliners the kinds of concessions they are hoping for,” he said. “After the elections, these groups may have to look at developing another set of alliances with political elites if they wish to remain politically relevant.”

Sonia Sarkar is an Indian journalist who writes on South and Southeast Asia.

This piece appeared in Religion Unplugged on April 16, 2019

The septuagenarian conservative cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, running for the post of vice-president woos Indonesian millennial this elections.

The young Indonesians got their own superman this election. It is the 75-year-old conservative cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, the running mate of the incumbent President Joko Widodo. An animated image of Amin, dressed in the iconic blue superman costume with a flowing red cape, flying up in the air, has gone viral on social media. The Instagram page of Ma’ruf Amin’s publicist, ‘Remaja Official,’ calls him #SuperUlama. The caption says, “He is the person who seeks to unite the nation and he is very worthy of being called #SuperAbah.” Amin is fondly called ‘Abah (father)’ by his unyoung followers.


Amin could be the oldest candidate in the fray in the Indonesian elections this year but he is trying to establish a strong connect with the 80 million millennial voters. It is this all-millennial group, ‘Remaja’ (teenager) run by his grand-daughter Syaikha Aulia, is in-charge of designing his campaign exclusively for the first-time voters and the youth. They aim to counter the opposition’s argument that Amin is a bad choice for the youth because he is old.

“My ‘kakek’ (grandfather) is more energetic than any other candidate,” a confident 29-year-old Syaikha Aulia says. “He is trying to reach out to the millennial in every corner of the country to tell them he is not an ‘old’ man, and he can do a lot for them.”

Aulia’s ‘Remaja,’ consisting of 5,900 men and women volunteers between the age of 17-30 years spread across 24 provinces in Indonesia, are working 24×7 for Amin. This two-storey house at Jalan Tebet Timur Dalam in south Jakarta is her “base camp.” It is this place where the campaign for the millennial is conceptualized. Creative teams make music videos, comic strips and animation films to get the young voters into their fold. They turn Amin’s campaigns into a carnival of colour and music. His slogan is – “Remaja Cheria, Jokowi-Ma’ruf –Menang, Menang, Menang (Cheers, Teenagers, Jokowi-Ma’ruf, win, win, win)!

It’s five o’ clock in the evening. A bunch of 15-odd young women are trying hard to match steps with their choreographer, a hard taskmaster. The song played on a loop is – “Kawan – dengarkan lagu, suara millennial, hanya millennial satu, yang ter baik urkutmu, salam Ibu Jari (Friends, listen to the song, the voice of the millennial, only choose 01, who is the best for you, Salam Ibu Jari.” Every time, it plays out, salaam Ibu Jari, the dancers shake their thumb, in a certain rhythm. Thumb is the symbol of Jokowi and Amin and 01 is the number of the Jokowi-Amin pair. This is a rehearsal of a campaign video which will soon be posted on its Instagram page, “Remaja Official,” which has over 10.1 K followers. The same will be played out to the young audience during campaigning.

Amin’s social media campaign is hip and happening too with hashtags such as #Abahkita, #RemajaCheria, #SuperAbah, #SalamIbujari, #AbahKita(#OurAbah) #RelawanMilennialJokowiMaruf (VolunterMillennialJokowiMa’ruf) and #KarenaCamuCuma01 (because you are just 01).

Remaja, since its inception in October last year, roped in various youth clubs of DJs, bikers, dancers, artists and ghost hunters for campaigning. A celebrity dancer, Calvin Ananda, with over 24.2 K followers on Instagram, says he became part of Remaja because he “sees hope” in Amin. He is one of the many celebrities, who dressed in white jackets with ‘01’ embossed on them, make an appeal to voters to vote for the Jokowi-Amin pair via video.

A technocrat who spends his after work hours helping the online team develop content says, “Our ‘Abah’ is the most respectful public figure in Indonesia. There is none who can deny it. It was a moral responsibility to be part of his campaign.”

His work is mostly in one of the rooms on the first floor, technically the “war” room. The team here fights the social media hoaxes against Amin 24×7. In 2017, Amin himself, as Indonesian Ulema Council chairman, said, the Council will issue a fatwa declaring the spread of bogus stories to be “un-Islamic.” This election, he went ahead and coined a slogan to fight fake news or hoax. It says – “Kita tidak boleh memfitnah, tidak boleh hoax, tidak boleh, mengelek-jelakan orang lain, kita tedap menjaga kesantunan (“We must not slander, we can’t spread the hoax, we can’t be rubbing on others, we are prepared to maintain modesty).”

Ulama -- hoax

Image of #SuperAbah. Source: Instagram page of Remaja Official.Amin

The caption says : Adhesive for one nation.

Pic Credit: Facebook Page of Remaja Official.


Image: Syaikha Aulia with her ‘Remaja’ team

Syaikha Aulia at the Remaja “base camp,” in Jakarta

Mural of Jokowi-Amin on the outer wall of base camp.

Merchandise sold at Nahdlatul Ulama office

Pic Credit: Sonia Sarkar

One of the biggest rumours, Aulia says, spread by the opposition camp is, Amin is old and therefore, won’t do anything for the youth. Indeed,  his age is standing as the biggest impediment for his chances to win, especially because his opponent, Sandiagao Uno, the running mate of Prabowo Subianto is just 49-year-old. “We are not contesting that he is old. But age means nothing for him. To counter such arguments, we are posting his videos of relentless campaigning on the streets for 12-14 hours,” tells Aulia. “Plus he has a vision because he is experienced,” she adds.

Not many would agree because his “vision” so far has been regressive. In 2017, he testified against the Christian governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama  in court and thereby sending him to jail on charges of blasphemy. To counter the perception that Amin is anti-Christian, Aulia has roped in many Christians in her group.

But a 2018 Human Rights Watch report states, Amin has been a vocal supporter of fatwas, or religious edicts decrees, against the rights of religious minorities, including the country’s Ahmadiyah and Shia communities, as well lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Those fatwas, although not legally binding, have been used to legitimize increasingly  hateful rhetoric by government officials against LGBT people and in some cases, fuelled  deadly violence by militant Islamists against religious minorities.”

Such criticism hasn’t deterred Amin though.  In one of the recent televised debates, Amin trotted out Arabic phrases to seek applause from his supporters and reached out to the youth promising employment to them. According to him, three special cards will be introduced if Jokowi and he are voted to power, one of which would be a pre-employment card that will help the unemployed youth for 6-12 months before obtaining a job.

Over a cuppa of tea at tea parties called ‘Tebar Ma’ruf,’ (Spread goodness with Ma’ruf), he promises them – startups and vocational training. Amongst those invited are the ‘santris’ (Islamic boarding school students) – his strong vote base. Amin, the Islamic scholar, headed two important positions: rais aam (president) of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the nation’s largest Muslim organisation; and chairman of the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), the state-endorsed body for issuing rulings on Islamic issues.

These boarding schools are mostly run by the NU.  Even though it claims to be apolitical, it has been selling merchandise such as T’shirts and helmets with Amin’s face embossed on them. Putri Widya Dwi Inanti, the  shop in-charge at the NU office in Jakarta’s Jalan Kramat Raya, says, “The sale of the merchandise has increased by 30 per cent in the past one month.”

Not in helmet or a tee, but Amin, dressed in the traditional batik sarong and a pair of white sneakers, at a televised debate recently, gave out a strong message  — he may be old but he isn’t going anywhere, not just yet!

A  day before the festival of colours, dressed in her trademark white tant sari, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee walked up to a cluster of television cameras and wished “Holi mubarak” to everyone. Maintaining her authoritative tone, in broken Hindi, she added, “Radha-Krishna ko pushpanjali nivedan kijiye… koi Ganpati ko kartein hai (You may offer prayers to Radha-Krishna… some pray to Ganpati).”

Why Mamata is playing the Hindu card against Modi

Again, at a pre-Holi get-together with Marwari businessmen, she dared Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah to compete with her in reciting Sanskrit shlokas. Mocking the BJP, she said at the same gathering that while the saffron party had failed to keep

its promise of building a Ram temple at the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid disputed site in Uttar Pradesh, her government had undertaken development initiatives for Bengal’s Hindu religious sites such as Dakshineshwar, Gangasagar, Tarapith, Tarakeswar and Kalighat.

The message of the Trinamool boss, who at a public meeting in January led a ‘secular’ alliance of 23 parties to oppose the ‘communal’ Narendra Modi, is loud and clear — the battle with the BJP will be fought on religious lines.

“Mamata Banerjee is in a hurry to prove she is more Hindu than Modi,” Kolkata-based political observer, researcher and activist Kumar Rana says. “As BJP started emerging stronger in the state in the past two years, Banerjee has started appeasing Hindus and replicating the BJP’s Hindutva brand of politics. Her approach is not as regressive as the BJP’s, but it is soft Hindutva.”

By giving donations to Durga Puja committees, building temples and holding religious rallies, Banerjee and her party have taken a series of initiatives since last year, with the general elections approaching, to garner Hindu votes that the BJP has been eyeing. Banerjee announced the construction of a Jagannath temple in Digha, 183 kilometres from Kolkata. Mayor of Asansol, Jitendra Kumar Tiwari, has started mobilising funds to build 10 sun temples.  A grant of `28 crore was offered to Durga Puja organisers out of state coffers. At a Martyrs’ Day rally on March 23, Banerjee emphasised that her party doesn’t subscribe to the BJP’s version of Hinduism but she rattled off a list of Hindu gods.

Trinamool spokesperson Mahua Moitra denies that these are tactics to appease Hindu voters. “This is a communal narrative which the BJP has been feeding the media,” she says.

The communists call it “competitive communalism”. CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty says, “After all, the Trinamool once was part of the BJP-led NDA (1999). The ideology is the same. It is competing with the BJP on communal lines. It helps both parties to divert attention of the people from real issues of the state — corruption, unemployment, farmers’ distress and free speech.”

That’s the reason, Chakraborty asserts, why the Trinamool is becoming an active participant in communal politics of the BJP instead of resisting it. To counter the saffron party’s Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti rallies, it has started organising its own. Trinamool workers are sprinkling Ganga jal and cow dung, both considered sacred by many Hindus, to “purify” the grounds where the BJP holds rallies. Banerjee’s party has given more space to the BJP and its fount, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to grow in the state. Over 250 new RSS shakhas have opened in Bengal in the 18 months. There is an upsurge of activities of Hindu radicals too. Soon after the Pulwama terror attack, a Kashmiri Muslim doctor was harassed by Hindu men at a market in Kolkata and they allegedly threatened him to leave the city. Two years ago, two Muslim men were lynched by self-styled cow vigilantes in Jalpaiguri. Such violence was unheard of in Bengal before.

But political scientist Maidul Islam points out that the fundamental difference between the two parties is the BJP has a mission of creating a Hindu Rashtra by subordinating religious minorities while the TMC believes only in public display of all religious festivals.

That distinction doesn’t seem to be strong enough to deter Trinamool leaders from switching loyalties to their “enemy” camp. Three Trinamool members — Arjun Singh, Soumitra Khan and Anupam Hazra — recently joined the BJP. This crossover is happening at the grassroots level too.  “A large section of liquid cash holders — cement dealers, illegal sand miners and transporters — fund the Trinamool and they have a huge support base, especially in rural Bengal. These people are largely anti-Muslim and up for the BJP’s brand of petty nationalism. They are switching sides because they are more comfortable with the saffron party’s aggressive Hindutva,” Rana says.

The trend can certainly help the BJP, which aims to win 23 of the state’s 42 parliamentary constituencies, up from the two it bagged in the 2014 general elections. Though some Bharatiya Janata Party leaders appear a bit perturbed to see Banerjee replicating their Hindutva politics, they assert that no amount of Hindu appeasement can help the Trinamool win this election. “Trinamool is adopting such tactics in desperation because it dreads losing the polls,” says Kolkata-based BJP leader Shamik Bhattacharya.

Hindus, he asays, know they were never the “first choice” of Banerjee: after all, she was busy pandering to Muslims all this while. The CM offered a stipend to imams which was eventually struck down by the state high court, postured to offer namaz wearing hijab, and tweaked the schedule of Durga idol immersion to ensure Muharram processions were uninterrupted. All this irked a section of Hindus.

Hindu vs Muslim tension has become the order of the day in the state which was relatively calm earlier. A series of riots have taken place in Dhulagarh, Basirhat and Asansol in the past three years. Bengal seems to be a veritable communal tinderbox now.

It appeared in Firstpost on April 5, 2019:


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  • Aidah: As well written as this article is, you should take note that Pink Dot is not a festival, it is a protest, even if it is rather peaceful one, it is st