Archive for the ‘Religion and Conflict’ Category

Drawn to India by a ‘homecoming’ campaign, Pakistani Hindus, having escaped discrimination and poverty, feel betrayed.

Before the 2014 vote, India launched a 'homecoming' campaign aimed at providing protection for persecuted Hindus, but many say they are treated as second-class citizens [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]
Before the 2014 vote, India launched a ‘homecoming’ campaign aimed at providing protection for persecuted Hindus, but many say they are treated as second-class citizens [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]

He has stressed upon development and democracy, but it remains to be seen whether he will he abjure faith-based politics.


Sitting in his limousine, the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo or Jokowi, as he is popularly known as, rolled out a 32-second-long video message on Twitter on June 10. He said in Bahasa, “Let’s join hands, unite, and put our mind and energy to build a developed Indonesia.”

Ever since Widodo got re-elected for a second term last month, his focus has been on development. But soon after his re-election, he faced disruptions. As the final election results were declared, riots broke out in the capital city of Jakarta for over two days, killing eight people and injuring seven hundred others. Early reports suggest that apart from a group of paid thugs, members of the militant Islamist group, Front Pemuda Islam, attacked the police with rocks and petrol bombs.

Interestingly, these hardline Islamists supported Jokowi’s opponent, the former army commander, Prabowo Subianto. The grand imam of FPI, Habib Rizieq Shihab, addressed his election rally from Saudi Arabia via video call. Analysts call Prabowo and Shihab ‘bedfellows’, united by a common enemy — Widodo.

Widodo’s win could create trouble for the FPI. Its status as a legally registered social organization expires today, and there are chances that its appeal for re-registration would be rejected. Public pressure is mounting on authorities to do so. A petition called ‘Stop the Permit of FPI’, filed by Ira Bisyir at, has received over 4,81,665 signatures so far.

In this last term, analysts say that Widodo would give a fresh push to his liberal and progressive image, which was largely compromised earlier. In his previous term, the “hard-metal-loving secularist” failed to protect free speech, the rights of religious and ethnic minorities and those of LGBTs. But Indonesians still pinned their hopes on him. They preferred to choose a ‘moderate’ Widodo, representative of ‘pluralist’ Indonesia, over a ‘conservative’ Subianto, representative of a ‘hardline Islamist’ Indonesia. Clearly, this is a positive shift from the faith-based politics, which is thriving elsewhere.

For example, across the Indian Ocean, Australia, a country whose politics has long been secular, recently re-elected the 51-year-old conservative, Scott Morrison, as prime minister. In 2008, while he was delivering his maiden speech in Parliament, he said that he derived the values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness from his ‘faith’. While quoting the American senator, Joe Lieberman, who had said, “the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not from religion,” Morrison asserted at the same event, “I believe the same is true in this country.” In April this year, Morrison, who holds regressive views on immigration and same-sex marriage, invited television cameras to film his Easter Sunday service at a church.

A similar trend is visible in India, which has re-elected the 68-year-old Hindu nationalist, Narendra Modi. Like Morrison, Modi loves to wear his religion on his sleeve. A day before the last phase of the general election, Modi invited television cameras to film him meditating inside a cave near the Kedarnath shrine. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which rose to power by playing divisive faith-based politics, won 303 seats in Parliament. On the day of his victory, Modi had tweeted, “India wins yet again.” Perhaps he was referring to the India that has lapped up his politics of religious identity and Hindu majoritarianism.

Faith-based politics has played a leading role in the politics of neighbouring Bangladesh too. Bangladesh re-elected Sheikh Hasina Wajed last year. Wajed, a ‘secular’ leader, has been wooing the radical Islamist group, Hefazat-e-Islam, for many years. She introduced religious education in government schools, edited out poems and stories that conservative Islamists deemed atheistic and also recognized the Qawmi Madrasa degrees. In return, the Islamist group’s head, Shah Ahmed Shafi, bestowed the honorific, ‘Qawmi Janani (mother of the qaum)’, upon Wajed. Like Wajed, who hobnobbed with the Islamists to garner the support of the large Qawmi Madrasa populace, Widodo chose the conservative cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his running mate to strengthen his candidacy’s Islamic credentials.

Now that Widodo has been re-elected, questions have been raised regarding his present term by his constituents who gave him a second chance. He has stressed upon development and democracy, but will he abjure faith-based politics? Will he revive the vanishing, tolerant Indonesian Islam? How is he going to do all this with Amin — he issued a fatwa opposing religious pluralism, liberalism and secularism — as vice-president?

But what if Widodo adopts the political strategy of the leaders in his neighbourhood? What if he becomes like Morrison, someone who doesn’t like being labelled a ‘fundamentalist’ but has reservations about gay rights? Or like Wajed, who calls herself ‘secular’ but appeases religious extremists? Or, perhaps, like Modi, who talks of ‘inclusive’ India but doesn’t bat an eyelid when minorities get lynched on the streets?

This piece was published in The Telegraph on June 20, 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:

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:


Hasina’s government introduced religious education in state schools, edited out literature that conservative Islamists deemed atheistic and recognised Qawmi Madrasa degrees

Dhaka’s historic Suhrawardy Park was quite the set of a spectacle last month. The smiling Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, sat comfortably on the dais, her neatly pinned golden pallu covering half her head. The man seated beside her had his entire head and face covered with a white scarf. Maulana Shah Ahmad Shafi is the leader of the radical Islamist group, Hefajote Islam, and talking to women or even looking at them is against Hefajote’s code of conduct. In a first, though, he was sharing stage with a woman. What is more, he even bestowed on her an honorific — Qawmi Janani or mother of the qaum (in this case, the Islamic collective as well as the nation).

Qawmi Madrasas are Islamic seminaries. There are around 14,000 of them in Bangladesh and their teachings are considered orthodox, nudging the country’s youth towards a radical path. Hasina had announced last year that the Dawra-e-Hadith, the highest qaumi degree, will now be recognised as a postgraduation degree in Islamic Studies and Arabic. That day in November, the chairman of the Qawmi Madrasah Education Board said: “You are the ‘Mother of Qawmi’. If you were not there… people who are the Jamaat, pro-Moududis would not let it happen.”

In the run-up to the December 30 general elections, Bangladesh has witnessed an ideological flip-flop of sorts. The secular ruling party, Awami League, has been cosying up to the Islamists, while the main Opposition led by Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has joined hands with the secular alliance, Jatiya Oikya Front.

“Indeed, this election has thrown up big surprises. The two big parties have made a major shift in their political ideologies,” says Jatiya Oikya Front head Kamal Hossain, who is a freedom fighter and former Awami League leader. He asserts it is the Awami League’s changing political ideology that has forced secular parties to form an alliance against Hasina. Hossain adds, “If she were committed to the secular, liberal and socialist ethos of Bangladesh, and not pandering to the Islamists, we would have had no need to form this front.”

Indeed, Hasina’s proximity to the Islamists has increased during her last two terms as prime minister. In 2011, the Bangladeshi Parliament passed a bill seeking retention of Islam as the state religion, as well as the phrase “Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim” in the Constitution, both legacies of the military regime of 1988. In 2017, Hasina’s government introduced religious education in government schools, edited out poems and stories that conservative Islamists deemed atheistic and, most recently, recognised the Qawmi Madrasa degrees.

Hasina also gave in to the demand of the Hefajote Islam to remove the Statue of Justice outside the Supreme Court building — a blindfolded woman dressed in a sari — on the grounds that it was idolatry and, therefore, un-Islamic. And when Islamist forces threatened and killed atheist bloggers, she said nothing. “The muted reactions to the blogger killings in 2015 and warnings to bloggers to restrain themselves instead of protecting them, indicate how her government tries to appease radical Islamists,” says Bangladeshi journalist and blogger Supriti Dhar.

Typically, it was the BNP that courted the Islamists. To be more specific, the Islamist religious and political party, Jamaat-e-Islami. In 1991, Jamaat had bagged 18 seats and emerged as a power player. It had extended support to the BNP to form government. In the 1996 elections, it nominated 300 candidates but won only three seats. But in 2001 it once again bagged 17 seats.

So how would one explain the BNP’s current altered stance? Former Election Commissioner, Brigadier M. Sakhawat Hossain, puts it all down to poll strategy. Says Maruf Mallick, political analyst and visiting research fellow at the University of Bonn, Germany, “The BNP was never interested in an alliance with the secularists… It was compelled to do so because party chief Khaleda Zia is in jail and there is a leadership crisis.”

Mallick asserts that the Awami League too has used religion in election campaigns before this. During the 1996 elections, the Awami League used a part of the Islamic Kalma, La Ilaha Illallah and rhymed it with Noukar Malik Tui Allah (Allah is the owner of boat) for its election slogan. (The boat is the election symbol of the Awami League.) In that campaign, a portrait of Hasina wearing a headscarf and holding a tasbih — a string of holy beads — was widely used in posters. According to Brigadier Hossain, the Awami League started to woo the anti-Jamaat Islamist groups in right earnest from 2001.

Political scientist Ali Riaz points out that the Awami League is indulging Hefajote Islam because it wants to bring the Islamist forces into its fold and deprive the Opposition of their support. Also, the party doesn’t want to look un-Islamic in a bid to be secular. “Hasina wants to bank on these Islamists who have the capacity to mobilise people especially Qawmi Madrasa students and teachers in large numbers,” says Riaz, who is also distinguished professor of Political Science at the United States’ Illinois State University.

There have been rumours that some members of Hefajote Islam wanted to contest elections but it didn’t happen because of a conflict between two factions of the group. Hefajote’s secretary-general Junaid Babunagri tells The Telegraph, “We are an apolitical organisation. We have no role to play in the elections.”

An Awami League supporter carries a photograph of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during an election rally in Dhaka.
An Awami League supporter carries a photograph of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during an election rally in Dhaka. (AP)

No matter what the official line, there can be no denying that Hefajote has benefited from having a sympathetic ruling party. To begin with, the government stopped pursuing cases against Qawmi Madrasa leaders — many of them had been accused of organising religious clashes, giving hate speeches against bloggers, threatening bloggers and molesting minors. Liberal thinkers, political opponents and human rights activists were targeted instead. Lawyer Sara Hossain stresses how even after a landslide victory in 2009 and initial pledges of zero tolerance for rights violations, the government didn’t live up to the principles of the Constitution. There were several cases of abuse of human rights; Hasina also resorted to regressive laws such as the Digital Security Act to attack free speech. Says Sara, “The government tried to segregate the country into two parts — people who are for the government and those against it. People who are against Hasina were labelled enemies of the state.” According to her, even now, the official narrative is — if you don’t support the Awami League, you don’t love your country and you are anti-Liberation.”

It must be understood that in Bangladesh, politics is always being played on the basis of who supported the Liberation movement of 1971 and who didn’t. Jamaat being an anti-Liberation force was always kept at an arm’s length by Hasina.

Jamaat had won two out of the 300 parliamentary seats in the 2008 elections. But its registration as a political party was cancelled in 2013. This time, some Jamaat members are fighting on the BNP symbol — the paddy sheaf — but by and large the BNP seems to be distancing itself from Islamists.

Nagorik Oikya is part of the 20-party alliance that includes the BNP. Says convener Mahmudur Rahman Manna, “In the past years, the BNP has been banking on its alliance with Jamaat to bring its Islamist supporters to the polls, but in doing so, it ignored the votes of non-Islamist constituents. This time, it was its strategy to join hands with our secular front to gain maximum advantage because nobody can ignore that there is an anti-incumbency factor against the Awami League and the next big political party is the BNP.”

“If you are talking about the BNP-Jamaat alliance, you are holding the wrong end of the stick,” says BNP leader Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir. “There is a strong anti-Awami League sentiment among the people and we are only giving them a democratic alternative,” he tells The Telegraph over phone.

Both the Jamaat and Hefajote are problematic for Bangladesh, according to political scientist Riaz. “Hefajote Islam is more fanatic than Jamaat, even though there is no denial of the latter’s role in heinous war crimes,” he says. Then adds, “Jamaat is an opportunist Islamist party. It wants a political fight by staying within the secular democracy, unlike Hefajote, which is a regressive party and does not believe in the Constitution.”

Senior Awami League leader Amir Hossain Amu, says, “Hefajote Islam had no role to play in the Liberation War unlike Jamaat, which is internationally known for its role in war crimes.” He asks, “Also, one party [BNP] practiced communal politics for more than 21 years while in power, why don’t you talk about that?” He emphasises that none of the Islamic parties are part of “our grand alliance”. An Islamic Democratic Alliance, however, has been formed to support the Awami League .

No matter how Amu would like to explain away his party’s affiliations, it is evident that, on the one hand, Hasina waged a war against home-grown terror outfits, while on the other, she curried favour with the radicals. “One doesn’t need to organise terrorist attacks if one can radicalise society and Hefajote is doing it by interfering in policy-making,” says Manna of Nagorik Oikya.

Many local observers believe that Hasina’s survival tactics pose a threat to Bangladesh’s secular values and to freedom of religion and belief. Says journalist Dhar, “There is no space left for critical comments about religion. It is the radical Islamists who are shaping public discourse.”

Dhar and many others are afraid the country will be made to pay for this.