A Fork in the Road: What lies ahead for religious minorities in Sri Lanka, India and South Asia?

Sri Lanka and India are facing pivotal moments, both for their future, and the future of South Asia as a whole. Both countries’ drives towards religious hegemony have left little place for Christians and Muslims, a factor which will certainly lead to more instability and intolerance in the region.

Sri Lanka: Buddhist nationalists vindicated

Sri Lanka was the site of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, in which over 250 people were killed when terrorists targeted a number of churches and hotels across the country. In the aftermath of the bombings, there were reports of violent attacks against Muslims and an increase in anti-Muslim prejudice. Some reprisals against the Muslim population have been carried out by Christians, in contrast to the previous relative harmony between the two communities as they both battled intolerance from sections of the Sinhalese Buddhist population.

Furthermore, Buddhist nationalist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), who have been portraying Islam as a threat to both Buddhism and Sri Lanka for years, consider their stance vindicated by the bombings.

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Turkey under Erdogan: Caught between secular and Islamic identities

Although Turkey’s constitution defines the country as a secular state, it is caught between its secular and Islamic identities. The current government has publicly endorsed a move towards a Sunni Muslim identity for the country, conflating religious and national identities, by combining the religious nationalism propagated by the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP) with the secular Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, or MHP)’s ideology of ‘ultra-nationalism,’ which is defined as “extreme nationalism that promotes the interests of one state or people above all others.”  

The promotion of religious ultra-nationalism in Turkey has contributed to a rise in discrimination, and in hate speech that incites violence against those who do not adhere to Sunni Islam.

Such incitement is visible in a variety of areas ranging from education and employment, to religious practices and day-to-day administrative procedures. There has also been a surge in the expression of anti-Semitism and anti-Christian sentiments in pro-government media.

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The promise of an inclusive India?

As Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) starts its second innings in government after one of the most bitter, vicious and polarising election campaigns India has witnessed, he has been speaking of an aspirational and inclusive India.

The BJP-led coalition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) secured 350 seats of the 542 seats in the Lok Shaba (parliamentary) elections, with their majority growing from 25% in 2009 to 45% in 2019. Given the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda, this success gives rise to concerns that BJP-controlled areas may be subject to increased FoRB violations.

With exceptions in the south, for example in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Puducherry, the BJP made fresh progress in West Bengal and Odhisa, and continued to tighten its grip on existing stronghold states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.  Despite the Southern states remaining largely free from the BJP, FoRB monitoring in the South will need to be stepped up, particularly with the party’s win in West Bengal and Odhisa, states that have recorded a rise in FoRB violations.  

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Burma’s identity crisis

The forced closure last week of three temporary Muslim prayer sites in Yangon is just the latest in a litany of abuses inflicted on Burma’s religious minorities by ultra-nationalist Buddhists. Add this to the decades-long persecution by the Burma Army of non-Burman ethnic minorities, many of whom are also non-Buddhists, and you get a nationwide cocktail of religious intolerance and conflict.

Muslims, Christians, and indeed Buddhists, who oppose the extremists are increasingly living in fear, in a country where ethno-religious nationalism has led to hate speech, intolerance, discrimination, persecution, crimes against humanity and, in one particularly egregious case, genocide.

That is the picture presented by CSW’s new report, Burma’s Identity Crisis: How ethno-religious nationalism has led to religious intolerance, crimes against humanity and genocide, published today. The report is the result of over three years’ work, involving first-hand front-line research, supplemented by information provided by CSW’s contacts in Burma and by other organisations working on these issues. It tells the human stories, it analyses the legislative framework, it assesses the international community’s response and it provides a call for action.

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India: A rude awakening in an election year

Dr Shashi Tharoor, the former Under Secretary-General of the United Nations, once described Narendra Modi as a paradoxical Prime Minister who says one thing and does another.

Coming into power in 2014 on egalitarian slogans like “ache din aane wale hain” (good days are coming) and “sabka saath, sabka vikas” (togetherness with all and development for all), Modi appealed to the corporate and middle class groups who were already beginning to resent the Congress Party, which was plagued with a series of corruption scandals. Posturing as the “development visionary” while presiding as Gujarat’s Chief Minister (2001-2014), he was fielded as the best candidate who could fix India’s decaying economy and good governance.

This clearly was not the case, as the reckless almost overnight demonetization had a drastic impact, particularly on lower income groups.

The promise of good days is far from being realised. For the religious minorities that make up approximately 16.3% of the population the last five years have been anything but favourable.

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