Religion, A Source of Conflict or a Resource for Peace in South Asia?

RELIGION A SOURCE OF CONFLICT OR RESOURCE FOR PEACE IN SOUTH ASIA?

by Asghar Ali Engineer

It is an age old debate whether religion is a source of conflict or a resource for peace? Also can religion play any positive role in bringing about 1) stability in South Asia and 2) consolidating friendship between India and Pakistan? To debate these questions about 20 scholars and activists from India and Pakistan met at Dhulikhel, a mountain resort near Kathmandu, Nepal.

The consultation was organized jointly by Irenees of France and Pipal’s Tree of Bangalore jointly from 10-13 May 2009. Scholars and activists both from India and Pakistan participated in the consultation. From Pakistan historian and peace activist Prof. Mubarak Ali, noted poet Fahmida Riyaz and Prof. of Pakistan Studies from Karachi University Syed Jafar Ahmad came from Pakistan.

Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, Sanjiv Kulkarni, Prashant of Sri Ravi’s organization Art of Living Foundation, Ms. K. Anuradha of Aman Vedika, Hyderabad and Mazhar Husain of COVA, Hyderabad took part from India. Mr. Henri of Irenees from France and Siddartha of Pipal Tree, Bangalore too play active part in discussions. Prof. Kapil, member Nepal Human Rights Commission, also participated from Nepal.

Siddartha of Pipal Tree, Bangalore Coordinator of the consultation welcomed the participants and also threw light on the purpose of the consultation. He said situation in countries of South Asia especially Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan is quite worrisome and religion appears to be playing major part in these conflicts. We scholars and activists have to understand, analyse and try to work for peace in this region and hence importance of this consultation.

Mr. Henrri of Irenees introduced the mission of the organization saying we are working for peace in several parts of the world including Asia, Africa and Latin America. Stability in South Asia is very important as it is flashy point today and so this consultation has its own significance.

Dr. Engineer opened the consultation through his inaugural remarks. He said that role of religion cannot be understood without socio-political context. It would be erroneous to think religion or conflict is innate to religion as many secularists and rationalists tend to do. Conflict and violence comes from external sources i.e. from socio-political situation in the region. Religion is often used as a tool by vested interests.

Pakistan today is in turmoil and Taliban are riding roughshod and we blame it on religion as they talk of Shari’ah law. In fact what Taliban practice in the name of Islamic Shari’ah, is their tribal customs and traditions. It has very little to do with Qur’anic principles and values. Engineer also said that to bring peace to the region one cannot succeed simply by declaring war against Taliban as America wants Pakistan to do and Pakistan is doing under American pressure.

Peace would be a very challenging process in Swat and other regions of Pakistan. Engineer said in the long run peace and stability would be possible by adopting two fold approach to Taliban problem: One, and most important is that Afghan people will never compromise of their sovereignty and freedom. Whole history of region is witness to that. To mess up with their freedom is to invite turmoil in the region and which is what US policies in the region has done.

Secondly, the region has not seen any substantial development and economi8c prosperity. It is one of the most backward regions of the country. They must be brought in contact with modernity, modern ideas and development. Development should be of course with wisdom and justice. Unless these two factors are born in mind it would be very difficult to control Taliban in the region. No amount of weapons and wars will succeed in eliminating them.

From Pakistan Prof. Mubarak Ali threw detailed light on the kind of history text books which are taught there and hence education has become part of the problem. Hindus and India are portrayed in very poor light and in fact Hindus are blamed for many ills in medieval and modern history of Indian sub-continent. Prof, Mubarak Ali is an eminent historian from Pakistan.

Prof. Mubarak Ali said religion and politics have one common goal: that is to acquire power and use it to fulfill their aims. However, to achieve this object, their methods are different. Religion mobilizes religious sensibilities of they people to capture power while politics uses intrigues, diplomacy, and attempts to win public opinion, if it can be so done, or uses military, if that is not possible.

In fact struggle for power has become seminal be it Pakistan or India or any other country. Even in democracy manipulations of public opinion and conspiracies are not uncommon to usurp power. As long as aim remains power, and it has always been the aim, conflict will continue either using religion or language or ethnicity, as tool. Unless power becomes means to serve people one cannot do away with conflict and violence. But if power remains an end conflict and violence will be the order of the day.

Fahmida Riyaz, said in her paper, Religion is perhaps the earliest human quest about the mystery of existence as well as the striving for order and collective living. It gave people laws to live by and whetted their wonderment and curiosity, leading to deep contemplation of the self and the universe. She also stressed that over thousands of years, religions have come to be an important part of collective and individual identities. She also dealt with phenomenon of fundamentalism. Bringing out political dimension, she observed that the upper and middle classes adopt saffron on the forehead and regular attendance of mosques when the party if power supports religiosity. They give it up when another party comes to power. Thus religion is seen as mere instrument of power. 

Syed Jafat Ahmad traced briefly history of various political developments in Pakistan since its formation. He observed that role of religion is statecraft was recognized in the three constitutions of 1956, 1962 and 1973, in varying degrees. According to Jaffar
Ahmad relevance of religion in Pakistani statecraft remains even today. The Ulama though desire Pakistan to be an Islamic country but absolve themselves of any responsibility for the political mess today by saying they are not directly responsible for introducing Islamic system in Pakistan.

Mr. Prashant of Art of Living Foundation threw light on Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s understanding of religion. According to him religion, if properly understood, can be no obstacle for change. He says even our religious practices evolve with change. He said Ravi Shankar stands for peace and harmony and he has intervened in number of post-conflict situations like in Gujarat and even in Iraq by organizing Art of Living camps. However, a question was raised whether it was enough to teach peace to victims of violence or to teach it to perpetrators of violence.

Mr. Sanjeev Kulkarni from Dharwar, India spoke very critically of Sangh Parivar and its politics of Hindu-Muslim conflict. He felt Sangh Parivar is responsible for changing the image of Ram from a maryada purush (a man of ideal human behavior) to a warrior Ram with arrow and bow to promote its own political interests. It came to power by misusing Hindu religion for political purposes. Through Sangh Parivar Hindu religion became from a higher philosophy of life as in Upanishads to an emotional tool for power.

Mr. Siddarth was of the opinion that there have been counter cultural movements in Hinduism in the past like Chokha Mela, Kabir and Eknath and there is need to revive them. He referred to various Hindu bhakti saints and if we revive thei8r traditions we can do away with the caste system. He said these movements emphasised the openness and inclusive nature of Hindu religion. He said concept of advaita (non-dualism) can promote universalism. Dr. Engineer pointed out to philosophy of wahdat al-wujud (Unity of Being) in sufi tradition which is also quite universal in nature.

Mazhar Husain of COVA maintained that we need to change our whole paradigm of reacting to Sangh Parivar and adopt a pro-active paradigm i.e. from identity to ideological politics. Today contemporary politics in India is conflictual identity politics and ideological politics of yester years like the one practiced by the Congress in early days after independence, has disappeared. Secular and socialist ideology should replace politics of religious and caste identities. That alone can promote peace and stability in the region.

Ms. Anuradha spoke from her experiences as an activist among dalits. She narrated a story of a dalit worker who faced several problems in life after he brought, at the insistence of his wife, a Hindu idol. He had to stop eating beef and he could hardly afford mutton and chicken. He had survived on dry beef through the trying days of famine in his area. Then once the idol came to his house he had to contribute to funds raised for Hindu festivals at the cost of his other necessities. Thus religion became a source of conflict at home rather than a source of peace. She said that these aspects of ritualized religion for the poor also had to be looked at.  She also talked about role of women in promoting secularism and said they have formed Women for Secularism for this purpose.

 

There was much more in the rich discussions which followed after every presentation but for want of space we cannot obviously include that here. Suffice it may to say that it was very useful and insightful consultation on role of religion in South Asia and stability and peace.

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(Secular Perspective May 16 - 31, 2009)
Centre for Study of Society and Secularism


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