History Repeating Itself: The Possible Return of Sinhalese Nationalism

Sri Lanka is a nation with a history of long-standing and underlying ethnic tensions. Now, still recovering from a bloody civil war that ended roughly 10 years ago, the country must look back to the root of the problem, a nationalism targeting a populace within its own borders. 

Sinhalese nationalism, a Buddhist ideology originating in response to British colonization and widely accepted by the majority of the Sinhalese populace, was spearheaded by the administration of the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, and excluded the Tamil people, causing undue tension and strife. This exclusion led to the nearly 25-year-long civil war, a clash spurred on by nationalistic pride that has continued into the modern day. Now, the fear of the return of an authoritarian rule that would target and persecute minorities is resurfacing. 

The origin of the nation’s ethnic nationalism, specifically Sinhala nationalism, may be traced back to even before the nation’s independence from Britain in 1948. Back then, the not-yet-formed nation was part of a broader anti-colonial, anti-foreign movement. After independence, and with the formation of an electoral democracy, Sinhala nationalism grew stronger. 

As the government just started to gain its balance following independence, the Sinhala language was made the language of the state. While it is the majority language spoken in Sri Lanka, the decision made the minority Tamils feel marginalized. With the formation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (L.T.T.E.) and subsequent attacks in an attempt to create a separate state, the bloody civil war began. 

The rule of president Mahinda Rajapaksa from 2005-2014 saw the declaration by the president that he would vow to end the long war. What followed was the decimation of the remaining L.T.T.E. in 2009. The brutal victory was accompanied by tens of thousands of Tamil civilian deaths and the stoking of Sinhala nationalism by the Rajapaksa administration. 

The war’s end gave Rajapaksa increased power and popularity, which he used to silence critics. Those in opposition to him and various journalists were attacked with impunity. Corruption was rampant as many of his relatives quickly found positions at government posts. 

Since 2019, the Sri Lankan government has been controlled by the Rajapaksa brothers, who retook power following their defeat in 2015. The older, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former general who led the Sri Lankan Armed Forces to defeat the Tamil Tigers, holds the office of president and the younger, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the 6th president of Sri Lanka serving from 2005 to 2015, holds the office of prime minister. In 2015, following victory over then president Mahinda Rajapaksa, the administration of the 7th president, Maithripala Sirisena, passed a constitutional amendment imposing a two-term limit on the presidency and revoked the president’s immunity from prosecution. The chances for those amendments to be repealed and even more radical changes to the Sri Lankan government are higher than ever as the current administration needs only five more seats for a supermajority in the parliament, which would enable them a massive amount of control over the government with little resistance. The victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa caused rights groups to worry that he would seek to undo those reforms. Bandula Gunawardena, a spokesman for the Rajapaksa government’s cabinet, said,  “We hope to change the Constitution.” The threat of an authoritarian rule and a return to the country’s nationalistic ways could be imminent if the actions of the Rajapaksa brothers continue down the path they are heading.         

The Sinhala nationalism fueled by past administrations and the scars of civil war and the atrocities committed by both sides still remain. While the Tamil people may no longer be the target of direct action by the government, the minority populations residing in Sri Lanka, including the Tamil people, still fear the possibility of the reigniting of the nationalism of the past.

How Blasphemy Laws Influence Nationalism in Pakistan

When India gained its independence from the British in 1947 it was divided into two countries, Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan with large groups of people relocating to the country of their religious affiliation. During this migration, after the two countries split, violence occurred between the two groups, and they both believed that it would be impossible for them to peacefully live together.  This migration of the two religions started the idea of nationalism in Pakistan where communities were based on similarities they shared, including religion and political beliefs. Differences between the groups of people, especially religion, led to discrimination of minorities.  Discrimination and genocide against the Bengali-Hindu population led East Pakistan to rebel against West Pakistan in 1971. The rebellion of East Pakistan against West Pakistan led to war between the two and Pakistan surrendered. What was then East Pakistan gained independence from Pakistan and became Bangladesh. 

The war that occurred in 1971 is a selectively forgotten piece of Pakistan’s history. Textbooks barely mention their defeat, as a way to promote a positive and successful history. Little is taught about the military oppressions and events in East Pakistan, including the mistreatment of people that consisted of rape, torture, and killings. When it is mentioned, the history is edited to portray clearly anti-India and anti-Hindu beliefs. The war, however, had an impact on the country itself. Losing East Pakistan caused the development of a “never again” mentality leading to the increase in its military budget, as well as the development of nuclear weapons to create a stronger military so that something like the loss of the 1971 war could be prevented from happening again.

Today Pakistan is an Islamic country with strong feelings of nationalism surrounding it. Christians are a minority in the country, making up only 1.5% of the population. They face persecution in the country often caused by the strict blasphemy laws. These laws pose a direct threat to minority groups, specifically children, individuals with mental disabilities, members of religious minorities, and poorer people, artists, human rights defenders, and journalists. Punishments for the blasphemy laws are either life in prison or death. Human rights groups say these laws are used as a way to persecute minorities. However, a large percent of the population supports these laws and any accompanying punishments, creating a sense of nationalism in the county specifically around religion and the persecution of minorities. Islam is the religion of the majority of the country, and a sense of unity is felt through it. Other similarities include language and culture. The attention to the persecution faced by minorities has been heightened recently since the  Asia Bibi case.

 Asia Bibi, a Christian woman from Pakistan, spent eight years on death row for blasphemy charges. She had gotten into an argument with a group of women in June of 2009, was arrested and beaten, and became the first woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan. She was told if she changed her faith she could be freed. Her sentence caused an international backlash, and when taken to the Supreme Court was overruled.  She was then released and allowed to go to Canada. There were protests over this ruling with thousands of protesters demanding that she be put to death. Her story is similar to many other blasphemy cases. Asif Pervaiz, a Christian man has a similar story. He has been in custody since 2013 after sending “blasphemous” text messages to his supervisor. He was told to convert to Islam and when he refused, he was sentenced to death and fined 50,000 Pakistani rupees ($300).

When Pakistan’s Prime Minister was asked about Christian persecution for blasphemy, he said there was no trend, and each situation was case-specific, the same as in other countries. He said that “Christians are very welcome” and that the government is working to protect them. This tends to be untrue, the majority of the blasphemy charges are against Christians. The families of people who have been convicted live in constant fear that they will be attacked. Nationalism exists within Pakistan and there is mistreatment and persecution of minorities, especially religious minorities. People in these minority groups are easily targeted and they often work low paying jobs and have limited opportunities. The groups of nationalists support the persecution of minorities, especially through blasphemy laws. Blasphemy laws are only the latest problem that exists in a country like Pakistan where religion is tightly intertwined with the laws, and minority groups fall victim to false claims of sacrilegious hysteria. Until Pakistan changes these laws so they do not affect the population’s minorities disproportionately religious Nationalism will continue to be an issue for the country.

Constructing Muslims as “Others”: how Hindu nationalism in India inflicts religious division and social conflict within the country.

In 2014, Narendra Modi, an active member of Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was elected as the prime minister of India. In 2015, the assistant general secretary Abdul Rahim Qureshi of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board criticized the Modi government at a press conference, saying that the board was “concerned about the situation in the country which has worsened after Narendra Modi became Prime Minister. Not only Muslims, but Christians are also feeling uncomfortable”, as the right-wing forces have become “active against the minorities after the formation of a new government at the Centre.” In 2019, Narendra Modi was re-elected for the second consecutive term, and was determined to build India as an explicitly Hindu state. Beef ban in Maharashtra, different forms of coercion of Muslims, and the revision of Indian city names are some of the problems that have been brought by the Hindu nationalism in India. 

During Narendra Modi’s second year of his presidency, he approved the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill stating that the slaughter of cows and sale of beef were banned in the western state of Maharashtra. Anyone accused of breaking the law will face a fine and a prison-time up to five years. The bill was first passed by Hindu nationalist party BJP in 1995 and was sent to the president for approval in 1996. For 19 years, the bill has failed to become a law until Narendra Modi became the president. The Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, also expressed his thanks to the president on Twitter. While the cow is a sacred animal for Hindus, the meat industries across the country were dominated by Muslims; thereby, many Muslims facing unemployment by the time the bill took effect. “This is a political decision,” said Mohammed Aqil Qureshi, the President of the Buffalo Traders Welfare Association in New Delhi. “They want to gratify the Hindus and harass the Muslims.” In 2015, a farm worker, Mohammad Akhlaq, was lynched to death by Hindu extremists, (due to the) accused of slaughtering a calf and possessing beef at his house. The charge was later proved to be a rumor spread by six people including temple priests and young boys, all of whom were arrested and sentenced. “We are the only Muslim family here”, said by Jameel Ahmed, Mohammed Akhlaq’s elder brother, “we have been living here for four generations and had never faced any issues before.” With the rise of the ultra-right BJP government since 2014, India has been quickly losing secularism by letting down its effort of maintaining distance from all religions. 

Larger campaigns launched and propagated by Hindu organizations are essentially about consolidating Hindu society across India. “Love-jihad” and “ghar wapsi” remain as two of the most controversial issues across the nation. The term “love jihad” is used to imply the kind of romantic relationship between young Hindus and Muslims that is not built out of affection, but the sole intent to convert each other, typically from Hinduism to Islam. Since 2015, this belief was propagated by Hindu natinoalist organizations, such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Sri Ram Sena, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, and Hindu Janjagruthi Samiti. India’s right-wing parties have declared that “love-Jihad” is a part of an Islamist conspiracy, urging Hindu nationalists to be alert for the “love jihad”. In November 2020, a Netflix show named “A Suitable Boy” has a Hindu-Muslim kissing scene, which led to members of the Hindu nationlist party condemning the scene as offensive to their beliefs and asked India’s authorities to investigate Netflix. According to a report provided by The Economist in September 2017: “One populist Hindu organisation’s helpline claims to have ‘rescued’ 8,500 girls from ‘love jihad’. A website called Struggle for Hindu Existence carries endless titillating stories about Muslim youths luring Hindu maidens into wickedness. Repeated police investigations have failed to find evidence of any organised plan of conversion. Reporters have repeatedly exposed claims of “love jihad” as at best fevered fantasies and at worst, deliberate election-time inventions.” The meaning of “Ghar wapsi” is “Back to Home”, representing a set of religious conversion activities planning to facilitate conversion of non-Hindus to Hinduism. THE Vishva Hindu Parishad’s leader Ashok Singhal has said that “ghar wapsi” was one of the “developmental agendas” of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In December 2020, BJP member of Parliament Anant Kumar Hedge held a ceremony in Haliyal taluk that successfully converted 23 people from 5 Christian families to Hinduism.

Hindu nationalism also desire to change Indian cities and landmarks that are relevant to Islam, eliminating the culture and heritage of many Muslims. In 2018, officials from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party changed the name of the city “Allahabad” to “Prayagraj”- meaning the Hindu holy journey site. The city was constructed in 16 century by Muslim kings. The name “Allahabad” signifies the legacy of a Muslim ruler, the Mughal Emperor Akbar. Yogeshwar Tiwari, the head of the local university history department, said that the history needs to be changed along with the name. The name of India’s Mughalsarai railway station was also changed to Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, for the purpose of memorializing a right-wing Hindu leader who passed away at the site in 1968. 

Many problems caused by Hindu nationalism in India involve impeding of Muslim life. The relations between the two communities have become increasingly strained. Before Hindu nationalists held most of the political power, riots and fights between the two groups have never happened so often. The loss of secularism and the rising mutual distrust have also brought about extremism and even terrorism, leading to significant tensions within the country. 

Return to the Age of Innocence – Cow Vigilantes, Hindutva, the Angry Young Men Behind Modi’s Hindu Nationalism

When India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, envisioned the modern republic born of the British partition in 1947, he exalted the idea of a country founded on secularism. Resembling a palimpsest, India was to be a place of tolerance, where layers of thought and reverie can be inscribed without erasing what has been written previously, and centuries-long religions, languages, ethnicities, cultures flourish in harmony. Even its name, India, a term that originates in Latin, contains an impressive etymology – sindhu in Sanskrit for “river,” hind in Persian, and indos in Greek – reflecting a rich history of inclusion and diversity. Since its founding seventy years ago, the Western world often views India as its potential heir of liberalism. Embracing democratic systems, free-trade, and globalization, the second most populated country in the Asian continent was poised to become the world’s new beacon of hope. 

That reality has changed. Since prime minister Narendra Modi’s election in 2014, a discriminatory citizenship law amendment (CAA) passed; Kashmir, India’s sole Muslim-majority state, lost its constitutional autonomy; heavy-handed government crackdowns against demonstrations swung across the country. Despite widespread criticism of such policies, Modi and his nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) rode the wave of millennial support to a second term in 2019. A movement made up of cow vigilantes, and Hindutva believers, Modi’s re-election victory, fueled by a base full of chauvinistic, disillusioned, and violent Hindu young men, solidified the country’s growing nationalistic trajectory, enchanted by vague mythology of a holy past. 

The last two summers in India were plagued by turmoil and violence: Cow vigilantes patrolled neighborhoods, assaulting any who allegedly smuggled or consumed beef, and dozens have been killed by lynch mobs, most of whom were Muslims. Though many blame India’s descent to mob rule on Modi and the BJP’s promotion of a Hindu Nationalistic agenda, the root of its male rage goes beyond the current government. India is a country of low median age and gender imbalance, where its youth face a harsh reality – a job crisis. With more than 600 million people under 25, the millennials in India came of age in a period of slow economic growth. Despite greater access to technology and education, millions face the grim prospect of not finding well-paying jobs: many college graduates are forced to seek menial labor while work and wages steadily decline. Each month, more than 1 million job seekers enter the labor market, yet in 2017, India only created 1.8 million additional jobs. Leaked data from a national survey in 2018 show that India’s unemployment rate rose to 6.1%,  and youth unemployment, people between age 15-29, reached between 13% to 27%, a trend that can only be exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. 

In many ways, public angst and group grievance in India are sentiments uniquely masculine. A generation of families aborting female fetuses in preference for sons has resulted in a “bachelor bomb” – there are more than 37 million surplus men, who will remain single between 2020 and 2080, in a country that harbors masculine aggression and sexual violence. Drifting without purpose, young Hindu men gravitate toward the growing right-wing organizations for a sense of direction, forming a stereotype that isn’t unlike their western counterparts: keyboard trolls with little education,  in their childhood bedrooms furiously tweeting angry rebukes against every perceived slight to Hinduism and Modi. Most of them can be found congregating on Twitter, Hindu-pride-focused WhatsApp groups, and alternate-history websites, circulating conspiracy theories, truncated quotes and speeches taken out of context, and vicious attacks against minorities, women, journalists. Ideas like Hindutva, roughly translates to “Hindu-ness,” promotes a sense of exclusively Hindu national identity among young men, painting the myth of a glorious ancient civilization before Mughal and British invaders. Hindu young men, enraged by – as Modi’s put it – India’s “1,200 years of servitude,” strive to purify the country into the old Holy Land and demand to return to an age of innocence that is half-imaginary. 

  An identity crisis is plaguing the Hindu young men, harboring rage, frustration, and a deep sense of victimization. In the last election, misinformation in the social media ecosystem promoted a line of identity politics, where video snippets of Modi’s principal opponent, Rahul Gandhi, spread virally on the internet, portraying him as an incapable and entitled dynast. Jobless, without a stable family, lacking any competitive market skills, young Hindu men rejected Gandhi’s elite background. Instead, they identify with Modi’s personal story: the son of a tea seller who climbed the competitive ladder in politics and rose to power. The BJP’s hardline rhetoric provides a direction for these young men to unleash their anger, often towards minority groups. Passing stringent laws that punish religious conversion in marriage, the party fuels the flame for conspiracy theories like “love jihad,” pushing a false narrative that Muslim men are wooing and impregnating Hindu women as part of an elaborate scheme to alter India’s demographics. Modi’s vow to protect India’s sacred cows sparked mob-lynchings in states such as Uttar Pradesh, where many Muslim populations reside. Convinced of their victimhood, young Hindu men adhere to Modi’s inflammatory rhetoric and commit grave violence against the Muslim community, channeling a collective frustration to participate in a political struggle between Hinduism and Islam. 

Young Hindu men, embolden by virulent right-wing agenda, has become the driving force behind India’s pivot toward nationalism. Religious toleration retreats to a thing of the past as a Hindutva identity emerges. The original answer to who is an Indian, the founding fathers’ vision of diverse communities coexisting in peace, is disappearing in Modi’s era of male rage. If there is an age of innocence that India has lost during the past few years, it’s the age of secularism.

After 50 Years, Is Bangladesh a Secular or Religious Nation?

The history of Bangladesh has been marked by a struggle between secularism and religion for the nationalistic soul of the country. Bangladesh fought its war of independence in 1971 on the basis of the ideal of secularism. For Bangladesh, embracing religion or creating a secular identity has been a source of major contention in the creation of its national identity.  

After India gained independence from the British Empire in 1947, the Partition , a division of India and Pakistan into two states, was created by the members of the Bengal Legislative Assembly. They decided to cast three separate votes to decide the fate of Bengal. At the end of the three separate elections, it was decided that Bengal will indeed be divided. The Muslim regions were then separated into West and East Pakistan by India’s landmass. Bangladesh, which was Bengali, was part of Eastern Pakistan. Bengali ethnic nationalism began to rise in East Pakistan soon after Pakistan gained independence. 

A majority of East Pakistan was Muslim, while a mjority of West Pakistan was Hindu. There were linguistic, cultural, and political differences that couldn’t be solved. The Bengali people spoke their own language and eventually wanted it to become the primary language of east Pakistan. But they faced immense discrimination by the western region.   

A civil war broke out between West and East Pakistan in 1971. The East won and controlled “Bengali”, which is now the country of Bangladesh. Soon after Bangladesh became independent, it turned into a secular state that was founded by the Awami League, based in an Islamic society. Awami League is one of the major political parties in Bangladesh. Secularism in Bangladesh was seen as a denial of Islam, by some people.

In the 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh, secularism was one of the four fundamental principles of state policy. But the President of Bangladesh, President Ziaur Rahman removed the secularism principle in 1977, and declared Islam the state religion. Today, the leading and most popular religion in Bangladesh is Islam. Bangladesh has 152 million Muslims, which makes up 90.4% of the country’s population. 

The Awami League, brought back the four fundamental principles in the Constitution in 2008, returning the country to its secular roots. Even though the U.N. saw Bangladesh as a “Moderate Muslim Democracy,” Dipu Moni, the Bangladesh forign minister since 2019 said that the country is, “A secular, not moderate, Muslim country.” Secular values have clashed in Bangladesh’s society, with the abolishing and the re-establish of secularism, it reveals how important these principles are to their Constitution. 

In March of 2016, Bangladesh’s high court rejected a petition to have Islam reinstated as the offical state religion, a policy that had been in place since 1988. The petition was written by secular activitsts to remove Islam as the offical state religion of the Muslim majority of Bangladesh. There were also steps in place to have a nationwide Islamic strike led by the Jamaat-e-Islami to force the petition’s rejection but it was a moot point because their prayers were answered.

The secular petitioners were not allowed to state their case or produce arguments. Subrata Chowdhury, one of the secular activists in the case said, “We are saddened (at the ruling). It’s a sad day for the minorities of Bangladesh, the judges simply said the rule is discharged.” Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, make up the minority religions of Bangladesh. The court said the petition was not legitimate because the people who filed never registered with authorities. Islam will remain the offical religion of Bangladesh. 

Jamaat-e-Islami is Bangladesh’s largest Islamic party and they see the outcome as a, “Victory of 160 million people.” Hefajat-e-Islam local leaders of the Islamic group also stated they are delighted with the courts decision, and members of the group accumulated outside of the court and held up a ‘V’ with their fingers for victory. Fazlul Karim Kashemy, a Hefajat-e-Islam leader said, “We thank the court on behalf of the nation for rejecting the petition, Muslims and non-Muslims in our society have been maintaining good relationship for long.” 

In November of the same year, government officials were contemplating removing Isalm as the official religion. After a senior politician claimed Bangladeshi people have embraced “a force of secularism.” 

 Dr Abdur Razzak, a leading member of Bangladesh’s Awami League party  said, “Bangladesh is a country of communal harmony. Here we live with people from all religions and Islam should not be accommodated as the state religion in the Bangladeshi constitution. I have said it abroad and now I am saying it again that Islam will be dropped from Bangladesh’s constitution when the time comes. The force of secularism is within the people of Bangladesh. There is no such thing as a ‘minority’ in our country.” He also said that Islam has been kept as the religion of the state for “stratigic reasons.” 

The International Religious Freedom Report of  2005 of Bangladesh states, “Religion is an important part of community identity for citizens, including those who do not participate actively in prayers or services. Confirming that religion is the first choice by a citizen for self-identification, with atheism being extremely rare.” 

Secularism and religion in Bangladesh has been so vilified by Islamists that it has come to mean something comparable to anti-Islamic. It hasn’t changed then, and it will certainly not change now.