Webinar discusses implications of religious fundamentalism in South Asia

November 11, 2020

The rise of religious fundamentalism and extremist ideologies in South Asia – specifically in India and Pakistan – is dividing communities, triggering violence, and marginalizing members of religious sects, experts said during a Northwestern University in Qatar webinar.

The panel “Religious Intolerance, Sectarian Violence, and Casteism in South Asia,” organized by the South Asian Student Association (SASA) at Northwestern Qatar and co-sponsored by the Liberal Arts Program – featured Toral Gajarawala, associate professor of English and comparative literature at New York University, and Usman Ahmad, a freelance writer and religious minorities’ rights activist in Pakistan. The discussion was moderated by Khadija Ahmad, a student and representative of the SASA.

Providing an overview of the intersectionality between religion, race, and caste in India, Gajarawala explained that two types of violence – one based on caste and one on community (religion) – are now converging. While caste-based violence is “typically quotidian, or part of everyday life, and based on things like food, and hygiene” communal violence occurs on a larger scale and usually involves “state sponsorship or intervention,” she said. 

The root cause of the rise of violence and segregation, Gajarawala explained, is due to the increased Indian hyper-nationalism, which she said is “not really a form of cultural pride, nor is it a period of anti-colonial history that we are fondly proud of, but actually a very powerful affective force in the post-colonial world that has very directly induced a hatred of minorities.” 

She added that while “nationalism can seem benign,” in some contexts, in India it is a serious crisis. “It idealizes a certain type of citizen of the right gender, of the right faith, of the right caste,” which ends up marginalizing anyone who does not qualify as the ideal “Hindu caste male.”

Providing a perspective from neighboring Pakistan, Ahmad explained that the differences that divide Pakistani communities, like India, are also related to the “casteism, religious intolerance, and sectarianism.”

Pakistan’s struggle for sovereignty has defined much of its political and social structures today. “The present-day caste system comes from the struggles of establishing the country…and defining whether Pakistan is a homeland for Muslims,” Ahmad said. 

Unlike India, Islam “is at the very heart of Pakistan’s identity,” which, he said, has been exploited for the sake of power dynamics and how things function in the country. “Sectarian and religious divides that exist in Pakistan today,” he said, “are a type of caste system that is structured around religion,” where minorities are also marginalized.

In their concluding remarks, the panelists agreed that the discrimination and marginalization of minorities is a growing problem in the region that can only be prevented and controlled through the enforcement of laws of inclusiveness and accountability.