ficheseule_corpus_conclusions Dossier : Violence and Peace chalenges of religions.

, , Bangalore, June 2009

Report Katmandou Meeting: Religion and Peace in South Asia

An international consultation , organized by Irenees South Asia, 11-13 may 2009, Kathmandu.

Keywords: Use of religion for war, use of religion for peace | Peace according Islam | Peace according Buddhism | | | | | India | Pakistan

The consultation “Religion and Peace in South Asia”, organized by Irenees and Pipal Tree between 11-13th May 2009 was held at Dhulikhel, a mountain resort 30 kilometres outside Kathmandu.

The main issues that were considered were the following:

  • What factors lead to religious fundamentalism in South Asia? Is the Taliban a threat to the existence of Pakistan and the stability of South Asia? What is the nature of the threat arising from Hindu extremism?

  • what is the potential for the re-interpretation of religious texts and practices? If a potential exists how is one to go about it?

  • In what ways have secularism contributed towards the construction of pluralism?

  • In what ways has secularism been insensitive to religious sensibilities?

  • How does one create a secular-religious interface where core values are shared?

  • What should be the secular-religious dialogue to ensure that religious extremism is stemmed and finally stopped. What concrete steps can be taken?

To debate these questions about 20 scholars and activists from India and Pakistan met together in a climate of intensive dialogue and rigorous introspection.

Scholars and activists from India, Pakistan and Nepal participated in the consultation. Historian and peace activist Prof. Mubarak Ali, noted poet Fahmida Riyaz and professor. of Pakistan Studies from Karachi University, Syed Jafar Ahmad, came from Pakistan. Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, Sanjiv Kulkarni, Prashant of Sri Ravi Shankar’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 Siddhartha of Pipal Tree, Bangalore, also played an active part in the discussions. Prof. Kapil Sreshta, member Nepal Human Rights Commission, also participated, forcefully bringing in the Nepali side of social conflict..

Siddhartha of Pipal Tree, South-Asian Coordinator of Irenees, 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 a major part in these conflicts. Scholars and activists had to understand, analyse and try to work for peace in the region and hence the importance of this consultation.

Mr. Henri of Irenees introduced the mission of the organization saying it was working for peace in several parts of the world including Asia, Africa and Latin America. Stability in South Asia was very important as it was a flash point today. Therefore this consultation was very signficant.

Dr. Engineer stated 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 come from external sources i.e. from socio-political situation in the region. Religion is often used as a tool by vested interests.

It is very important to put this consultation in the context of the Indian and Pakistani situation (While Kapil Sreshta discussed the problems in Nepal as well the focus was on the current political crisis and the situation arising after the Maoist insurgency, and not on religious factors.) To begin with very powerful forces are seeking to divide the different religious communities in India and Pakistan on a permanent basis. Rampant poverty and unemployment, largescale illiteracy and ignorance also contribute to the fact that people can be easily manipulated by vested interests. The elitist nature of the Globalisation process and the commercialisation of human values, where concern for other human beings has diminished and money has become the main focus, has also contributed to a climate of suspicion and hatred.

Not many people realise that India is the second largest Muslim country in the world after Indonesia. Indian Islam, with the exception of a few fundamental currents, is probably {{the most liberal in the world. Islam in India has several progressive thinkers whose ideas can contribute to counter Islamic fundamentalism in other parts of the world. This is largely because Indian Islam finds itself in a pluralist and democratic context.

In the present political context in India this very pluralism and democracy, which has been the envy of many third world governments, is under threat. One of the biggest areas of threat comes from what is called Communalism, which is another word for hatred, suspicion and violence between different religious communities. Up to recently it was the Muslims who were seen as the enemies by Hindu fundamentalists. But after Hindu militants destroyed the four hundred year old Muslim mosque, called Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, there has been a significant rise in Hindu extremism. Apart from sparking of murderous riots in different parts of the country it was a a psychological watershed for the Muslims in this country. For the first time Muslims felt that they would not be considered equal citizens of the country. Even worse many have even begun to feel that their lives and properties were not anymore safe. Later the terrifying Gujarat riots made Muslims feel even more under siege.

Many will say that religious intolerance in India received a major boost from the events of 6th December 1992. On that day thousands of people menacingly surrounded a mosque, the Babri Masjid, in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya. A specially trained team of Hindu religious activists, wearing yellow headbands, worked their way through the crowds towards the mosque. They carried ropes, pickaxes, shovels and hammers. In a few hours the mosque was demolished. In the aftermath of the event, bloody riots erupted in many parts of the country. More than 1200 people died between 6th December and 13th December in the clashes. The killings continued into January 1993, when 458 persons died in Bombay, the epicentre of the violence. The number of Muslims killed were substantially more than Hindus, and many of them were killed in direct clashes with the police.

The Babri mosque had been the centre of a controversy for many years. According to the activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (a Hindu militant organisation) the mosque was built on the exact site where the Hindu god Rama was born. It was alleged that the Muslim ruler, Babar, destroyed a temple in the sixteenth century and erected a mosque in its place. Several historians have stated that there is no serious evidence to justify the claim that the mosque was built on the ruins of a temple. With the demolition of the mosque the cultural history of India was bound to take a different course, and the myth that the country was a haven of non-violence would be exposed. The land of the Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi was poised to be a battleground of ongoing religious conflict.

The extremists of Hindu Nationalistic movement in the country have an ideology referred to as Hindutva, which is a rather free and inaccurate reinterpretation of Hinduism, with the view to give it more political muscle. It talks of a common culture, common civilisation and history. Hindutva ideology plays upon historical memory and portrays the Muslims as tyrannical during the medieval period. Muslims are often seen as unpatriotic. It is not uncommon to hear people saying that Indian Muslims are more loyal to Pakistan than to India.

In the past year the target has shifted, or has been enlarged, to include the Christians. Large-scale harassment of Christians is taking place in the state of Orissa and Karnataka. One reason for seeing the Christians as the main enemies may be because they are a soft target, unlike the Muslims who are capable of reacting with equal force. In Kandamal, Orissa, thousands of Christians had to flee when their houses were destroyed. Even a year after the incidents they are living in refugee camps, and are afraid to go back to their homes.

It is not accidental that India has been the land of Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi. Tolerance is deeply ingrained in the psyche of Hindus. But what is happening in recent times has been referred to as ‘the semitisation of Hinduism’, where certain sections feel that religion and politics must be combined in an aggressive manner. In the process they are attempting to transform the very nature of Hinduism from a peaceful, tolerant and pluralist tradition to one that is triumphalist, hegemonic, intolerant and monolithic. That they may not succeed in doing this is quite another matter, because the resilence of Hinduism to spurious types of militancy is well known. The attempt to create a ‘majoritarian’ religious community is bound to fail in the long run even if it has some fearsome successes in the short run. But in the immediate context they have suceeded in brainwashing a small section of people and also roped in lumpen and criminal elements to serve as their storm troopers.

Mr. Siddhartha 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 their 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 the philosophy of wahdat al-wujud (Unity of Being) in sufi tradition which is also quite universal in nature, and similar to the Advaita concept Siddhartha had mentioned.

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

Mazhar Husain of COVA, Hydearabad, 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 (which is the cheapest meat in India) and he could hardly afford mutton and chicken. Earlier 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.

Pakistan is going through its most difficult period since its independence. There appears to be a collapse of the state apparatus in big sections of the country. In the Swat valley for example girls are not allowed to go to school, women cannot leave their homes, or even go to the market. Barbers have become unemployed because beards are compulsory. Musicians are also unemployed because music is considered evil. Of course it is well known that the USA was behind the strengthening of the Taliban to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. The evil that was created has now turned against the USA and the people of the region, and the world as a whole.

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 their sovereignty and freedom. The whole history of the 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 economic 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 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 the people to capture power while politics uses intrigues, diplomacy, and attempts to win public opinion, 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 the aim remains to grab power, and it has always been the aim, conflict will continue, either using religion or language or ethnicity, as too. 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 Riaz, 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 the political dimension, she observed that the upper and middle classes adopt saffron on the forehead and regular attendance of mosques when the party in power supports religiosity. They give it up when another party comes to power. Thus religion is seen as a mere instrument of power.

Syed Jaffer Ahmad briefly traced the 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 the relevance of religion in Pakistani statecraft remains strong even today. He was not sure that there was space for a liberal Islam to emerge on a large scale. He was also not sure if secularists could make big inroads in the present conjecture, even if the long term possibility existed.


It was clearly felt that Kashmir had become a secondary issue, given the serious internal difficulties Pakistan was facing. There was general agreement that in the earlier years India had a weaker argument in the overall Kashmir conflict. But issues had now become so complex that perhaps the best solution would be to recognize the present line of control, at least for a few decades. A military solution to the conflict was certainly not possible, and no fresh political solution was conceivable in the short run.

Dialogues such as the one in Kathmandu were very important, and it was recommended that a larger consultation be held bringing politicians, religious leaders, intellectuals and social activists}} together. Such a consultation could play an important role in nurturing values of pluralism, secularism and democracy and women’s equality in the region. Perhaps people from Afghanistan should also be invited.

It was important to foster religious renewal in the region by promoting liberative understandings that would encourage pluralism, social engagement and ecological concern. There was an urgent need to hold {{inter-religious conferences that can promote progressive theological approaches within Hinduism and Islam. It was important to promote exchanges of youth, political and religious leaders between India and Pakistan so that “people to people” democracy could develop.

Nepal was also experiencing ethnic and religious tensions. It would be important to have a conference in Nepal to see how to stop this contagion before it became worse.