Friday, June 11, 2010

Extremism in South Asia (Review)

Extremism in South Asia includes armed class struggle, armed secular nationalism, and religious militancy ranging from street riots to organized terrorism and state repression against dissidents and minorities. The willingness to resort to violent means seems a natural enough criterion for separating extremist from moderate politics. The criterion is at any rate implicit in Deepa Ollapally’s book The Politics of Extremism in South Asia, which gives only passing attention to non-violent instances, such as school textbooks inculcating hatred for other communities or nations, or institutionalised discrimination against them. The book is less a study in underlying ideologies than in actual politics and armed conflict.



Dr. Ollapally is Associate Director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University, Washington DC. While doubtlessly interesting to students of South Asian religions, her book’s principal target audience seems to be the makers of international and security policies. The main armed conflicts of the past decade in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Kashmir, India’s Northeast, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are reviewed. The prehistory of these conflicts is sketched only very briefly, e.g. the Pakistani repression (of “particular ferocity”) in East Bengal that triggered the war of 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh is dealt with in a footnote (p.188 n.35); while the Sikh separatist movement for “Khalistan” that died down in the early 1990s is not discussed at all.

By contrast, the recent story of the extremist movements is recounted in detail. This survey of factual data approaches the norm of impartiality better than most. Sometimes the author takes issue with colleagues whom she deems less unbiased, e.g. against the attempt to portray India as an overbearing “hegemonic” power (common in the US since the Bangladesh war), she points out India’s restraint during its invited participation in the Sri Lankan conflict and argues: “Barbara Crossette calls India ‘the regional meddler’, a loaded term at best, but it reveals a certain amount of confusion on the part of outside observers.” (p.164)

For each country and instance of actual extremism, she enquires which one of the current explanation models applies best. Is extremism a reaction to poverty, or to state repression, or is it the result of religious doctrines, or of state initiative? Predictably, she downplays the religious factor. No clash of civilizations here, but the primacy of states as political agents. This happens to be the position of most academics and of most governments involved, including the latest American presidents with their insistence that terrorism, though committed in the name of religion, has nothing whatsoever to do with religion. In recent years, Western authorities have zealously adopted the mantra familiar in India, where every communal riot or bomb attack is followed by assurances from every pulpit that “terrorists have no religion”.

While conformistic, the de-emphasizing of pre-existing religious identities as factors of conflict can reasonably be justified on merit. The role of religion turns out to be secondary in some cases, and often asymmetrical between the parties to a conflict. Thus, in Sri Lanka the Buddhist clergy gradually involved itself in the nationalist Sinhalese movement and gave the conflict a religious character, on their part anti-Hindu (with occasional vandalization of Hindu temples) and often also anti-Christian. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam concentrated on strategic rather than symbolic targets and maintained a secular stance. Though the international media often created a muddle by speaking of a struggle between “Buddhist Sinhalese” and “Hindu Tamils”, the LTTE had a Christian component, while its roots lay in the emphatically secular Dravidianist movement.

A more novel focus of this book concerns the importance of a country’s “geopolitical identity”. Thus, while Pakistan draws its identity from the Partition, and has since enjoyed a certain prestige in the Muslim world as a frontline state of Islam, Bangladesh found a new and less predetermined identity in the 1971 war of liberation. Geopolitical identity largely determines the attitude of the outside world to the internal conflicts of South-Asian countries, e.g. in reporting on the condition of the minorities, secular and democratic India is measured with a different yardstick than Islamic Pakistan. International concern for the minorities, as for the Lankan Tamils in the final phase of the war, is not always innocent: the author notes that colonialism in its last phase justified itself no longer as an instrument to “civilize the savages” but to “protect the minorities” (p.40). The reader can take the hint that neocolonial interferences in South Asia, often through NGOs, use the same justification.

Review: The Politics of Extremism in South Asia. By DEEPA M. OLLAPALLY. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xi, 239 pp.

The Journal of Asian Studies (Cambridge), volume 69, issue 02, pp. 637-639.

http://journals.cambridge.org/repo_A77kQYP2

6 comments:

AlysiaDraeger0417永瑞 said...

A liar is not believed when he speaks the truth...................................................

Apuleius Platonicus said...

This is a really great review. I especially like the way that you address the fact that there can be a real case made for the role of religion being secondary and/or asymmetric in conflicts. It is all too tempting to simplistically overstate the role of Islam, in particular, in response to the lockstep "conformistic" chorus of those who insist on absolving Islam of any role whatsoever in terrorism and other forms of violence.

SadeRa盈君iford0412 said...

我又來看你囉~加油^^ 祝你天天順利開心..............................

欣來 said...

If the quantity is not a lot, I will hand carry..................................................

Ghost Writer said...

Dr. Elst

have you seen the new movie "Agora" about the killing of Hypatia? If yes, what are your views on the historical accuracy of the film? ...Also how is being received in Europe ?

jawad said...

the author has collected secondary data, she has never been to Afghanistan and Pakistan. She cited all the wester books. she describes what Americans want to listen. She has the advantage to know the past history of sub-continent of being the Indian origin. She is Indian, living and working in US and hence her bias is evident