At the moment, several countries around the world are witnessing the phenomenon of the majority community feeling irrationally threatened by minorities. But in South Asia, this phenomenon has existed for decades and culminated in violence against minorities, threatening the diversity in these countries. By exploring majoritarian insecurities in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka–all countries with distinctly different ethnic and religious majorities but similar fears–the processes involved in the progression of this phenomenon can be understood, and broad solutions can be identified.
Roots of Minority Intolerance
To understand why this trend has persisted in South Asia, Arjun Appadurai’s seminal book The Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger provides valuable insight. Appadurai states that hatred of minorities is a process that takes decades to materialize. The idea of a majority and a minority emerges through national censuses, “in the process of developing ideas of numbers, representation, and electoral franchise” in a modern nation state. This creates space for the formation of an “us vs. them” narrative.
As identifies solidify, the gradual construction of stereotypes about communities takes place, with efforts to clearly define and contrast between each other. In some cases, and under certain conditions, tensions emerge between these identities and the national identity, with the majority aiming to exclusively juxtapose its own identity with the national identity. “Numerical majorities become predatory and ethnocidal with regard to small numbers precisely when minorities (and their small numbers) remind these majorities of the small gap which lies between their condition as majorities and the horizon of an unsullied national whole, a pure and untainted national ethnos,” states Appadurai. He calls this the “anxiety of incompleteness,” whereby the majority sees the minority as the only obstacle to achieving its aim of a “pure and untainted national ethnos.” This leads the majority to perpetuate violence against minorities in order to eliminate them.
In the modern day, especially in South Asia, such narratives about minority communities tend to escalate during election season, often including the exaggeration of minority numbers, growth rates, and/or influence, to highlight a proclivity of these communities to gain control over the majority population. With social media usage in the modern era, these narratives can reach even wider audiences, often with negative results. WhatsApp and Facebook recently played a role in instigating riots and mob violence against minorities in Sri Lanka and India. Given citizens’ inability to discern the truth from falsehood online, the fear of small numbers is magnified through messaging that seeks to expose the allegedly “sinister agenda” of these minorities. Three countries best demonstrate this undeniable trend.
Cases from South Asia
In India, animosity towards minorities such as Muslims (about 13.4 percent of the population) and Dalits or lower caste Hindus ( about 16.6 percent), has prevailed for a long time. In fact, the formation of India and Pakistan was itself a product of inter-religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims. Moreover, Dalits (also called “untouchables”) have borne the brunt of hatred for centuries.
In the present day, this animosity has manifested in new ways: several reports have surfaced about mob lynchings of Muslims and Dalits on various suspicions, including the prominent case of Mohammed Akhlaq in 2015 who was assaulted for consuming beef and later succumbed to injuries sustained in the attack. The perceived threat from Muslims is driven by the paranoia that the community is growing their families in an attempt to eventually overtake the Hindu population in India, an idea termed “population jihad” by right-wing Hindu groups, and that Muslim men are luring Hindu women into marriage in an attempt to convert them and grow Muslim numbers, referred to as “love jihad.” In fact, in the run up to India’s general election in 2019, Facebook groups supporting the Bharatiya Janata Party have posted appeals to “save” Hinduism, despite the over 950 million-strong population of Hindus in India, making up over 80 percent of the population.
Meanwhile, Muslims and Tamils in Sri Lanka, who constitute 9 percent and 13 percent of the population respectively, also face persecution because both are viewed as a threat to the majority Sinhalese-Buddhist identity in the nation. This was made evident during Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, who sought to assert their identity in the face of receding government support.
Since the civil war ended in 2009, the Sinhalese-Buddhists has turned their rhetoric against the Muslim community, as seen in the anti-Muslim riots earlier this year. Similar to India, Sri Lankans have lamented the growth rate, though incremental, of the Muslim population vis-a-vis the Buddhist population, describing it as an existential threat to their religion. Leaders of radical groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a radical Sinhalese-Buddhist group, use historical instances of violence and misquote incidents to further demonize the Muslim community, augmenting fears and insecurities against them. Going forward, it is likely that this rhetoric will continue if the government seeks to retain Sinhalese-Buddhist right-wing voters.
Similarly, in Pakistan, the Ahmadi community constitutes only 0.22 percent of the population, according to census figures from 1998, but is painted as a threat to mainstream Islam, consequently bearing the brunt of sectarian violence. Ahmadis, whose theological beliefs differ from other sects of Islam, were declared as non-Muslims by the Pakistani Constitution during Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s regime in 1974. Over the years, Ahmadis have faced growing religious persecution, including legal and constitutional directives barring them from declaring themselves as Muslims or performing Islamic rituals.
Anti-Ahmadi agitations seem to be rising again at the behest of political parties seeking to appease right-wing voters. Before the 2018 elections, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik – an Islamic political party – began anti-Ahmadi campaigns to ramp up its support. This tactic was also adopted by members of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) last year when ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law called the Ahmadi community a threat to the country and its ideology.
Dealing with Majoritarianism
In the long term, the repercussions of politicians and majority communities tolerating and encouraging such divisive narratives for political gain will likely be disastrous. Reversing this trend, therefore, requires powerful political will and a strong civil society invested in moving forward together, and not at the expense of any one community.
Civil society has a role to play by engaging various social and religious groups to dispel negative notions, while academics and journalists should take it upon themselves to report on other communities responsibly. This must be aided by the police and judiciary instituting and enforcing measures to penalize and prevent such acts of violence. Overcoming insecurities towards minorities, thus, requires a collective societal approach over just a political one.
Image 1: David Holt via Flickr