Clash of Civilizations: The South Asian Experience

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In the early 1990s, the Cold War that had defined the world’s geopolitical scene for nearly five decades came to an abrupt end. This happened with the sudden collapse and dismemberment of the Soviet Union, emancipating its confederate states from the iron grip of communism. The Soviet experiment had failed as its economy, which had been scaffolded by its bureaucratic structure, crumbled under its own weight. 

The United States of America had emerged victorious and would dominate global politics for years to come. No foes could now frustrate the advance of American liberalism. No more power tussles appeared on the horizon as communism resigned to the archives of human history. In the words of Francis Fukuyama in fact, it was the end of history itself. American liberal values had ascended to supremacy and would hereafter be the sole guiding light of the human condition. The era of pax-Americana had begun!

Amidst the jubilation, however, the prophetic voice of an American political scientist, Samuel P. Huntington warned of a new style of conflict that was about to take over the world. So far, the world had witnessed an ideological conflict based on counterpoised economic aspirations of two blocs. Now, Huntington argued, a conflict along the lines of civilizations would emerge. Human races, in other words, would fall back on the bedrock of their religious and cultural foundations and train their guns at incompatible value-systems. The knife-edge boundaries of civilization would define the tectonics of a new age of global conflict, articulated by Huntington with an epic title: The Clash of Civilizations. 

The clash was witnessed in all parts of the world in some or the other way. But its most horrifying spectacle was probably the 9/11 catastrophe of 2001. This symbolized the clash in all its crudeness and brutality. Islamic fundamentalism was up in arms against the Western world, spearheaded by the US. The attacks were closely followed by ample retribution when President George W. Bush called the War on Terror a “crusade”, a term reminiscent of the medieval bloodbath that took place between Christian Europe and Islamic Arabia.

The South Asian Perspective

South Asia also became a theatre of the clash of civilizations with the rise of three major players: India, Pakistan and China. China although not a part of South Asia, has undeniable geopolitical relevance in the region and is therefore an important subject of study here.

In 1991, Pakistan fully embraced its Islamic identity as the Sharia law was introduced by the Enforcement of Shariat Act. However, the process had already begun in full earnest when in 1973, the country’s parliament ratified a fresh “Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan” giving impetus to Islam as the major force behind the country’s polity, jurisprudence and economy.

India’s leadership had never accepted, nor christened the nation as a Hindu republic, despite the overwhelming majority of this heterogeneous religious group. However, an event representing the clash of civilizations also took place in this country. In 1992, the Mughal-era Babri Mosque, located in the sleepy town of Ayodhya, was demolished by Hindu radical groups claiming the site to have been the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram, and that it was subsequently usurped by the Mughals to build the mosque. After this incident, various Hindu radical groups gained steady traction in the country, a trend that finally culminated in the sweeping victory of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014.

In China, all religions have been effectively purged by the communist forces, giving its politics a purely atheistic hue, almost to the extent of paranoia for religion. However, China’s ardent belief in the supremacy of its culture and preservation of its linguistic heritage makes it a unique player in this clash. Chinese have for centuries believed that their country forms the “Middle Kingdom” of the world, one that used to beckon all other human races to pay tributes to it. 

In the modern sense, after the sharp rise in its economic growth in the 1970s, China began treading the path of expansion using its cheap exports and recently the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. China humbled India in the 1962 war over a territorial dispute but continues to maintain the status of an all-weather friend with Pakistan. The relationship between an atheist behemoth and an Islamic republic makes an interesting case for geopolitical expediency in the context of the common rival, India.

The Indian Picture

India’s Hindu nationalist BJP, if anything, has used the clash of civilizations to great advantage. By continuously invoking the dangers posed by the Islamic ‘civilization’ represented by Pakistan next-door, the BJP has successfully rallied the voters behind the banner of preserving India’s Hindu essence. Banning the slaughter of bovine species which are considered sacred in Hinduism and keeping a patriarchal check on inter-religious marriages between Muslim men and Hindu women are two instances of how the party propagates preservation of Hindu values, not just culturally but also biologically.

To fight in a clash of civilizations requires the formation of a vanguard party that embodies the purest values of that civilization. Rather than ‘appeasing’ to Islamic forces within and without, like its rival Congress Party, the BJP sells on its ability to tackle them boldly and bluntly. Civilizational wars are after all not fought by compromise, but a force fuelled by cultural pride, chauvinism and dominance. BJP’s success thus lies in being seen as the ‘civilizational’ party of India.

With respect to China, although there is an undercurrent of abhorrence and even fear, the relationships do not stoop to levels as low as with Pakistan. This is primarily because of the linguistic barrier between the two nations that renders chauvinistic noises useless and media rhetoric ineffective. However, on the economy and defense front, India understands and acknowledges the growing dangers that China poses in the long run. Whether she can stand up to the dragon’s might is going to be one of the most pressing questions of its geopolitical and national security policy.

Specimen of the Clash

All three major South Asian players have clearly gone back to the essence of their civilizational values. All three boast of tremendous military prowess and a considerable nuclear arsenal. Clash of Civilizations can thus be amply studied through the South-Asian experience today, as it represents a specimen of this tragic global phenomenon.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.