Growing Trend of Majoritarian Authoritarianism in South Asia

Map of South Asia
Map of South Asia

While it is no secret that majoritarian nationalism, culminating in Donald Trump becoming the US president in 2016 and Brexit in the UK, is swiftly taking over most parts of the world, South Asia proves to be most prone to it. The forces of majoritarianism are changing the region to a dystopia, through divisive electoral politics and undermining of democratic institutions, which was difficult to imagine by the turn of the century.   

South Asia is becoming the antithesis to the values for which the region needs to stand for. The chain of events in parts of South Asia paints a very unfortunate picture of the region. The ruling government in India is growing intolerant towards all kinds of dissent against government policies or certain legislations. As both the houses of Parliament passed the new Citizenship Amendment Bill aka CAB in December last year, protests have been held across different parts of the country by different student-based organisations and other groups for a variety of concerns. The Bill grants citizenship to individuals who are Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, Jain or Parsi who entered India from Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Afghanistan before December 2014. While in the North-East ethnic groups fear of cultural dominance by the migrants from Bangladesh, in rest of India, the act is being opposed for being against the Muslim community, the largest minority in the country. However, the dissent has been suppressed by the ruling party resorting to different means including banning the internet in areas where protests were being held, huge deployment of troops and imposition of Section 144 prohibiting assembly of five or more persons when unrest is anticipated in the name of maintaining law and order. 

The same trend is consistent across other countries of the region. In Afghanistan, at least three nationwide protests against the ruling National Unity Government have been suppressed by the use of force. The security demands raised in the 2015 Tabassum Movement, a movement led by the members of the Hazara community and born out of frustration of people after beheading of Tabbasum, a 9 years old girl with her 6 other co-travellers, was not received very well by the government. In 2016, The Enlightening Movement was born when the government re-routed a power line from the central province, the Hazarajat to northern provinces. The government failed to prevent the coordinated suicide attacks by the member of ISIS-Khorasan killing close to a hundred people, which many Hazaras see the National Unity Government secretly involved. The indifference of the government towards the community coupled with its discriminatory policies in aid and developmental budget distribution motivated the Taliban to launch deadly attacks against the Hazaras in Uruzgan, Malistan and Jaghori leading to killings of hundreds and several thousand displacements. The Uprising for Change Movement born out of frustration with the government failing to provide security triggered by a lethal car bombing attack near Kabul’s Zanbaq junction in May 2017 was met by a brutal crackdown by the police. The government in Afghanistan pays no heed to the plight of minority communities. The long-persecuted Sikh community only recently came under attack in Jalalabad city, causing the community to consider the option of mass migration out of Afghanistan. 

Additionally, besides the dissenting voices on the streets are being crushed, there is ample evidence to show that discriminations and ethnic bias may be very systematic. In Afghanistan, the already limited opportunities available to minorities are given in favour of the traditionally powerful Pashtun community. Leaked memo from the office of president in 2017 is suggestive of how appointments are being made based on the ethnic lines. In 2018, the government forced 164 military generals into early retirement under reform pretext, the majority of whom belonged to non-Pashtun ethnic groups. 

In Pakistan, also ethnic and religious minorities are targeted and the state has not been able to protect them. Hazara Community of Pakistan has been persecuted and targeted several times in Quetta, each time many have been killed and injured. While at the same time the level of tolerance against Christian, Hindus and Ahmadia religious groups has been declining as many face religious persecution due to blasphemy laws and political motives. In Bangladesh also persecution of religious and ethnic minorities has happened repeatedly. The case of persecution of the Chakma tribe is one such example. 

Morbid electoral politics 

There is a growing threat to the idea of electoral democracy. We see an increasing trend where elections are largely fought on sentiments with which the majority community of the country aligns with. The popular sentiments of people on religious and ethnic issues are being appropriated for political gains while diverting people’s attention away from other relevant socio-economic issues. Nationalism, based on religion or ethnicity, as opposed to civic nationalism, has become the dominating ideology. This is almost the case of most of the South Asian countries. In India, the core issues such as the promises to abrogate article 370, which gave special status to erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and building of Ram Mandir in a disputed site in Ayodhya formed the basis for a comfortable victory for the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) giving the party a second term at the National level. Keeping the promises, BJP abrogated article 370 in August 2019 and the Supreme court of India cleared grounds for making Ram Mandir, however, both these developments have been challenged by several political parties and organisations on various grounds including their constitutional validity, bypassing the voices of a significant section of people from Jammu and Kashmir and hurting the sentiments of the Muslim community. 

At the same time, army operations such as the airstrikes conducted by the Indian Army in Balakot, Pakistan, in response to the attack in Pulwama region of Kashmir by a suicide-bomber belonging to a Pakistan-based terrorist group have been hugely publicised for political gains. In Sri Lanka as well, the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks created deep insecurities among the Sri Lankans as the relative peace enjoyed by the country since the conclusion of the nearly three-decade-long conflict in 2009 ended with the attack. The attack led to increased violence against Muslim households, and Muslim businesses were boycotted. The Easter attacks also led to the heightened political discourse around majoritarian Nationalism and have been hugely publicised for political gains as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa secures victory with 52.25 per cent of the vote with the majority of the electorate from the Sinhala-Buddhist group.

In Afghanistan, after several delays, the presidential elections were held on 28-September 2019. The campaign in elections has been driven entirely on ethnic lines while ignoring the socio-economic issues. Widespread electoral fraud, mismanagement and institutional shortcomings have eroded people’s faith in the institutions of democracy. 

Undermining the democratic Institutions 

In India, we see that the ruling government has also been interfering in the independent working of several notable constitutional and statutory institutions. Although healthy discussions between political parties and institutions are always welcome and are required as well, however, many institutions have accused the government of interfering in matters for political ends. In January 2018, four senior judges of the Supreme Court held a press conference to issue a warning about the mishandling of sensitive cases by the then Chief Justice of India Dipak Mishra and its dangers for Indian democracy. In October 2018, Viral Acharya, deputy governor of RBI expressed concerns about the attempts made by the ruling government to undermine the regulator’s independence. Ruling in favour of Hindus in the case of Ayodhya indicates that democratic institutions such as Indian high court are vulnerable to the influence of majoritarian nationalism. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.


Reza Ehsan and Sapna Goel are PhD Scholars in Economics Department at South Asian University, New Delhi.