Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Challenges of Religious Terrorism

Published in The Book Review, Volume XL, Number 3, March 2016, pp. 71-72, ISSN: 0970-4175

Deconstructing Terrorist Violence – Faith as a mask

Ram Puniyani
Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 2015, pp. xxvi+180, 695.00

Lifeblood of Terrorism – Countering Terrorism Finance
Vivek Chadha
Bloomsbury Publishing India Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 2015, pp xiv + 258 pages, 509.00

Religious nationalism remains an important phenomenon in the last three decades, which has manifested itself in an explicit manner after the fall of the Soviet Union.   The books under review seek to study the phenomena of terror and violence, unleashed across the globe, which the authors argue, have deep linkages with the advent of religious nationalism. 

At the outset, Mark Jurgensmeyer’s argument about the rise of religious nationalism as the new ideology replacing the ideological strife of the cold war era, in terms of intensity may be relevant with reference to Punyani’s book.   The present world order since 9/11 in the USA, the series of terror strikes in countries like India and various European nations highlight the challenges of religious terrorism emanating from religious nationalism.
Also, another important development that bolsters the phenomena of religious centric terrorism is the overwhelming impact of the globalizing tendencies in the post Bretton Wood world order.  They seek a standardization and homogenization in terms of institutions of governance, trying to promote democracy and free market economy as an universal ideology along with the movement of labour and capital.
The works of Ram Puniyani and Vivek Chadha are  sincere attempts to unravel the complications and challenges to the secular and liberal social order in the present scenario.    The emergence of religious terror as a predominant discourse sometimes is juxtaposed according to Ram Puniyani, with the majoritarian sentiments backed by the state apparatus to the detriment of the minority community.
The challenges of religious terror are manifold as the authors argue that this phenomenon carries with itself, (a) devastating potentialities to undo all the major achievements in the modern secular world and, (b) to blur the geographical and national boundaries, in terms of movement of capital and support to terror activities in an age of transnationalism.   What is more critical is the evolution of terror networks through faith based organizations and money laundering in the name of serving the marginalized sections and addressing social evils through civil society organizations.
The recent trends of corporatization of terror outfits like the ISIS and the success of NGOs in topping the governments in some countries is a cause of concern, wherein the western attempts to foist democracy as an universal ideology has backfired, whilst enraging the various socio-cultural groups, leading to the mobilization and assertions, as Punyani’s argument suggests, that western attempts to foist democracy as an universal ideology has backfired leading to mobilization and assertion, which are attempts to confront the western hegemony through globalization.

Scholars have sought to trace the historical evolution of various group identities that fostered faith based terror outfits and resultant conflicts amongst them in South Asia and other regions.    This phenomenon has been aggravated by the western discourse under the stewardship of the United States to usher in an ‘universal jurisdiction’ to modernize and secularize the traditional societies.   The enterprise of ‘reconstructing’ in order to contain religious strife’s, is also fraught with its own consequences, notwithstanding the colonial legacy of major western powers propelled with the politics of memories, over their obliterating impact on the traditional societies.
In other words, the financial networks, money laundering networks and fund raising campaigns have the propensity to further the cause in the non-western world to establish a ‘high standard of morality’ in public life, to seek solace in a system wherein religious and political identities are fused.   The traditional notions of nations and nationalism is coming under severe strain due to globalization and deep penetrating power of Mcworld institutions. Vivek Chadha’s insightful assessment of the transformation of terror outfits across the globe, is akin to the global operations of MNCs seeking s a large number of background activities to create and launch the final product.    Chadha states that the cost of the product is not merely its market price, but the cumulative cost of its development.   This is vindicated by the series of networks between various terror outfits, drug cartels, and sections of banking and finance at a global level.
These challenges remain confounded as the two works suggest,( in wake of an ambivalent State in some nations) lack of means and will, for a concerted international response to confront the deep transnational religious linkages and their enormous financial networks.   The networks of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Tablighi Jama’at movements outside India, after the advent of neoliberal reforms, in many parts of the globe are significant indicators of adopting different strategies in different places for fund raising and recruitment. The role of Diasporas in contributing towards the long distance nationalism and religious terror merits attention.
The post 9/11 world era highlight the same predicament faced by various nations in addressing the societal challenges, that seeks to influence the socio-cultural realms and  influence their respective markets.   The concept of the global village as propounded by Marshall Mcluhan has become an intrinsic reality of the present world order.  However it has demonstrated the potentialities of fostering transnational collaboration and networks to further the cause of faith and terror, and movements against the tide of cultural homogenization.
The Challenges according to Punyani are the advent of Hindutva in India and their subsequent attempts for a strategic alliance, marked by the rise of Christian right across the globe.  This seeks to pursue belligerent means and goals of confronting the Muslim world and thrust democratic regimes in their neighbouring states.   This exercise is denounced on the ground that it would only facilitate the imperial forays of the US in their respective regions, at the cost of undermining the local, social, and traditional orders, probably falling into the Huntington trap to discredit and vilify Islamic world.
The traditional understanding of national security was confined to territorial security but ignored the well being of citizens as an essential component of national security.   In other words, national security required the safeguarding of national goals.   In the Indian scenario, where secularism is a core value in our national goals, they have been severely challenged by the series of communal conflagrations in India.
The books are a welcome intervention and try to bridge the divide between domestic and international politics. The south Asian region remains Indo-centric in terms of its geographical spread and asymmetrical power structure. Politicization of religion or fundamentalism of any kind is not peculiar to any particular country and a broad perspective needs to be adopted while exploring the linkages between terrorism, fundamentalism and globalization. Containing the terrorist violence and countering the lifeblood of terrorism calls for a concerted political will of all the nations around the globe and the larger question remains about the complicity of the state in religious conflicts, which could strip them of their neutrality and legitimacy.

Friday, June 26, 2015

An island of equanimity amidst the sea of turbulence

Virginia Review of Asian Studies
Volume 17 (2015) 269-272
(ISSN 2169-6306) 

Book Review Section

“Journalism can never be silent: That is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.”
– Henry Anatole Grunwald
Along the Red River: A Memoir by Sabita Goswami, translated by Triveni Goswami Mathur.  New Delhi: Zubaan, 2013. 320 pp Pbk, ISBN 9789381017012.

Reviewed by R. Radhakrishnan
Symbiosis International University, India
A memoir is usually an outlet to tell an untold tale, where the writer usually talks of his/her achievements and their relentless struggle to attain their objectives apart from confronting the usual vagaries of life and the challenges in negotiating with the world around them.  Along the Red River by Sabita Goswami is more than a memoir and it  comes at a time when the world is infested with memoirs written by some people which are merely a “tell all tales,” collection of anecdotes about movers and shakers and their tryst with destiny.
A memoir as one’s personal account and commentary is also an arduous task of not gravitating towards partisanship, for its presence in the public domain, also renders personal getting transformed into political. Hence a memoir by this logic has an inbuilt idiosyncrasy, of presenting an account of agony as well as ecstasy.
Along the Red River is a memoir written by a person with a multilayered identity – a woman, a mother, a journalist, an observer and commentator covering one of the regions with a turbulent history, a chronicler of our times, who was witness to the traumatic encounters of the nation building exercise, experimented in India’s northeast region.
Since independence, the northeast region of India has been confronted by a series of problems ranging from uneven development, ethnic and cultural minority syndrome and influx of illegal migrants have shaped the politicization of ethnic identities and the separatist movements in the Northeast.  While many policy analysts’ have written about this region and called for resolving the crisis which continue to even baffle many scholars of the Indian constitution, since the federal state with unitary features have, over the years, given adequate space for a kind of consociational democracy, as propounded by political scientists like Arend Lijphart. 

The political representation of various groups and the exercise of veto by minority groups are hallmarks of consociational politics, which are seen in nations to address the fears about majoritarianism. Sabita Goswami precisely highlights these issues with much more finesse, through her perceptive accounts of the state of Assam in India, the failure of party politics in evolving an inclusive and stable socio-political order.
The narrative and the dissection of the conflicts in the northeast of India, with special reference to the volatile situation in Assam have been very vividly documented. The commentary is further enhanced at various points, substantiated by the rich details that transcend a mere firsthand account of a journalist working in a disturbed region in terms of the ethnographic details about the region, insightful comments and feedback, on to the public policy and the role of the state government under various leaders, towards ethno politics.
The author rather takes a holistic view of the issues concerning the genesis of the conflict which lies in the demographic changes that have occurred in the region since independence. With massive influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, almost made Assam into a ‘refugee’ state in the first three decades since independence. Large-scale transfer of cultivable land to the settlers/refugees was followed by the economic exploitation and alienation generating a strong sense of intra-tribal identity and militancy. Hereafter, political parties were competing with each other for getting these refugee votes, which played a significant role in electoral victories.
This scenario is not only very complicated to comprehend but a rather daunting task for a journalist and a social commentator to give an authentic and unbiased account, which is the hallmark of this book. The book offers an insightful and evocative note on the transformation of the society; break down of the state and the subsequent militarization of the region.
While the narrative is a firsthand account of a journalist, the detailed analysis of the role of the Indian state in a heterogeneous society has been very vividly described through her visits to the sites of contestation and frequent interaction with the power centres. The author’s memoir clearly hints that India is passing through a critical phase of its post-independence history and that its polity has come under severe pressure due to the collapse of political institutions followed by erosion of democratic norms, prevalence of social unrest and increasing corruption.  Assam according to her has been witness to the rising demand for power by more social groups on the one hand, and limited resources on the other, which had flared up political and social turmoil.
Moreover, apart from its own diversity what has accentuated the crisis in Assam has been the widening economic disparities and increasing unemployment which posed a major challenge to its stability as a federal unit of the Indian nation. The author highlights the role of communalism; caste prejudices and politicization of ethnicity continue in endangering the social fabric and harmony in Assam.  She strongly emphasizes that these conflicts had led to an erosion of state authority and its ability to usher in social transformation within the society.
The author’s commentary on the rise of various insurgent groups provides an insider view and perspective on regions affected by ethno-politics, which the author attributes to the militarization of the region and the shrinking of democratic space leading to the aggrieved groups resorting to extra constitutional means. This is also marked by rank opportunism, corruption and nepotism which is marked by the steady decline in the mediatory role played by the governing elite and the party system.
The analysis of events including the infamous Nellie massacre and various terror strikes, by the author brings forth an important aspect which must be noted by any scholar of social science, is that of the role of the state, which remains significant in a heterogeneous society. Its complicity especially during sectarian conflicts, robs it of its neutrality and legitimacy, resulting in communities seeking to settle their disputes outside the constitutional domain, resulting in the State becoming an epicenter of conflict.
While democracy and federal polity in India have by and large taken care of its plurality, through constitutional safeguards, it must be noted that the ethnic movements are forms of mobilization, mainly concerned with seeking parity in an uneven social order or competing for power with other groups. They are not necessarily divisive and that the groups can transform themselves into a larger aggregate or split into smaller units during the various mobilizations, as suggested by the author.
The nation-building exercise in India also involves safeguarding the autonomy and interests of the state from the quagmire of ethno-politics, which revolves around distribution of official positions, legislative representation and control over political agendas. The author elucidates this argument and also conveys the futility of the political agendas of various contending groups, since the state remains intact as an institution, with the new rulers’/players only continuing with their old game in terms of perpetuating their domination. So the author clearly suggests that State in Assam has either acquiesced with the politics of mobilization or has tried to deal with it by repression, at different points of time.
The author is very categorical in reading the challenges to the region and has called for utilizing the ethnic identities in a constructive manner to promote nation building and for strengthening democracy.
The publication of this book by Zubaan is a welcome intervention but at the same time it shouldn’t be perceived as yet another addition through the prism of feminist discourse, as has been the case with some other works. It is an account provided by a senior journalist and a social commentator who happens to be an Indian woman and who continues to live life on her own terms whilst being confronted by the male patriarchal order. So in terms of negotiating with an unequal order and saving oneself from the inherent subjugation, the author has displayed tremendous courage and conviction, even to the extent of sacrificing and suffering within the institution of marriage. Yet her equanimity as an individual is commendable since her memoirs doesn’t give an inkling of victimhood, it rather expresses her determination to confront such inequality against women.
In other words one may conclude that Along the Red River is an account of an upright person with self respect and without an iota of self righteousness. Her comments on journalism as a career having a glamour quotient, where women like her were meted out an unequal treatment in the male centric social order, is very pertinent in understanding the underlying discourse in the South Asian societies.

Challenges of Religious Terrorism

BOOK REVIEW: Published in The Book Review, Volume XL, Number 3, March 2016, pp. 71-72, ISSN: 0970-4175 Deconstructing Terrorist Vio...