In Sri Lanka, memories of war and terrorism are very much alive. The decades-long civil war between the Sinhala-dominated government in Colombo and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was brutal by any standards, and it ended a decade ago with a climactic battle near the Indian Ocean that took thousands of civilian lives. But Sri Lanka, beautiful and multicultural, has never had just the one fault line. On Easter morning, when hundreds of Christians and hotel guests were killed by suicide bombers there, we were tragically reminded that this is not a country at peace with itself.
In that, it’s not alone in South Asia. The entire subcontinent that the British once ruled from Delhi has seen, over the past decade, religious and ethnic identities harden and divisions deepen. Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to be hotbeds of extremism and terrorism, with religious minorities most vulnerable to violence. In Buddhist-majority Myanmar, democratization has proved a mixed blessing, as the new government has overseen the persecution and expulsion of its Muslim Rohingya minority.
Violence in Kashmir has flared up again after a decade of relative quiet, and the transformation there of a secular-nationalist separatist movement into one dominated by radical Islamist impulses is complete. The Indian northeast is on edge as the government in New Delhi builds up a giant register of citizens in order to isolate and expel migrants from Bangladesh that officials claim number in the millions. And this Indian election, more than any other since independence, is being fought on the basis of religion, security and identity.
One thing is clear: The naive presumption that economic growth and prosperity, or even increasing education, would help minimize these cleavages and prevent them exploding into violence stands completely discredited. Sri Lanka itself is perhaps the most advanced part of the Indian subcontinent when measured in terms of human development indicators. Even within India, it isn’t just the poor and left-behind north that is the problem.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi first rose to national prominence because of his unapologetic response to religious riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002 - and Gujarat, then as now, was both one of the richest and one of the most divided parts of India. Kerala, the most religiously integrated and the most advanced state in India, is also more divided than ever - and there, as in Sri Lanka, as in Kashmir, as in Pakistan, it is inflows of Gulf money and imported Wahhabi fanaticism that must bear a large part of the blame. The globalization of Muslim identity has come at the cost of local cohesions and compromises - and no state in the subcontinent has done enough to reverse this dynamic and keep Gulf money out.
Everyone in the subcontinent blames someone else for growing religious and ethnic terrorism. Afghanistan blames Pakistan; Pakistan blames India; India blames, well, the British for dividing the subcontinent in the first place. But the truth is that all of our postcolonial states have failed in one crucial respect. They never built up the sort of modern, inclusive, all-embracing national identity that is the only defense against violence in a region as integrated and as burdened with history as this one.
India came close. But the Indian state’s preferred belief in the country’s “composite culture” depended on the myth that different communities had lived in peace with each other for centuries before colonialism. That was, of course, nonsense; and a liberal project of nation-building that centers upon lies about the past cannot survive. (Illiberal attempts at nation-building, in contrast, depend upon telling lies about the past - yet another way in which the dice of history are stacked against liberals.)
Sri Lanka is a depressing illustration of how dangerous it is to allow “ascriptive” identity, such as belonging to a religious or ethnic group, to determine the attitude of a state. The Tamil Tigers claimed to be secular nationalists, but over the course of the long war they attacked many Buddhist religious sites and expelled and killed thousands of Muslims. Meanwhile, mainstream Sri Lankan politics became increasingly focused on the “protection” and militarization of Buddhist and Sinhala identity, and there has unsurprisingly been a recent flare-up in anti-Muslim riots.
You can’t move on from a past like Sri Lanka’s without proper reconciliation and an attempt to create a new, postwar identity. The LTTE may be dead and unmourned, but its legacy is its methods and the fear they evoke. Terrorists affiliated with the LTTE pioneered suicide bombing. Now, other Sri Lankans have tragically taken it forward.
The tensions of the past were controllable, perhaps. Even a civil war as brutal as Sri Lanka’s allowed for tourism, for pockets of growth and dynamism around Colombo, for progress on human development. The LTTE was beaten on the battlefield.
But, for the extremists of today’s South Asia, anywhere can be a battlefield and so military defeat is no longer an option. This great subcontinent, with its linked and ancient civilizations, the land where Buddhism and Hinduism were born, the place where Christianity and Islam put out their first outposts, teeters on a very dangerous precipice. If it is not to become the next Middle East, then it needs to radically rethink how it approaches nationalism and identity.
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Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was a columnist for the Indian Express and the Business Standard, and he is the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.”