The South Asian region is a multi-religious, pluricultural, pluri-linguistic and psychedelic geographic entity. In sociological and political terms, this entity has an identity which comprises many edges. It is interesting that sharpening of any of the edges of this identity has the great potential of divisiveness. The experience has shown that this potential was realized leading to divisions of South Asia.
It may be recalled that the sharpening of Islamic edge of Muslim identity of South Asia led to the mobilization and consolidation of Muslims leading to the partition of India. This partition resulted in the emergence of Muslim majority country of Pakistan. Historically, Muslims had been part of struggle against British rule in India. The leader of Muslims, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was fondly called ‘Ambassador of Hindu Muslim Unity’ of India. However, this goodwill and cordiality was broken on the plank of assuming the headship of Independent India. Jinnah was not at all willing to compromise on this issue.
The division of India on the basis of religion still left more than 14% Muslims in India who were scattered all over the country. There were two Muslim majority states who did not opt to join Pakistan and preferred to be part of India. Indian Muslims have a distinct profile and attire and thus, they do not have a cultural uniformity among themselves. Their religious affiliations to or the other group from within is another matter.
The creation of Pakistan in the name of Islam in 1947 did not resolve all the problems pertaining to Muslims in the sub-continent. In Pakistan, sectarian differences arose mainly between sunnis and shias, which over a period of time acquired severe bloody forms. In sunni-shia conflicts, thousands of people have died, mosques, dargahas, private properties worth millions of rupees have been reduced to ashes. It is amazing to note that armed zealots enter the mosques, shooting the devotees offering ‘Namaz’ (prayers). In other parts of the world, like Iraq or Libya, the violent sectarian clashes are aimed to acquire political power; however, in the case of South Asia, it is to finish the opponent and eliminate them completely.
In Pakistan, another edge of the national identity, the ethno-cultural-linguistic identity, is getting sharpened, seeking to establish their separate homeland. The struggle of Balochs and Pashtuns are perfect examples to illustrate the context.
In 1971, East Pakistan ceded from Pakistan as a climax to many a stormy political and social event which had been going on for several years. Thus, a new Islamic Republic emerged as Bangladesh. It is interesting to note that Bangladesh had 1800 kilometres distance from the provinces of Pakistan. Islam was the only link which connected East Pakistan as a Muslim majority area with Pakistan. In fact, the ethno-cultural and linguistic edge was sharpened when Bangladeshis realized that they were losing their ‘Bhasha’ (language) in the newly born Pakistan of which East Pakistan (former East Bengal) had become a part on the basis of their vast majority. The founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah had declared Urdu as official language of Pakistan to imbibe a sense of unity and solidarity among the people living in Pakistan. There was a great public outcry of grievances of the region against the Centre. People of Bengal are very sensitive about their language and culture. It would be a serious exercise to analyse the latest trends of acculturation taking place in other parts of the world, in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is located in the delta of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in the North Eastern part of Indian sub-Continent. There are numerous theories about the origin of the people of Bangladesh. Some scholars maintain that the first segment of population of this area have Vedic origin. However, around 13th Century A.D., people of Arab, Persian and Turkish origin entered the region. Muslims constitute about 98% population of Bangladesh. There is small percentage of people of other denominations living in Bangladesh. Chittagong Hill Tracts has Chakma majority. However, the followers of Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity are also found in Bangladesh. For some time, Chakma’s had launched a struggle for autonomy but the matter was settled with the Government. Bangla society has had the influence of ascetics and Sufis which resulted in winning converts and equally attracted influx from northern India. The cultural and linguistic aspect of Bangla identity is so dominant that these dimensions are generally ignored. However, the emergence and role of Jamaat-Islami in Bangladesh warrants a thorough study on the subject. In Bangladesh, majority Muslims are Sunni’s with small number of Shias.
The Bangladesh struggle for independence was marked with the cultural assertion. However, there were other issues also which provided foundation stones. Some of these issues were non- acceptance of Bangla as an official language, domination of bureaucracy by non-Bangladeshis, appropriation of provincial grants, and revenues by the central government.
The later developments, like the assassination of Sheikh Mujib-ul-Rehman, Army takeover by General Irshad and the role of Jamaat-i-Islami raise the issue of Islam versus ethno-cultural-linguistic identities in South Asian Muslim societies.