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Defeat of Religious Parties in Electoral Politics in South Asia

by Nyla Ali Khan, 4 August

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Introduction:

The recent elections in Pakistan in which the Jamaat-i-Islami had a poor showing have made as clear as day that the homogeneous culture advocated by this politico-religious organization and vigilante groups affiliated with it lacks mass appeal in South Asia.

Although the Jamaat hasn’t enjoyed electoral success in either India, or Pakistan, or Bangladesh, the politico-religious organization hasn’t lagged behind in forging tacit alliances to relish mainstream power. In order to jog the memories of the readers, I underscore that in South Asia, historically, the Jamaat-e-Islami has always been pro-establishment.

Elections in Kashmir in which the Jammat-i-Islami Participated:

Subsequent to the large-scale arrests of leaders and members of the Front, elections were held in the state in 1971–72 in which the Congress orchestrated a landslide victory for itself, managing to acquire 5 out of 6 parliamentary seats and 56 out of 73 Assembly seats. That year the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gained visibility in the politically disputed state by garnering support to win 2 seats in Jammu.

In another unforeseen and interesting development, the Jamaat-i-Islami – which had insistently disavowed Kashmir’s accession to India, and is currently a vocal opponent of elections held in J & K within the framework of the Constitution of India – in a tacit understanding with the Congress regime, managed to get 5 representatives accommodated in the Legislative Assembly.

The 1977 in Jammu and Kashmir elections were a landmark event in the history of Kashmir, with the Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah-led National Conference eradicating the Congress presence in the Valley and capturing an indisputable majority in the Legislative Assembly, 47 seats out of 75. The strength of the Congress was reduced to a mere 11 seats, greatly diminishing its hitherto fabricated larger-than-life presence in J & K. The political ideology of the Jamaat-i-Islami was unable to importune the electorate and secured just 1 seat.

The fairness of the 1977 election has been highlighted by many political analysts: it offset the preposterous elections held in J & K between 1951 and 1972. Democratic elections, the installation of a representative government and the forging of a political space that accommodated multiple ideologies contributed to the creation of a non-repressive, relatively stable political atmosphere.

During the 1987 elections, the National Conference (NC) was opposed by an unwieldy coalition of non-mainstream, anti-establishment groups, calling itself the Muslim United Front (MUF). It was a conglomerate that lacked structure and a unifying political ideology. However, as the newsmagazine India Today (31March 1987: 26) observed during the campaign, the emergence of the MUF indicated that “the Valley is sharply divided between the party machine that brings out the traditional vote for the NC, and hundreds of thousands who have entered politics as participants for the first time under the umbrella provided by the MUF.” As I mentioned above, the MUF comprised several political organizations. Its main component was the Jamaat-i-Islami, chaired by Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Despite having participated in the 1972, 1977 and 1983 elections, and as part of the MUF conglomerate in the 1987 elections, the Jamaat had been unable to make a mark on the political matrix of J & K. It had, however, succeeded in making an impact in madrassas, which Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah had attempted to quell by closing down during his tenure as head of government.

Gender Politics and the Jamaat:

A couple of years ago, I reviewed Amina Jamal’s book Jamaat-e-Islami Women in Pakistan: Vanguard of a New Modernity for Book Review. Amina Jamal’s book is a much needed and scholarly look at the constructions as well as circumscriptions of “the Islamist project for women in contemporary Pakistan” (284).

After painstakingly delving into attempted reconstructions of gender identities by the Jammat, Amina Jamal observes that, “We may contend that the defeat of Islamic parties in provincial and national elections, as in February 2008, marks a frustration of ordinary Pakistanis, if not with the religious impulse of Islamist movements then certainly against their hegemonic impulse” (289). I would substantiate that contention by bringing in a pertinent point about conservative gender politics. Dan Smith (2001) Director of the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo, observes that, “people who make essentialist generalizations about women’s roles are usually unable not just to explain but even to acknowledge the diversity of women’s experiences and abilities” (38). The espousal of essentialist politics does not allow for change that would enable “peaceful conflict resolution, reconciliation between traditional enemies, justice between different races and gender equality” (46).

I would argue that politico-religious organizations like the Jamaat and vigilante organizations affiliated with it advocate the creation of a homogeneous culture devoid of the freedoms that South Asian Muslim women have traditionally enjoyed. Their draconian methods to enforce the purdah, even in Kashmir, reinforce a patriarchal structure in which an unaccompanied woman is rendered vulnerable, and curtail the mobility of the technology-savvy youth in an attempt to arabize the syncretic ethos of South Asia.

Conclusion:

We require constructive critiques of the inability of the Jamaat to practice of politics of accommodation and negotiation. It is important for these organizations, including the Jammat-e-Islami to pave the way for clear nation-building programs, which would involve reviving civil society, resuscitating the shattered economy, providing sources of income, and building social and political structures.

Dr. Nyla Ali Khan