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Religion and Populist Movements in South Asia


Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 1200 characters including spaces)

Contributors to this panel consider dimensions of populist politics in South Asia from the early 20th century to the present, with a focus on the effects of religious majoritarianism on the livelihoods, mobility, and devotional spaces of Muslims in the region. Panelists consider various social imaginaries animating populist sentiments in Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka, exploring instances in which religious identity has served to reinforce monological visions of the national past, as well as to inspire pan-national sodalities unified through a positive, aspirational vision of the future. Contributors review instances of Hindu and Buddhist populist politics interpellating majority voting constituencies in India and Sri Lanka, highlighting in addition the need for micro-analysis at the community level in order to parse nuanced and overlapping indices of belonging. This includes two contributions offering case studies in the translation of populist political rhetoric to the actual government management of religiously heterogenous devotional spaces: at the premises of the Dafther Jailani shrine complex in Sri Lanka, and at the mausoleum of the hero-deity Gogaji in Gogameri, Rajasthan.


  • Abstract

    This paper considers the political philosophy of Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), a prolific writer in Urdu, Persian, and English and influential statesman of his day. His legacy as a formative figure in modern South Asian politics has been connected to the nation of Pakistan, though Iqbal did not live to see its emergence in 1947. Iqbal’s work intervenes in a crucial moment in the history of South Asia, declaring the need for a new understanding of Muslim life in light of what he felt was a pivotal—opportune as well as desperate—moment for reviving Islam and the Muslim community. Iqbal’s political context was rich with populist movements, including the Muslim League, the influence of the Ghadar Party, and Bengali leftist parties. All were vying for popular anti-imperial support on different grounds, and religious affiliation did not determine one’s sympathies. In the literature, Muslim solidarity movements are generally considered in terms of pan-Islamism, especially in the early 20th century. Drawing connections between economic and political thought stemming from Muhammad Iqbal’s work, I instead locate Iqbal’s politics in the context of internationalism, namely the Comintern.

  • Abstract

    Drawing on fieldwork in India, this presentation asks what resources the study of populism might offer to religionists working on programs of religious change. It examines projects of Hinduization and state-coordinated but trust-led charitable infrastructure development in Gogameri, Rajasthan, a rural pilgrimage site associated with vernacular pluralism and the lower strata of North Indian society. With the site's twenty-first-century explosion in popularity, priestly groups have made demands on the state in the name of a subaltern pilgrimage public, and sought to mobilize devotees and evoke antagonism toward an institutional status quo, including persons and practices that celebrate Gogameri's para-Islamic pasts. The paper asks how these projects connect to nationalist populisms, and how to describe religious and political mobilizations that interact without collapsing into one another. It suggests that while the projects in Gogameri are not populist per se, they articulate in certain abstract ways with Ernesto Laclau's theory of the formal logics of populism'except that their field of intervention is a pilgrimage and its public, rather than the state and a political community.

  • Abstract

    Although Hindu majoritarian rhetoric has come to predominate much of the political discourse at the national level in Modi era India, in recent years a number of policies and schemes have been advanced with the intention of addressing the material disadvantages of India’s minority groups, including Muslims centrally. Based on analysis of the outcomes of similar policy initiatives in the recent past, this paper argues that the programs and schemes aimed today at getting Muslim communities out of the deprivation trap may be characterized as politically expedient tokenism or policy populism, rather than as genuine efforts to elevate religious minorities to equal socioeconomic status. With pejorative accusations of “minority appeasement” currently embedded in public discourse and debates, political mobilization along ethno-majoritarian lines has reinforced exclusion of minorities in India in more blatant ways, as has come to international attention in recent years. In addition to highlighting the performance of recent policy initiatives, this paper discusses how the majoritarian turn in Indian politics has further exacerbated the exclusion of Muslim communities.

  • Abstract

    Around the time of the end of Sri Lanka's civil war in 2009, a curious reworking of the mythological origins of the victorious Sinhala Buddhist people began to emerge in books, newspapers, and television programs throughout the island. This new account displances conventional narratives concerning the earliest habitation of Sri Lanka, maintaining that the Sinhala people are in fact descendants of the demon-king Ravana, who ruled the island millennia ago. Noting the Sinhala Ravana movement's ideological adjacency to the Buddhist majoritarian rhetoric of the Rajapaksha political dynasty, this paper explores additional populist dimensions to the Ravana phenomenon, including its broad endorsement across social classes. I discuss this unique right-nationalist populist project in 21st century Sri Lanka, wherein the reclamation of Ravana's kingdom has emerged as a participatory public spectacle. Buddhist efforts to "terraform the past" I argue precipitated the 2013 demolition of portions of premises to a shrine to the Sufi saint Muhiyadeen Abdul Qadir al-Jilani (1076-1166) by the Sri Lankan Defense Ministry.

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2 Hours

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Saturday, 9:00-11:00 am : Sunday, 9:00-11:00 am
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Friday, 9:00 AM-11:00 AM (Virtual)

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