We live in an era of resurgent nationalism. From Scotland to Sri Lanka, from China to Brazil, governments rely on nationalism as a source of communal identity and a vehicle for common action.
In countries where religious identity appears to dominate, as with Islam in Turkey and Hinduism in India, religion has bonded with nationalism. In nominally communist countries like China and Vietnam, it is likewise nationalism that adds to governments’ legitimacy and political muscle.
This nationalist upsurge the world over is bad news for ethnic and sectarian minorities. Everywhere they are facing greater oppression and less autonomy from national governments maximising their power. At best they face marginalisation and at worst elimination. This is true for the Uighur in Xinjiang province in China, the Muslim population of India-controlled Kashmir, the Shia majority in Sunni-ruled Bahrain and the long-persecuted Kurdish minority in Turkey, to name but four.
All these communities are coming under crushing pressure to surrender to the political and cultural control of the national state. The same brutal methods are used everywhere: mass incarceration; disappearances; torture; the elimination of political parties and independent media representing the persecuted community. Any opposition, however peaceful, is conflated with “terrorism” and suppressed with draconian punishments.
The degree of mistreatment of these embattled communities varies with the balance of power between them and the central government. There is little the Bahrain Shia, though a majority of the population, can do to defend themselves, but the 182 million Muslims in India cannot be dealt with so summarily.
Even so, they are in danger of progressively losing their civil rights and residency through the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens. The Turkish Kurds are well organised but their political leaders are in jail and Turkey leads the world in the number of journalists, many of them Kurds, it has imprisoned.
What makes these countries different is partly the political strength of the persecuted communites, but above all the degrees of international support they can attract. This in turn depends less on the cruelties they endure than on their ability to plug into the self-interested rivalries of the great powers. Related to this is the ability to attract the sustained attention and sympathy of the (usually western) international media.
The Uighur deserve all the sympathy and attention they can get, but it would be naive to imagine that the sudden interest of the west in their fate over the last year has much to do with the undoubted justice of their cause. President Xi Jinping has been chosen as the new demon king in the eyes of the US and its allies, his every action fresh evidence of the fiendish evil of the Chinese state.
There is no reason to suppose that any of the films of Uighur prisoners manacled hand and foot are untrue or that a million Uighurs are not the targets of brainwashing in giant concentration camps. But the manipulation of public opinion has always relied less on mendacity, the manufacturing of false facts, and more on selectivity; on broadcasting the crimes of one’s opponents and keeping very quiet about similar acts of oppression by oneself and one’s allies.
What is striking over the last year is the disparity between the international attention given to the fate of the 11 million Uighurs in the Autonomous Uighur Region in Xingjian and the 13 million people in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.
The situations in Kashmir and Xinjiang are comparable in some ways. On 5 August last year, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s government stripped Kashmir – India’s only Muslim-majority state – of its special rights and split it into two federally administered territories. He claimed that the aim was the economic regeneration of Kashmir, but the prolonged curfews enforced by a heavily reinforced Indian military presence has ruined local economic life.
These lockdowns and the almost complete shutdown of the internet are far more severe than anything resulting from the coronavirus epidemic, and have reduced Kashmiris to colonial servitude. “This has been compounded,” says Amnesty International, “by a censored media, continuing detention of political leaders, arbitrary restrictions due to the pandemic with little to no redress.”
The anniversary of the end to Kashmir’s autonomy was marked this month by even tighter restrictions. Local political leaders were jailed or were forbidden to leave their houses. “One year later the authorities are still too afraid to allow us to meet, much less carry out any normal political activity,” said the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, on Twitter. But worse things than jail and house arrest happen at the hands of the Indian authorities. Since 1990 between 8,000 and 10,000 Kashmiris have disappeared according to the Association of the Parents of the Disappeared, a movement modelled on that of the Argentinian mothers whose children had vanished, mostly tortured to death or executed by the military dictatorship.
Kashmir is only the apogee of the mounting persecution of almost 200 million Indian Muslims under Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. The willingness of the government to double-down on humiliating the Muslims was exemplified this week when Modi laid the foundation stone for a Hindu temple to replace the sixteenth century mosque that was destroyed by right-wing Hindu mobs in 1992. Some 2,000 people were killed in the rioting that followed the mosque’s destruction.
Powerful governments tend to underestimate the amount of trouble that small minorities can cause them, despite an immense disparity in the balance of power between the central state and the minority in question. Look at the trouble a small ethnicity like the Uighurs have caused Beijing. Foreign powers may be exploiting their grievances for their own purposes, but those grievances are real. Look at the trouble a century ago that the Irish and the Boers caused the British Empire at the height of its power. Then as now, the very puniness of the opposition of small communities tempted seemingly all-powerful regimes to reject conciliation in the belief that they have no need to compromise. They do not understand why their overwhelming political and military power does not make them the easy winner.
Kashmir is a classic example of this syndrome. By ending the state’s autonomy, Modi said he would bring an end to the “Kashmir problem”. In fact, he predictably made it worse and it is not going away.
The west has been prepared to back Modi unconditionally because it hopes India will be a counterbalance to China. They are the only states in the world with populations over a billion. But the states backing the BJP Hindu nationalist government have not taken on board what an extraordinarily dangerous game they and Modi are playing: seeking total victory over Kashmir though it is backed by neighbouring nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Attempting to marginalise Indian Muslims so numerous that, if they formed a separate country, it would be the eighth largest in the world is not possible without extreme violence.
The riots in Delhi in February were a taste of this. Ignoring this potential for disaster is like officials in Beirut who were blind to the danger of storing thousands of tons of explosives in the heart of the city.