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. [Continue reading…]