In the popular imagination, the meeting of Buddhism and Islam is often conceptualized as one of violence; namely, Muslims destroying the Dharma. Of course, in more recent years this narrative has been problematized by the reality of Buddhist ethnic cleansing and the genocide of Muslims in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Yet, what needs to be recognized is that the meeting between Buddhists and Muslims has never simply been one of confrontation. Rather, the interaction of these two religions—which has been going on for more than one thousand years across the length and breadth of Asia (from Iran to China and Indonesia to Siberia)—has also involved much else, including artistic, cultural, economic, and intellectual exchanges.
Paradise lost, on fire, or on a river of hell: purple prose abounds in descriptions of Kashmir today. But in this instance, the hyperbole may be alarmingly close to reality. Since 1989–1990, Kashmir (i.e., the Valley rather than the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir for which the name is often informally used) has been a battleground pitting a popularly backed insurgency—sometimes accompanied by armed militancy—against Indian state dominance undergirded by one of the highest concentrations of armed forces among civilians in the world. The armed forces are about 700,000 strong in the Valley, producing an astonishing average of one soldier for every eleven civilians. A death toll in calamitous numbers (perhaps 70,000 killed and 8,000 “disappeared”, many of whom are presumed dead) countless instances of rape and torture, and the declining health of civil liberties as of individuals in Kashmir have many worried.
Most accounts seeking to explain this state of affairs begin around August 14–15, 1947. On this day were born not only the two nation-states of India and Pakistan but also the rival claims of both to Kashmir. If Kashmir’s troubles were only about the Indo-Pakistani territorial contestation, 1947 would be where to start. However, the “Kashmir Problem” encompasses other contentious aspects that have drawn less attention and whose roots are buried deeper in time. These include a crisis of legitimate governance and the interweaving of religion and politics—all playing out in the midst of contested relations between different loci of central and local power. A narrow focus on the year 1947 alone, moreover, holds Kashmir’s history hostage to Indian and Pakistani official narratives. This is evident in the work of countless political scientists and policy experts. New scholarship has pushed historical examination to go further back by at least a century, if not more, to capture vital transformations in the understandings of sovereignty, territoriality, and the legitimacy to rule that shaped Kashmiris well before 1947. These changes cast long shadows that reach into the present.
Carola Erika Lorea
The struggle against untouchability, the religious history of Bengal, and the study of postcolonial displacement in South Asia can hardly be considered without paying attention to a roughly two-hundred-year-old low-caste religious and social movement called Matua.
The Matua community counts at present fifty million followers, according to its leaders. It is scattered across a large area and connected through a trans-local network of preachers, pilgrims, institutions, print, and religious commodities. Most Matua followers are found in West Bengal; in southern Bangladesh, where the movement emerged in the 19th century; and in provinces where refugees from East Bengal have resettled since the 1950s, especially Assam; Tripura; the Andaman Islands; Uttarakhand; and the Dandakaranya area at the border of Orissa, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh. Building upon an older Vaishnava devotional stream, the religious community initiated by Harichand Thakur (1812–1878) and consolidated by his son Guruchand Thakur (1847–1937) developed hand in hand with the Namashudra movement for the social upliftment of the lower castes. Rebelling against social marginalization and untouchability, and promising salvation through ecstatic singing and dancing, the Matua community triggered a massive mobilization in rural East Bengal. Partition and displacement have disrupted the unity of the Matua movement, now scattered on both sides of the hastily drawn Indo-Bangladesh border. The institutional side of the Matua community emerged as a powerful political subject, deeply entangled with refugee politics, borderland issues, and Hindu nationalism. In the 21st century, the Matua community represents a key element in electoral politics and a crucial factor for understanding the relation between religion, displacement, and caste, within and beyond Bengal.