Condemning the role of religion in the lives of people, Karl Marx proclaimed: “Religion is the sign of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless creature, the soul of soulless conditions, it is the opium of the people.”
While echoing Marx, Vladimir Lenin claimed that religion is used for the “protection of the exploitation and the stupefaction, of the working class”. The State structure that Lenin created in the Soviet Union was ultimately a Russian dominated oligarchy, which collapsed under the weight to its own contradictions.
While Soviet leaders from Lenin and Stalin to Brezhnev and Gorbachev, disowned and decried religious beliefs and practices, the Russian Orthodox Church patronised by Vladimir Putin, plays an important role today in Russia’s national life. The Muslim-dominated Soviet Central Asian Republics are today members of Organisation of Islamic Conference, each with its own distinct Muslim identity.
Beijing’s political evolution has been different from that of Moscow, ever since Mao’s Communist Revolution. Mao’s beliefs in “Proletarian Internationalism” and a brotherhood of Communist States was shaken when he was cold-shouldered by Stalin, who met Indian Envoy Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan in December 1949, even as Mao was waiting in Leningrad, to meet the Soviet Supremo.
The two “fraternal” communist giants soon developed serious and growing differences, resulting in clashes across a disputed border. Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and others later exploited these differences to the hilt. Even fellow Communist countries like Vietnam and Cambodia were on opposite sides of the Sino-Soviet divide.
China’s policy on religion
While China clamped down on those it considered as separatists in Tibet, it adopted relatively more sophisticated and nuanced policies on religious beliefs than the Soviets did, especially after Mao’s “Cultural Revolution,” in the 1960s. More importantly, any credible claims that China had about being a Communist State monopolising the levers of business, trade and industry ended, when Deng Xiao Ping dumped all pretensions of being Marxist.
Deng opened China’s doors for both private and foreign investment in business and industries. He ended years of Maoist dogma, while empowering a new Communist Party elite, with its own share of millionaires. Deng’s reforms led to four decades of economic growth unparalleled in history, even while remaining a one Party State, which dealt harshly with dissent.
China strictly controls religious activity and has dealt ruthlessly with all manifestations of separatism. There has been a massive effort to rebuild Buddhist and Taoist shrines, which were destroyed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.
But, this approach was missing in the ruthless and cruel approach China adopted, when it trampled on the rights of followers of Semitic faiths, Islam and Christianity. China’s predominantly Sunni Muslim population is estimated at around 22 million. It is spread across the country, but principally resident in its western regions like Xinjiang, bordering Central Asia.
The intolerance and cruelty shown to Muslims in China have now evoked international outrage. More than one million “Uighur” Muslim men, women and children, have been detained and herded into camps, as part of China’s policy of rooting out “extremists”. This action followed a series of terrorist attacks commencing in 2014, by radical Uighur separatists.
There are also credible reports of attempts by China to “de-Islamise” its Uighur population, by bans on Muslim women wearing veils, Muslim names for babies and on long beards for men. People are compelled to listen to State run television stations. There are also reports of Muslims under detention being forced to eat pork and drink alcohol.
Reports of such actions are reaching the outside world, from Central Asian countries like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Large numbers of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz living in Xinjiang, who have been forced out of Xinjiang, have carried details of such persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang, to these countries and beyond.
The deafening silence of the 53 member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Conference, which pontificates regularly on incidents of alleged persecution of Muslims across the world, has been noted internationally.
This silence is not surprising. Important Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan have looked the other way at these developments, evidently out of fear of adverse Chinese reactions to any criticism. While the US Congress and some European powers have drawn attention to these developments, not a single OECD member has called for any concerted action. One cannot help noticing the contrast between the silence on the Xinjiang situation and the shrill rhetoric on the plight of Rohingyas in Myanmar.
The situation that Christians face in China is somewhat different. The Christian population is estimated today to be 65 million, while the Muslim population is 21.67 million. Interestingly, the Christian population in China grew substantially after the Mao era and the adoption of the 1982 Constitution. While Church worship continues, albeit under surveillance, the Pope has been given limited authority on issues concerning Church appointments, practices and services.
The Chinese Constitution proclaims: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief”. Though the Constitution guarantees “freedom of religious belief,” the reality is that such “freedom” is severely limited by coercive State actions.
While millions in China adopt and respect historical Taoist practices and Confucian edicts, China also has a large Buddhist population, estimated at around 260 million. The fact that Buddhism originated in India is generally obfuscated. Curbing of religious freedoms is, inevitably, going to become more difficult with the passage of time in China, as even now an estimated 130 million Chinese undertake visits abroad as tourists, annually.
The worldwide population of Buddhists is estimated at around 540 million. The overwhelming majority of the world’s Buddhists live in East, South-East and South Asia. Tourists from East and South-East Asia are today regarded as high spending visitors. The time has surely come for India to seek political, spiritual, cultural and economic dividends, by virtue of being the land where Gautama Buddha was born, lived and attained Nirvana.
Sadly, many in our eastern neighbours appear to regard our tourism facilities, ranging from connectivity, transport and even toilets, to safety and security, including in Buddhist pilgrimage sites, as unsatisfactory.
Is it not time for us to work together with countries like China, Japan and others interested, to imaginatively invest in and develop better tourist facilities in the Land of Gautama Buddha, where they can fulfil their spiritual aspirations, with the tourist facilities, comforts, safety and security they experience, in countries like Thailand, China and Japan?
The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan