This entire June, it is the turn of Indonesians to be wooed by their politicians. World’s largest Muslim population, over 200 million, along with about Hindus (two per cent) and Christians (five per cent) and Buddhists (two per cent), will elect its President and Vice President in early July. Indonesia is trying to function as a democracy for over a decade now. It is not that the men in uniform have grown averse to wielding political power. The interesting part is that they are taking the electoral route to the highest public office.
The incumbent president, Susilo Bangbang Yudhoyono (SBY), is a retired General. His principal challenger, former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s running mate, Lt.Gen. Probowo Subianto, too is a retired General. He is also former dictator Gen. Suharto’s son-in-law. The third pair comprises of Jusuf Kalla, a rich businessman and the incumbent Vice President, for President, with General Wiranto (Retd.) as his running mate.
On the face of it, steering the economy and following an ‘independent’ foreign policy are some of the issues that have come into play till now. But it is, essentially, a contest between personalities and their leadership style. As of now, SBY is popular and is very likely to win. But he has to contend with the barbs of the Islamists who are trying to bring in their own agenda to the hustings. SBY’s wife does not wear a tudung, (hijaab/ headscarf). Nor do most of the Indonesian women. Even the key challenger to SBY, Megawati Sukarnoputri, doesn’t much care for it. But the wife of Jusuf Kalla does flaunt a hijaab. So do a growing number of women, lately. This gives Jusuf Kalla, a strong contender, an opportunity to court the hard line and the orthodox voters on this issue. The Islamists, doubtless, pitch in to make the hijaab a minimum qualification for a ‘good Muslim’ certificate. They have a campaign-gift from Sarkozy, it seems. And they can’t believe their luck on the French President’s uncanny timing.
The Indonesian population largely comprises the ethnic natives of Sulawesi, Sumatra, Java, Bali, Borneo and the other 900 odd isles. This archipelago comprises of about 17,000 islands. Over 16,000 of these are uninhabited. In 1945, when Indonesia achieved freedom, it declared itself to be an independent secular state. Indonesia did not adopt the Islamic law of Sharia but Panca Sila (Sanskrit for ‘five principles’). These were: one God, a just and civilised humanity, national unity, democracy and social justice.
Indonesia’s is a unique society. Over 90 per cent of population follows Islam. Jawa, with over 90 million, is the most populated. Jogyakarta, in Java, is supposed to be the heartland of the Mohammadiya Islam in Indonesia. It is here that the hijaab has taken a shape of some kind of a movement to assert the Islamic sway over the country. But it is here, at Borobudur—the massive and magnificent ancient Buddhist monument designated as ‘World Heritage Site’—I met a bunch of students from the Mohammadiya University of Yogyakarta dressed as characters from Ramayana. They were dressed as Sri Ram, Sita, Lakshmana, Hanumana and others. On enquiry, I was told that they get special credits for their knowledge, understanding and performance of Ramayana in graduation scores. On the airports of Indonesia I saw local airlines with Sanskrit names called Mandala (a beautiful floral pattern as its emblem) and Garuda. (Garuda is the mount of Bhagwan Vishnu). There is still a lot of Sanskrit in the names people give to their children. Saraswati, Shailendra, Sudarshana, Suryanto, Sukarno are common, One of the busy streets is called Sudarshan Chakra. There are still many more streets with Hindu/Sanskrit names. The University in Jogja is named after legendry Gadja Madha. Even a Catholic Church run university is called Sanata Darma University. Ramayana is virtually in the bloodstream of an average Indonesian. The familiarity with its characters could well be as much among the common Indonesians as among the common Indians, if not higher. Likewise is the interest in the Mahabharata and its characters. All this has survived 600 years of Islam.
Understandably, Arabisation has been too slow for the hardliners’ liking. Orthodox clerics routinely rail against the un-Islamic practices among the Indonesians. This is a fact that the new currency notes do not anymore depict an image of Ganesha as they did in the earlier ones. The name Garuda also has been targeted for change by the Islamists. Hijaab is just a symptom. Arabic strain of Islam is still at ease with the surviving symbols of Indonesia’s pre-Islamic past. Five hundred years of Islam sits like a dome over the millennia-old Hindu civilisational foundations and pillars. Few societies in the world betray such a stark dichotomy. Islamists are seeking to replace these pillars and foundations. It seems like an audacious adventure.
Centuries before Islam, the Indonesian society was home to a thriving civilisation that was of Indian origin. It was Hindu (and later, also Buddhist) in faith. Sanskrit and later Pali as well, besides the local languages were prevalent. The architecture of old temple ruins resembles that of Chola kings of peninsular India. The entire terrain is dotted with the monumental ruins of the centuries old temples and monastries. A few of them have been declared as world heritage sites. The government has restored some of them very beautifully. Today, these icons are at the core of Indonesia’s tourism promotion campaigns and earn it handsome revenue. Bali is the tourism capital for the country.
The vast expanse of this 17,000-island archipelago was split across several small warring states. Their integration into one state was brought about by a Chanakya-like visionary, Gadja Madha by uniting small kingdoms and territories of Indonesian archipelago. He then appointed a king Raja Muda and served him as his Prime Minister. This is how the Maja Pahit Empire was put together. They were the last Hindu kingdom that ruled Indonesia.
Islam gained entry in Indonesia not on horsebacks carrying swords. In the 14th century, legend has it that some rich Arab traders induced and converted an erstwhile Javanese prince to Islam who kept his conversion a secret. He then went on to marry the daughter of the then king. Later, this crypto-Muslim son-in-law carried out a coup and seized the throne. Laity followed the royalty.
Today, Indonesia is overwhelmingly Muslim. Bali is the only island that zealously guarded its faith and refused to give in to persistent and often violent attempts. Bali remains, over 90 per cent, Hindu. East Timor asserted its Christian character and managed to secede. The population and the polity is, attitudinally still very Hindu – gentle and inclusive. Some of the fringe trends are, unmistakably, jehadi. This election will decide what will prevail in future.