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India falters in battle of ideas with Pakistan

The religious extremists in Pakistan love any outbreak of sectarian violence in India because that makes their task easier.

Fahmida Riaz lamented “Turned out you were just like us…” A violent campaign to enforce “nationalism” in India has followed the rise of aggressive Hindu nationalism. The polarisation along religious lines and the defaming of the opposition leaders as sympathisers of the anti-national students and terrorists herald the coming state elections. The consolidation of Hindu votes is the tried and tested electoral strategy of the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The minorities – religious as well as ideological -- are being targeted.  The pockets in which the ruling BJP’s ideology failed to acquire influence have become a hunting ground for violent foot soldiers who feel assured of protection by their leaders in the Government.

A leftist university student is arrested for alleged sedition. He is beaten up by lawyers while being taken to court by the police. India’s home minister cites a fake tweet to associate this research scholar with a Pakistani terrorist. Doctored videos are telecast in order to strengthen the charge of sedition against this student. His crime was that he was present in a meeting where some unknown and untraceable persons had raised anti-India slogans! Some universities are seething with unrest because of the Government’s plan to curb dissent. There is no official move to challenge the principle of secularism. Government leaders promote majoritarianism by calling their political rivals “pseudo-secularists” and attacking them for “appeasing” Muslims.

Released from the jail as a result of an interim bail, the student addresses his fellow students. His stinging criticism of the Prime Minister provokes a political activist to paste posters in Delhi offering a reward for killing this student. Far away from Delhi, a political worker announces a reward for cutting off the student’s tongue!

This outbreak of pseudo-nationalism was preceded by violence against some writers and Muslims. The anti-Muslim rhetoric is seeping into unexpected quarters.

Of course, the Hindu nationalist Government has never said it wants to turn India into a theocratic state. There is no official move to challenge the principle of secularism. Government leaders promote majoritarianism by calling their political rivals “pseudo-secularists” and attacking them for “appeasing” Muslims. Some of these leaders make inflammatory statements aimed at disturbing social harmony. The Government takes a lenient view.

While secularism remains safe in the sacred book of Constitution, the level of religious hatred has gone up. Any one “insulting” any Hindu God or Goddess is threatened. A Muslim group burns vehicles if its religious sentiments are hurt. Bands of ultra-nationalists call dissenters traitors and ask all “anti-national” people to go to Pakistan!

The vigilante groups want every one to demonstrate his or her devotion to the nation. Apart from the Government and the police, strangers have become ultra sensitive on the issue of patriotism. An argumentative citizen walking on the road would not know when he violates the sedition law dating back to British rule.

“How do I rank relative to India?”

It is a surrealistic situation. India’s most demonstrative nationalistic Government has ironically created identity-related insecurity for India. It has given comfort to Pakistan troubled by the question: “How do I rank relative to India?”

The Prime Minister once mobilised voters in the Gujarat State elections by relentlessly attacking Pakistan and the weak-kneed Congress Government. Today, his Government has handed to Pakistan an advantage in the war of ideas.

Pakistan fought wars with India to grab land. India engaged its neighbor in a virtual battlefield to prove that the idea of a secular democracy was far superior to the idea of a military-run theocracy. This battle of ideas began during the freedom movement when the Hindu and Muslim leaders of the Congress Party opposed the demand for a separate nation based on religion. In India an essential prong of the strategy to curb “anti-nationalism” is to constantly contrast the sacrifices being made by the soldiers defending the nation with the “seditious” behavior of the dissenting students.

This legacy enhanced the identity crisis of the territory carved out of India. The military ruler Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, who deposed a left-leaning elected Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and hanged him later, tried to solve this problem by turning Pakistan towards the Muslim monarchies of the middle-east.

Gen. Zia used religious extremists as allies to suppress the liberal and democratic elements in his young nation. He passed laws in order to distance Pakistan from the Indian Islam and to orient it towards a purer and uniform version of the faith. He used religious extremism to give Pakistan a sharper Islamic identity.

India, as a secular democracy, saw itself to be as different from Pakistan as light from a coal mine. Pakistan’s military rulers nourished the roots of theocracy, India’s elected leaders strengthened secularism, a principle enshrined in the Constitution.

The use and misuse of the sedition law and the leftist-bashing by mobs in India reminds one of the Pakistan Government hunting down communists and enforcing the blasphemy laws. If the Government or the judiciary delayed the process, it was completed by the lynch mobs and individual killers. Young men with opinions felt terrorised in Pakistan. As a street-fighting activist in the UK, Tariq Ali in his youth feared that his life would be threatened if he went to his native Pakistan.

In India an essential prong of the strategy to curb “anti-nationalism” is to constantly contrast the sacrifices being made by the soldiers defending the nation with the “seditious” behavior of the dissenting students. It shocked even a serving army officer who wrote an anonymous newspaper article warning against this false dichotomy and pseudo nationalism.  However, this binary goes down well with many people and the BJP is for now sticking to this strategy.

A new dangerous dimension was added to the running political war when some retired military officers visited the embattled university to suggest that a tank on the campus would help teach the students to honour the nation! The students of the union affiliated to Modi’s ruling party were present at the function.

Security analyst C Uday Bhaskar, a former naval officer, condemned this exercise of pitting the brave soldier against the “ungrateful” student. He regretted that the Indian political establishment used national security in an opportunistic manner. He warned against diluting the apolitical nature of the Indian military. Such attempts have “the potential to introduce a political and ideological tenor into the Indian military through osmosis.” The readers of his article must have recalled the history of Pakistan.

A former chief of the army staff promptly joined the BJP and on being elected was made a minister by Modi. He has issued several controversial statements. All this may not have gone unnoticed by the liberal Pakistanis who know what happens when the army gets interested in politics!

The Indian Government’s attempts to spread the Hindutva influence in institutions of higher learning has reminded the Pakistani intellectuals of their own Government introducing the text- books designed to make the school-children hate India.

Two Pakistans

There are two Pakistans. One admires the “idea of India”. The demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya by a Hindu mob in 1992 was an attack on the idea of India. A Pakistani academic told an Oxford University seminar that during his visit to Pakistan he found some people regretting the blow administered to inter-religious harmony and others pointing out that India was not really a secular nation!

A progressive Pakistani poet, who was forced to take shelter in India in the eighties to protect her from the Zia regime, observed the rise of Hindutva. Fahmida Riaz lamented much to the delight of her Indian audiences: “Turned out you were just like us…” (Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle). “Turned out you were just like us…”

The religious extremists in Pakistan love any outbreak of sectarian violence in India because that makes their task easier. The liberals there feel concerned when mass hysteria against Pakistan is generated by the Indian TV channels or by some political elements opposing the Indo-Pak cricket matches or cultural and literary events. The liberal Pakistanis want an India that sets an example and shames their rulers who crush dissent. They courageously challenge the idea of theocratic Pakistan.

As a secular democratic nation, India provides hope to large sections in the entire sub-continent and wins admiration around the world. In the wake of 9/11, American commentators noted with wonder that no Indian Muslim was found involved in acts of terrorism. The contrast with Pakistan got highlighted. Today one finds a few Muslim young men going and joining the terror outfits abroad.

An American daily reprinted an old interview with Osama bin Laden taken much before 9/11. Why don’t you help the Muslims of Kashmir? Osama was asked. He said he did not want to cause any trouble in India. Why did he say this?

The idea of India was diminished by the Gujarat sectarian riots. The idea of India got diminished when a Congress Government compromised with the orthodox Muslim leaders in the case of a Muslim woman who wanted justice. It got diminished when a Government failed to curb violence against Sikhs in the wake of the murder of Indira Gandhi. Some other countries have tougher laws against those inciting sectarian violence. In India even the existing laws are not being applied strictly.

Questions about secularism in India are raised when the Government of the day compromises with the communal forces or is seen not acting against those spreading the communal virus. The features that make India different from Pakistan are being eroded.  India’s USP as a secular democracy gives the country a great advantage in the battlefield of ideas. Its value is understood by the brand managers of the business world! The crusaders of "nationalism" do not care how India is seen by others.

The use and misuse of India’s sedition law against the students and opposition political leaders make some wonder whether India will end up as a mirror image of Pakistan. When asked to migrate to Pakistan, a critic of the Modi Government shot back that he won’t need to because “you are turning India into Pakistan”. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!

However, this setback may be temporary. The influence of the Hindu nationalists has waxed and waned in the past. So the present Prime Minister will not be able to fulfil his promise to rid the country of the main opposition. India’s voters would not respond to the BJP President’s appeal to keep his party in power for 25 years!

The Babri mosque’s destruction by the Hindu nationalists in 1992 and the resulting sectarian violence did pay rich political dividends to Prime Minister Modi’s party. Later the religious card became ineffective. Mobilisation of the Hindu voters proved its power again in the last parliamentary elections. That was because Modi also attracted many secular voters who were fed up with the incompetence of the incumbent Government. After that the religious card failed in the state-level elections in Delhi and Bihar that dented the political prestige of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

At times the Hindu nationalists manage to consolidate the Hindu votes, at times they fail to do it. This is also because of the pluralistic nature of Hinduism and the diversity of the people. That is expected to keep argumentation and dissent alive and the flag of democracy flying.

About the author

L K Sharma has followed no profession other than journalism for more than four decades, covering criminals and prime ministers. Was the European Correspondent of The Times of India based in London for a decade. Reported for five years from Washington as the Foreign Editor of the Deccan Herald. Edited three volumes on innovations in India. He has completed a work of creative nonfiction on V. S. Naipaul.  

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