India and Pakistan – 75 years of independenceA pair of troubled nations
Pakistan is currently ambling from one constitutional crisis to the next under a Damocles sword of the imminent threat of economic collapse. Society has split into different political, religious and ethnic factions. And politicians representing different parties are deliberately pushing populist fake news to secure their hold on power. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan, for example, continues to stoke the narrative of a political coup by the U.S. against his government, which allegedly forced him out of office because of his independent foreign policy approach. And in return, the governing coalition under Shehbaz Sharif is now accusing Khan of encouraging a rebellion within the military.
But in Pakistan, the facts are irrelevant. Both the government and the opposition are deliberately fomenting polarisation in a bid to capture more votes in upcoming elections. Apparently, they will stop at nothing –playing the religious card and stoking hatred against minorities such as the Ahmadis, or by bringing out the age-old anti-Americanism card.
Foreign currency shortages, mismanagement and nepotism are nudging Pakistan towards the brink of collapse. As though these problems were not enough, climate change is now also wreaking ever greater havoc on the nation. During the annual monsoon rains, as well as large cities like Karachi, large areas of the underdeveloped province of Balochistan were flooded, with devastating consequences. Entire villages and territories were deluged.
Further than ever from Jinnah's liberal ideas
Thousands of people lost everything. The poorly equipped disaster protection agency was overwhelmed and due to the immense size of the affected regions, the military rescue effort could not reach everyone in their hour of need. Nevertheless, peak time political talk shows on Pakistani TV continue to broadcast an endless loop of debates by quarrelling politicians on questions that disregard the daily problems of majority society.
Amid such a fraught atmosphere, moderate and solution-oriented approaches stand little chance of being heard. When a few weeks ago, the world-renowned economist Atif Mian presented a comprehensive analysis of Pakistan’s economic policy and suggested possible solutions to boost the country’s ailing economy, he was subjected to a vitriolic onslaught on social media. Not because of his expert views, but because of his religious affiliation. The economist is an avowed Ahmadi-Muslim.
On the 75th anniversary of its foundation, Pakistan is further than ever from Jinnah’s liberal ideas. School curricula and the official reading of history fail to mention that the founding fathers of Pakistan actually belonged to a number of religious minorities. It is known that Jinnah was a Shia, the President of the Muslim Leauge Agha Khan was an Ismaili, and the author of the well-known Lahore Resolution Zafrullah Khan was an Ahmadi. This diversity was buried a long time ago. Society is becoming more radical, divided and chaotic, with no light at the end of the tunnel.
The "Hinduisation" of India
The situation is not much better in the neighbouring nation of India. In the 75th year of its independence, Indian society is split along religious identity lines. In particular, the Muslim minority of more than 180 million is sensing its marginalisation on a daily basis. A "Hinduisation" of the "world’s largest democracy" has been rumbling on for some time already. It all began with the storming and destruction of the historic Babri Mosque in Ayodhia in the year 1992 by a mob led by the Hindu nationalist BJP.
At the time, Hindu nationalists were calling for the construction of a temple on the site of mosque, which they claimed had been erected on the birth site of Rama. Before the authorities or judges could make any decision, the mob laid waste to the house of worship. The religious polarisation of society put the BJP in government in 1998. In 2020, current Prime Minister Modi laid the foundation stone for a new temple complex on the site of the ruined mosque. In recent years, right wing radical Hindus have consistently fuelled the narrative of a suppression of their identity. A suppression that is to be reversed by a reorientation of school curricula, remembrance culture and the politics of memory. Over one thousand years of Muslim influence on Indian culture are being brushed aside as an interference by invaders.
This must now be "corrected", say the fanatics. Correction is a euphemism for a total denial of Muslim culture, identity and where applicable, population. Muslim-sounding city names are suddenly being changed into Hindu ones, for example Allahbad is now Prayagraj; Gulshanabad is now Nashik. Or road signs in Urdu are being painted over.
Atmosphere increasingly Islamophobic
No one appears to be interested in the fact that these name changes have no historic justification. But religious fanatics across the spectrum are not known for their respect for any logic. In 2018, the BJP Chief Minister in the state of Tripura claimed that the Internet had been invented by the ancient people of India and that it had already been mentioned in the Hindu Mahabharata epic.
In films and television, Hindu kings are celebrated for their "heroic deeds" and Muslim rulers portrayed as bloodthirsty aggressors. The message behind the framing is clear. India is first and foremost the land of the Hindus. In an interview in 2015, a leading members of the BJP said that Muslims in India were second-class citizens who should conform to Hindu customs. At a conference in early 2022, extremist Hindu leaders openly called for a genocide against Indian Muslims: the country’s supreme court felt compelled to intervene. Comments made by the recently suspended BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma are a further reflection of this highly charged scene.
Her statements led to calls for a boycott of Indian products, particularly in the Arab Gulf states, some of India’s key economic partners. Attempts by the Indian foreign ministry to temper her comments could not disguise the fact that India has a very different way of dealing with criticism. On the one hand, many BJP supporters defended Sharma’s statements and on the other, critics were subjected to acts of retaliation.
For example, on 12 June 2022, bulldozers were deployed to flatten the house of 24-year-old Muslim activist and BJP critic Afreen Fatima in Allahbad. The previous day, police accused Afreen’s father Javed of leading protests against the BJP spokesperson’s Islamophobic comments. A short time later, he was ordered to leave the house, which was to be demolished the following day because it "didn’t have a building permit".
Gandhi's democratic values and Nehru's secularism fading
Officials didn’t care that the house was built 20 years ago, or that the property tax was up to date. Even less that Javed wasn’t even the owner of the property, which belonged to his wife. No court order was presented to authorise the demolition. Within a few hours, the house was reduced to rubble. Many observers say that rather than a building dispute, this was an act of revenge by the radical Hindu Chief Minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, who wanted to teach critics of BJP policies a lesson. On Saturday, Adityanath’s spokesperson tweeted an image of a bulldozer with the title: "Remember, every Friday is followed by a Saturday".
Gandhi's democratic values and Nehru’s secularism are being gradually repressed. Voices calling for greater tolerance and respect for the rights of minorities are branded as traitors of the Hindu nation. The mood is becoming ever more aggressive, first and foremost in social media. There have been repeated fatal attacks on Muslims and representatives of other religious minorities. The mob, so it would appear, is dictating policy – either that or it is being deliberately exploited in a perfidious contrivance aimed at peddling cheap propaganda.
And if the internal problems of both nations were not enough, the conflict over the region of Kashmir continues to simmer between the two nuclear powers. A stalemate that has been further exacerbated by the Modi government's revocation of the region’s special status in 2019. Also, in the new American containment policy against China, India is assuming an increasingly important role. The meeting of the informal security alliance QUAD (USA, Japan, India, Australia) in May should serve as a clear indication of this. Recent years have in any case seen an increase in tensions between India and China.
Against such a backdrop, mixed feelings greet the 75th anniversary of the independence of both nations.
© Qantara.de 2022
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Mohammad Luqman is an Islamic scholar and South Asia expert with a special research focus on Pakistan.