Climate of Intolerance: Down the well of religious bigotry

Published: November 23, 2015 - 13:30 Updated: November 23, 2015 - 13:33

India is showing a worrying trend to take the same path of religious exclusivism as Pakistan did – and suffered the consequences

Raza Rumi Ithaca 

India’s robust and rather polarised debate on ‘intolerance’ – a euphemism for the rising clamour from Hindu nationalist extremists – is worrying for the region as a whole. For decades, India provided the ‘secular’ model for Pakistan, Bangladesh and other post-colonial countries in South Asia. Progressives in Pakistan cited its pluralist past and secular Constitution as a benchmark to which their country should aspire. 

The subcontinental variety of secularism emanates from a centuries-old tradition of coexistence. This is altogether different from the European idea of secularism where faith is completely in the private sphere. This is why the Islamists in South Asia have interpreted secularism as la deeniyat (sans religion or anti-religion). Seen as a western import, it was considered to be against the comprehensive solution that Islam provided for everyone. Since Pakistan was created for Muslims and its identity over time turned explicitly ‘Islamic’, secularism became an abuse-word. And remains so. 

During the Independence (and what we call the ‘Pakistan’) movement, the Islamic groups and the Muslim League represented the two divergent trends among Muslims. Muhammad Ali Jinnah attempted to identify the divide within Muslims and therefore the Muslim League viewed itself as representative of modern Muslims and wanted to free the community from the Maulvis and the Maulanas. This is why Jinnah was called ‘Kafir-e-Azam’ and Pakistan was termed as ‘Na-Pakistan’ by the Islamists. Yet, the idea of religion shaping nationhood unleashed a genie and by 1949, a year after Jinnah died, Pakistan had adopted the ‘objectives resolution’ that called for the supremacy of divine laws. The objectives resolution is the preamble of the Pakistani Constitution. It was declared to be an operative part of the country’s supreme law by the country’s highest court. 

By 1974, Pakistan had adopted religious exclusion as a legal tenet by declaring the Ahmaddiya sect as non-Muslim through a Constitutional amendment. A process of Islamisation started, ironically under a secular ruler, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. But it culminated during the decade of the 1980s under the military rule of General Zia ul Haq. 

The Zia era (1977-1988) institutionalised bigotry and changed the social landscape of Pakistan. I was in middle school when Arabic was enforced as a compulsory subject. In seventh grade, we were told about the merits of knowing Arabic. As children in Muslim households, we also read the Holy Quran through private tutors – usually local mosque leaders – and two lessons in Arabic every day seemed rather excessive. But this was a choice, an identity path that the country was taking. Religion crept into all our textbooks slowly – from sciences to language studies. 

Today, reading the news emanating from our secular neighbour, there are disturbingly familiar signs of that same religious exclusivism; and its public assertion. The Culture Minister of India intends to incorporate the Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Bhagavad Gita in school and college curricula to cleanse India of “cultural pollution”. 

Earlier, there was an intense debate on introducing Sanskrit in India’s schools. Tamil-speaking people said that their language was older. The idea was dropped but its provenance is instructive. ‘Local’ Sanskrit cannot be equated with a ‘foreign’ Arabic, but the embedded religiosity is evident. 

In his bid to Islamise Pakistan, General Zia set up enforcement of Namaz (Muslim prayer) committees in every public office. These official notifications still exist, though their implementation has dwindled over time. When I saw Yoga Day celebrated domestically and globally, I could not help drawing a comparison. Admittedly, yoga has acquired a global stature as a meditative and healthy act, but its projection was couched in religious symbolism and a call to an imagined glorious past – which was not too dissimilar from what Muslim extremists say about our glory in the world and the Indian subcontinent. 

References to ancient, mythical India having invented spaceships, plastic surgery and television broadcasting also seemed too close for comfort. In the 1980s, Islamic or Quranic science was given state patronage in Pakistan and conferences were held where so-called scientists proposed methods to solve power issues using the energy of jinns (otherworldly creatures mentioned in the Quran). Pakistan’s best-known rationalist, Pervez Hoodbhoy, has documented these aberrations in detail. But what was the net effect? Study of sciences declined, research nosedived and today universities attract large crowds on sessions that narrate the power of jinns. 

The rise of religious nationalist demagoguery is not limited to the subcontinent. American televangelists have been studied in detail. And in other phases of our medieval history, such discourses have been common. During the 1980s, Pakistan also saw the rise of clerics on national television, radio and the newspapers. They were given state patronage and public space to inform opinion. Today this creed – bearded and unbearded – rationalises extremism. Until the Pakistan Army stepped in last year, they were major defenders of the Taliban and their affiliates. 

Two generations of Pakistanis have grown up on this diet of mythology, conspiracy theories and defence of the indefensible. The conspiracy theories were reinforced through the pruning of textbooks, aligning them to state policy of ‘jihad’ and obliterating the remnants of shared culture and symbols. The Indus Valley Civilisation is no longer a major part of the syllabus, nor do children read about the edicts of Asoka, which still dot the physical heritage of Pakistan’s northwest. 

So, too, when I read about the government of Rajasthan attempting to cleanse textbooks of Urdu or Muslim references (including the agnostic and secular Ismat Chughtai), I experienced a dismaying sense of deja vu. All such acts in my country have had long-term consequences. In Gujarat, reports tell us, students are being taught that stem cell technology was found in the Mahabharata. Or that automobile technology existed in India’s Vedic times. Books written by an ideologue named Dina Nath Batra, whose qualifications are unclear, have been introduced in thousands of schools.  Batra’s claim to fame has been to get American scholar Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, banned in India. The word is that other states such as Haryana are following suit. 

This is the climate in which the discussions of banning beef have arisen. Under the Zia regime, laws asserted the majoritarian Islamic tenets of Sunni Muslims. When Zia imposed Zakat (a mandatory deduction from annual income), the Shia Muslims protested and the regime had to withdraw its decision. Other so-called Sharia-based laws were also enforced without taking into account the diversity of Muslims that live in Pakistan. So, too, in India, there are many (a large, large number) ‘Hindus’ who are not averse to eating beef or letting others eat it. The theological debate is a waste of time but blanket impositions become a dividing line. 

One such dividing line has been the blasphemy law in Pakistan. Again, the Zia regime tinkered with the law, and by 1990 the death penalty was introduced. Now it hounds Muslims and non-Muslims alike – though the latter get a disproportionate share of the persecution. Having long been dismayed by the lynching of non-Muslim Pakistanis for ‘blasphemy’ against Islam, it’s now disturbing to see Indian Muslims being killed for blasphemy against Hinduism – eating beef. 

In UP, BJP legislators brazenly justified the Dadri lynching, and an officebearer of the party asked for the charges to be reduced from murder to culpable homicide. Others were told if they want to eat beef they should go to Pakistan. Stars like Shahrukh Khan, and icons of our times such as Gulzar, have been rebuked and called unpatriotic for simply challenging the extremist ideas. 

This is exactly what Pakistani liberals have faced: being charged with treason for speaking up. Religious nationalism turns into patriotism and dissent is branded a crime against State and society. 

Attacks on writers, academics and public intellectuals in India increase as the nationalist fringe gains ground. One is not too worried about the Modi-led BJP. It has to govern and get re-elected, so pragmatism is likely to prevail. But its support base includes radical elements that have targetted eminent writers. For instance, charges have not been framed against those who killed Narendra Dabholkar in 2013, or Govind Pansare, who was murdered eight months ago. The more recent and chilling death of a rationalist, MM Kalburgi, suggests that such killings may continue. 

In recent murders, the suspects are members of Hindu extremist groups. In the US, I have seen Gandhi’s statues in Washington, DC, and New York with admiration. Seeing a statute of his killer being raised in India makes me intensely worried. It has to do with the distortion of history and condoning wanton violence. This path is known to be fraught with peril – perhaps ending in anarchy. 

Fortunately, India’s democratic traditions are stronger than Pakistan’s. The reaction of writers, intellectuals and even sections of the media has been inspirational in countering the extreme narratives of nationalism. This battle cannot be lost. 

Pakistan has had to undergo internal rifts, fissures and thousands of deaths at the hands of terrorists before a change in its course took place. Even now it is a slow, fractured process. This is why India must avoid the same path at all costs. On social media, instances of extremism in Pakistan are cited to prove India’s superiority in faux nationalist rhetoric. Why should Indians compare themselves to Pakistan, which has weaker democratic institutions and a different trajectory? It is not the benchmark to compare with. Smug ‘we are better-off-than-Pakistan’ assertions are not enough when the fringe elements are growing in size and threatening to acquire mainstream status. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be best served by arresting such trends so that he can fulfil his mandate of economic progress. Given the presence of ‘Pakistan’ as a negative reference in hyper-nationalistic rhetoric, why is India hell-bent on following in its footsteps? 

In fact, as I write these lines, I am aware that many Pakistanis will call me a traitor for berating my country and the Indian rightwing will attack me for daring to write about their mahaan Hindu civilisation. The last time I wrote something critical about the Indian rightwing I was called an ISI agent by a bunch of conspiracy theorists. Some of my compatriots, after reading this criticism, will likely label me a RAW agent. 

Such are the wages of intolerance, masked as ‘nationalism’ and predicated on notions of religious supremacy and doctored histories. 

Raza Rumi is a Pakistani author, journalist and policy analyst. He is currently a scholar in residence/faculty at Ithaca College, New York. He is a consulting editor at The Friday Times of Pakistan.

India is showing a worrying trend to take the same path of religious exclusivism as Pakistan did – and suffered the consequences
Raza Rumi Ithaca

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