Towards a Hindu Pakistan? India may never mirror its western neighbour, but already apes some of its worst aspects –
Is India in danger of becoming a Hindu Pakistan? In Washington this question, once too ludicrous to contemplate seriously, has lately acquired currency. For an Indian, it’s a query that can trigger a powerful emotional response. At one extreme stand those who greet it with bilious outrage. At the other are those for whom it evokes quivering concern.
Let me start by stating the obvious: the odds of the officially secular republic of India ever fully mirroring the Islamic republic of Pakistan are vanishingly small.
To begin with, look at demographics. About one-fifth of Hindu-majority India’s population consists of religious minorities; the Pew Research Center predicts that this will rise slightly to nearly one-fourth by 2050. By contrast, Pakistan is 96% Muslim. The only minority group of note is the beleaguered Shia community, estimated to number between 10% and 15% of the country’s 208 million people.
Founding principles matter too. India was born as a secular republic in 1950. Indira Gandhi only wedged the word “secular” into the Constitution’s preamble in 1976, during Emergency, her infamous suspension of democracy. But right from the start India’s Constitution guaranteed equality before the law and freedom of worship, and prohibited any religious test for office.
By contrast, as early as 1949 the Objectives Resolution passed by Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly declared that “Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives in the individual and collective spheres in accord with the teachings and requirements of Islam as set out in the Holy Quran and the Sunna.”
In ‘Purifying the Land of the Pure’, a compelling history of Pakistan’s religious minorities, Farahnaz Ispahani argues that this was the first step towards the country’s further Islamisation over the decades. In Pakistan, by law only a Muslim can become president or prime minister.
Nor do Indian secularists face the ideological challenge faced by their counterparts in Pakistan. The Sangh Parivar’s Hindu nationalism may look upon Muslims and Christians with suspicion, but it lacks both the global organisation and the overarching ambition of Islamism, the quest to order all aspects of the state and society according to the tenets of Islamic orthodoxy.
Islamists can fall back on vast jurisprudence and relatively recent historical memory to make their case for a state governed by sharia law. Luckily for India, even the most rabid Hindu fanatic does not seek to reorder 21st century life by the ancient laws of Manu.
All this is for the good, but suggesting that India’s record on minority rights will likely always be better than its western neighbour’s is not really saying very much. Once we get beyond the false question of equivalence, we’re left with an unpleasant truth. In some ways India has already begun to copy some of Pakistan’s worst aspects.
Take, for instance, impunity for violence against members of a religious minority. A string of high profile lynchings of ordinary Indian Muslims by Hindu cow vigilantes has yet to lead to a single conviction. In some cases, as in the 2015 murder of Mohammad Akhlaq in Uttar Pradesh, powerful politicians have instead demanded an investigation of the victim’s family.
Or consider the gradual ghettoisation of concerns about minority rights. Increasingly, India’s secularists appear almost as inconsequential as their Pakistani counterparts. They can draw attention to outrages, such as the roadside lynching of dairy farmer Pehlu Khan in Rajasthan this year. But their ability to sway public opinion has withered.
Chief minister Vasundhara Raje may well receive a thrashing from Rajasthan voters next year. But it won’t be on account of her failing to protect the lives of Pehlu Khan or Ummar Khan, another alleged victim of cow vigilantes, or to swiftly bring their murderers to justice.
In parts of India, cow vigilantism has come to resemble Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law. Merely the accusation carries with it the implicit threat of mob violence. Earlier this month, Reuters reported on vigilante gangs in BJP-ruled states that seize cows from Muslims with impunity. Apparently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s calls to end cattle-related violence have not worked.
Given what has come to pass already – with little effective pushback – it’s not hard to imagine things taking an even darker turn.
Take the term Islamophobia, described by one wag as “a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons.” A new generation of Hindu activists has begun to actively promote the related term Hinduphobia. While framed as a tool to fight discrimination, it will likely have the same malign impact as its Islamic equivalent – of shutting down critical inquiry and fostering a destructive culture of conspiracy theories and self-pity.
From here it’s only a short hop, skip and jump to a Hindu version of takfirism, the dangerous Islamist innovation that allows radicals to declare fellow Muslims as apostates. I grew up in an India where a person who seldom visited a temple and was known to enjoy a fine steak was no less a Hindu than anyone else. It’s fair to wonder whether in the promised new India this will remain the case.
In sum, it’s absurd to claim that India will turn into a Hindu Pakistan. But the readiness of some Hindu nationalists to pilfer the worst ideas from Islamism suggests that fears about India’s trajectory are not entirely misplaced.