By Anjum Altaf
India lags Pakistan in religious extremism but it seems both are headed for the same destination although by varying paths and with possibly different outcomes.
Much attention has been drawn to the rising injection of religion into politics in India spurring a number of debates in the media. Is India being Pakistanized? Is Modi India’s Zia? What accounts for the phenomenon? Where will it end? These are some of the frequently heard questions.
The dynamics of the phenomenon in the two countries appear similar but are actually different although there is an invisible underlying similarity that propels them in the same direction. A bedrock of religious prejudice exists in both countries available to be mined. In Pakistan, it has entered politics via concession and coercion while in India the drivers are manipulation and stealth. The paths in the two countries along which the phenomenon is evolving also present different constraints that shape its trajectory and growth. This premise bears some elaboration.
The Islamization we see in Pakistan today began not with Zia but with Bhutto. To extract himself from a self-created political crisis towards the end of his reign in 1977, Bhutto made some cynical concessions aimed at diffusing his opposition – the Friday holiday, prohibition on consumption of alcohol, declaring Ahmadis non-Muslims, etc. Had he survived, he might have contained the fall-out, but he didn’t.
Bhutto was replaced by Zia, the military dictator, who found riding this wave a ready means of legitimizing his rule. His equally cynical moves were not Islamization via grudging concession but through proactive coercion. Zia more or less mandated a whole host of measures – the covering of heads by female TV anchors, the use of Allah Hafiz by air hostesses and radio announcers, mandatory Friday prayers for bureaucrats, adding Islamic studies to the school and college curricula, testing religious knowledge in public service examinations, public flogging for criminals, stoning for adultery, etc., etc. Adding momentum to all this was the coincidence of Zia’s accession in 1979 with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the Islamic revolution in Iran. These quite accidental events greatly reinforced the primacy of religion in politics.
India, on the other hand, has had no Bhutto or Zia; nor was Indian society impacted in the same way by the Russian invasion or the Iranian revolution. The primary push to inject religion into politics continues to be India’s electoral particularity, the presence of a fairly significant religious minority tagged with much historical baggage, a situation very different from that of Pakistan. The negatives of this distribution are exacerbated by the choice of the first-past-the-post modality to elect political representatives which creates incentives to divide and splinter coalitions, something to which fanning religious antagonisms readily lends itself in the Indian political landscape. While, there have been some secondary examples of concession and coercion in India – the Shah Bano case being an example of the first; banning the consumption of beef and attempting to alter history books of the second – the primary driver of religious extremism remains manipulation in the pursuit of political power.
Such manipulation reveals itself during the course of most elections in India. It was quite obvious earlier with the issue of the Babri mosque and the BJP electoral strategy in Gujarat. If it was not equally clear in the last national elections, particularly in UP and Bihar, the recently concluded state elections in Bihar removed any doubts. As the election progressed and the electoral outcome appeared shifting away from the BJP, its narrative moved in parallel from the high talk of development for all to rank communalism with the Prime Minister himself party to barely coded divisive messages about the relative rankings of the various communities included in the all.
This brings us to Narendra Modi and the element of stealth. It seems quite clear that while Modi prefers to occupy the high ground on religious tolerance, he has sanctioned a regime in which lower level functionaries, including minsters, can freely exploit or exacerbate religious differences for political or ideological ends. This is the current stealth mode of injecting religion into politics and society in India.
Where India and Pakistan are similar is that they continue to retain huge reservoirs of people for whom religion remains a very salient dimension of identity. This can remain subservient to other dimensions for prolonged periods but is among the ones that can be provoked most readily and with the greatest of ease.
Where India and Pakistan have been different is that while Pakistan has been proactively stoking religious prejudices and invoking religious nationalism for political purposes, India has been, by and large, resisting the temptations. That is till we get to Narendra Modi and the BJPs latest mandate with a dominant majority in parliament. Hence the recent spike in incidents of religious intolerance in India.
These differences between the two countries stem from the fact that while Pakistan is an authoritarian state with virtually no effective checks and balances, India is a democratic polity with a fair amount of space for dissent. Coercion can work in Pakistan while stealth is called for in India.
And this is what lends, contrary to Pakistan, considerable uncertainty regarding the likely outcome in India. The democratic space has engendered a much stronger civil society compared to Pakistan where protest under military dictatorships is far too risky and even under nominally democratic dispensations civil rights of citizens remain in abeyance. The emergence of the kind of protest by intellectuals, artists, and celebrities seen in India, of which the outpouring of awards returned was one example, is impossible to imagine in Pakistan. Even the return of one award would be a surprise; the possibility of a coordinated movement is inconceivable. How Indian civil society faces up to rising extremism and where things stand by the time the next elections come around would determine whether the recent spate of events would ebb or lead to a flood.
The lava of religious prejudice lies very close to the surface in both countries and the future rests very much on how it is managed by the interaction of political leadership and elements of civil society. Pakistani leadership lulled the population into thinking it was pursuing a low-cost strategy that was safely oriented outwards with religious nationalism targeted towards India and religious grievances towards the West. The blow-back of this short-sightedness has finally engulfed the country. Indian leadership, on the other hand, is engaged in a very high-risk strategy of fanning extremism in its domestic space, the risk heightened by the fact that its instrumentality is now tinged with elements of genuine belief in the merits of Hinduization.
In Pakistan, the battle is lost, at least for the near future. In India, the outcome remains to be determined with a lot resting on the strength of the resistance in the next few years.