On January 22, just four days before the Republic Day parade tableau from Uttar Pradesh proudly displayed the Ram Temple to be built at Ayodhya — for which it was awarded the first prize — India sunk its teeth into Pakistan at the United Nations. Pakistan co-sponsored a resolution which condemned “any move to obliterate or forcibly convert any religious sites” as well as violence against people on the basis of religion. In what has become almost the norm between India and Pakistan in international fora, New Delhi decided to use the opportunity to pillory Islamabad at the UN.
With righteous vigour now thought to be reserved for American pop stars, and globally-renowned teenage climate activists, India pointed out Pakistan’s hypocrisy. New Delhi’s representative to the UN said: “It is a matter of great irony that the country where the most recent attack and demolition of a Hindu temple took place… and where the rights of minorities are being emasculated is one of the co-sponsors of the resolution under the agenda item ,‘Culture of Peace’.”
The structure he was referring to was the samadhi of a Hindu saint in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan. Within a month of the attack in December, the Pakistan Supreme Court had taken cognisance of the matter, ordered the country’s Evacuee Property Trust Board (EPTB) to start reconstructing the shrine and asked for details on other minority religious sites, demanding that the EPTB stop any encroachment on temples and gurdwara sites across the country. Over 100 people were reportedly arrested and 92 police personnel, including senior officers, were suspended.
When it comes to Pakistan, we seem to have cultivated a sort of wilful blindness on the one hand, and a gleeful sense of schadenfreude at its failures on the other. This is, of course, partly explained (and understandable) by the history of conflict as well as the similarities between the two countries: The greatest lesson from the Mahabharata, after all, is that a fraternal conflict can be the one that exacts the greatest toll. But in the constant game of one-upmanship, the desire to see chaos and failure in our neighbour, we stand to lose out on learning lessons from its trajectory.
The Pakistan Supreme Court order, and the alacrity with which it was delivered, stands in sharp contrast to the Indian Supreme Court’s Ayodhya-Babri Masjid verdict. After nearly 30 years of the televised demolition, the criminal case found no one guilty and the prime minister of India participated in a religious foundation-laying ceremony on what was once a disputed site and a crime scene. But this contrast is fleeting, and only draws attention to a deeper, more disturbing convergence between the countries.
The Pakistan SC’s recent order stands out precisely because it appears to be at odds with the country’s larger political culture. Its democracy is circumscribed by the military in terms of formal political power and by religious fundamentalist groups that often act as quasi governments, making a liberal social order a distant dream. The roots of the religious takeover in Pakistan are often traced to Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship (1977-1988) and the steps he took to bring about Nizam-e-Mustafa. These included the now notorious blasphemy law, the Hudood ordinance and madrassa expansion. The consequences of that time of “strong government” and a politics of religious piety are there to be seen in lynchings, assassinations, sectarian strife and the condition of minorities whose citizenship status and lived reality can be described as “second class” — only charitably.
Amid this descent — arguably inevitable when a nation-state is formed with religion as its organising demographic principle — there has been one strand of hope; a redeeming factor that is worth conceding. While religious fundamentalists have historically and until recently, occupied a space in Pakistani politics and society that did not have a parallel in India, in no free and fair election have the people of Pakistan voted to office in Islamabad a majority government from a religious party. That formal distinction, like an anomalous court verdict ordering the reconstruction of a demolished (minority) place of worship, holds out the hope of a state and society that can rescue itself from its own worst demons.
In India, we have been somewhat more fortunate: Elections have been free and fair; a secular, liberal Constitution has served as moral-legal lodestar, even when we fall short of its promise. But it is precisely because of the legitimacy that our electoral system provides and our legislature and judiciary still command that the descent to religious nationalism is more dangerous here.
Like with Zia’s codes, the law of the land in Bharat is changing. Conversion — a right, and one that must be respected in a society that for centuries classified working people as “untouchable” — invites the wrath of the law. Adults are not allowed to exercise their agency and a la the Nuremberg Laws, interaction and love between people of different religions is being policed. The Babri Masjid was demolished but legally, no one demolished it. Worse still, we celebrate the temple being built on the site as a symbol of a transformed republic, of New India. And finally, all this can be and is being done with the legitimacy that a functioning, robust democracy provides.
So, what then, are the lessons that the neighbours can learn from each other? For Pakistan, India’s past must serve as a guide. For India, Pakistan’s present must serve as a warning, and even at times, an example. And most importantly, rather than attack a neighbour for its intolerance while smugly ignoring their own, both must encourage and applaud the silver linings in societies that are struggling to return to a crossroads, where the paths hold a little more promise than a hollowing out of religion for an exclusionary politics.