A solemn reminder, courtesy Pakistan

Lessons from Pakistan on why we must guard our state from religiosity and our society from majoritarianism.

Organised murders and terror strikes stemming from religious fanaticism are unfortunately far too commonplace in the Pakistani society today. Even then, two recent incidents have shaken up the conscience of the ordinary Pakistani. The first incident was the terror attack on the Wagah border and the second incident was the lynching of a Christian couple on unsubstantiated claims of abetting blasphemy. Expectedly, the reactions to the two incidents in the Indian print and social media fell in two broad categories. The foremost reaction was that of disdain, that such acts were indicative of the karmic retribution that Pakistan deserved. As it sowed, so shall it reap.  The second reaction was broadly that of self-righteousness, one that projects India’s many ills like a pale shadow in front of the gargantuan battles of the Pakistani society. Statements like “We can’t expect anything better from Pakistan” or “Thank God! We are in India” fall in this category of reactions.


As a discernible reader would recognise, such reactions are based on an edifice of India’s tolerant culture, a culture that has some inborn resilience to radical ideologies. It is this resilience that makes people believe that India will never go down the path that Pakistan has submitted itself to. And yet, this grand narrative of a tolerant society can get punctured easily. Though an ultra-religious, majoritarian Indian State might appear like a far fetched possibility to many, examples from experiences of other countries show that such a scenario is not as improbable as it is made out to be. There are two reasons why we must be wary of the claims that project tolerance as an inherent and everlasting attribute of a nation.

The first reason is a commonsensical belief in the religious determinism of violence. The underlying hypothesis of this theory being that some religions are inherently prone to violent thought while some others are inherently inclined towards ahimsa. For example, Buddhism is widely believed to be a religion of peace while Islam has now been equated with violence. However, this hypothesis stands falsified the moment we survey the civil war crimes in Sri Lanka where a Buddhist nation-state that perpetrated systemic violence on religious minorities discovered unwavering justifications from monks and ancient Sri Lankan Buddhist texts to vindicate its stance. In the same vein, the Rohingya Muslims find themselves at the receiving end of systematic discrimination in a Buddhist majority Burma. Thus, it would be simplistic to assume that the adherents of Hinduism, Sikhism or Jainism are somehow less prone to using violence on account of their religion alone. On the same lines, assuming that Islam as a religion is more prone to violence cannot counter reason.

Second, a belief that we will know well in advance in case we are going down the route that Pakistan has done and that we will be able to self-correct when such a realisation happens. The underlying hypothesis being that there is a linear progression that a nation follows on its way to extremism. This hypothesis does not hold water as Pakistan has itself demonstrated. In an excellent article in the Daily Times Pakistan, Mohammed Taqi writes that once the indoctrination of a concocted ideology was planted in school curricula during General Ayub Khan’s rule, religiosity and majoritarianism gained grounds rapidly. He observes that

“Several generations have grown up on this unhealthy, revisionist diet of myths, half-truths and flat out lying fed at the secular schools, not madrassas (seminaries). This heady mixture of divine and temporal took a massive toll on the students’ objective analysis and critical thinking capabilities”. From then on, it has been a slippery slope walk for Pakistan. Not only did this ideology pervade the less educated, it also achieved axiomatic reverence for the elites in the Pakistani society. The effect has been so powerful that even as of 2012, a Pew research pointed out that 75 percent of Pakistanis believe that protection of Islam requires laws that forbid blasphemy. This should serve as a warning for us. India needs to guard itself ferociously from a revisionist history that can lead to false superiority complexes or a justification for victimisation. The progression from an education that indoctrinates hatred to an ideological State that becomes acquiescent to majoritarianism is a swift and non-linear one.

Thus, the recent unfortunate incidents in Pakistan should serve as solemn reminders to us. Preventing religion from entering the domain of the State should be a target we must never take our eyes off. Will we become like Pakistan or not will depend on the way that our education systems shape up. Even beyond the realm of the State, ideas like love jihad must be defeated by the society. Upholding a republican constitution that affirms fundamental individual rights must become our supreme goal. In this regard, the ideal of Secularism which separates the State from religion needs a reboot. Pratap Bhanu Mehta captures the need of this new secularism in this essay where he states that a “robust secularism now needs a new institutional language: one founded on individual freedom, dignity, rule of law, building institutional accountability and so forth”. The good news is that for many of our challenges, we do not need to reinvent the wheel. Our constitution already presents us with a template that can help us ward off the evils of majoritarianism.

We must realise that the ideology of today’s Pakistan can’t be defeated by inculcating reactionary ideologies that are similar in form to those prevailing in Pakistan. That will only vindicate the blatant propaganda that has been unleashed on large sections of the Pakistani society today. Instead, Pakistan’s ideology can only be defeated by summarily rejecting the religiosity and sectarianism that went on to become the basis of today’s Pakistan.

Photo: Ryan McGilchrist