By Hasan Suroor
Aug 23, 2017
NOW that we are done with the speeches and street parties, it might help if political leaders in India and Pakistan took a break from hyperbolic claims and nationalistic rhetoric and, instead, had a grownup debate about the state of their countries — and where they are headed. Narendra Modi, in his Independence Day speech, promised to turn India into a land of milk and honey by 2022 : “The poor shall have concrete houses, the farmer shall double his income, youths and women will get ample opportunities, an India (will be) free of casteism, terrorism, corruption”. Over in Pakistan, its president pledged to deliver “a true Islamic welfare state as envisioned by Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah”. All this is la-la land stuff. An insult to the intelligence of their voters.
It’s only on the subcontinent that responsible leaders can get away with this sort of guff; thrive on it. People have been sold porkies for 70 long years; it’s time to level with them and get real. And the reality is that both India and Pakistan are in a bad place — Pakistan, of course, is in a much deeper hole made worse by rampant terror, a monster it itself created to harass others and then lost control over it. But India, for all its robust democracy and economy, is also haunted by its own demons which like Pakistan’s were minted and nurtured at home. The country is being torn apart by culture wars unleashed by right-wing Hindu nationalists giving succour to the Muslim right, much to the frustration of moderate Muslims caught up between Hindu and Muslim fanatics.
The vast majority of neither Indians nor Pakistanis has much to celebrate 70 years after Independence. Talat Masood, a prominent retired Pakistani army general, told the BBC that Jinnah “must be turning in his grave” how his vision of a secular and democratic Pakistan has been corrupted and turned into a fundamentalist theocracy. So, would be Gandhi over attempts to appropriate his legacy by the same people who are trying to subvert it. Freedom fighters who are still alive and those whose ancestors made personal sacrifices in the struggle for India’s freedom are horrified by the prevailing climate of hate, and the way Gandhi’s idea of a multicultural and tolerant India is being sought to be systematically destroyed in the name of Hindu cultural nationalism, a twisted form of Hinduism much like the distorted version of Islam in Pakistan. And the world is watching.
The BBC coverage of PM’s Red Fort speech was heavily laced with references to murders of Muslims by cow vigilantes. “Cow vigilantes have been increasingly active since Modi took over...there have been a series murders of Muslims by Hindus,” reported its correspondent Justin Rowlatt. “Seventy years after Independence communal tensions are still alive.” The programme carried an interview with one cow vigilante Vijay Chauhan brandishing a pistol and threatening to “kill anyone” he suspected of killing or even transporting cows for sale. Not exactly a pleasing image of the “new India” the PM said he was building.
Social media sites are buzzing with disillusioned voices. One well-known journalist wrote on Facebook: “My late father sacrificed his youth to work towards our freedom. He lost his health…and was subsequently jailed for long years. All these years of running around many times with little or no food left his body very weak...He died when he was barely 56 years of age. I wonder what he would have thought of today’s rulers and what their role was in the freedom movement.”
In a new book by Russian Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich about what the Russians think of the new post-Soviet Russia many say it has changed so much — mostly for the worse — that they don’t “recognise” it anymore. “This country is foreign to me. It’s foreign! Nothing is sacred anymore,” says a former army officer.
For many of us, this could well be the description of the new post-liberal, Congress-Mukt, Muslim-Mukt, dissent-Mukt nationalist India with its coarsening political discourse, frightened media, deteriorating community relations, and fraying institutions.
It’s a still a work in progress, and given the breakneck pace at which it’s being rushed through, by the time they’re done with it, the country might have become so unrecognisable that it could need a brand-new entry in the Lonely Planet guides. Come the 80th Independence anniversary, and India would have become a truly foreign country for many of midnight’s children. With Hindu-Muslim segregation growing at an alarming rate, large areas across the country have already become no-go zones with Muslims not permitted in Hindu neighbourhoods and Hindus in Muslim ghettos. Those who lived through Partition speak ominously of eerie parallels between the current climate and the climate of fear and hate that prevailed on the eve of the historic split. “I fear an even greater upheaval than we witnessed in 1947,” warns one retired Hindu academic.
Political scientist Neera Chandhoke, who has done a lot of work on segregation in Gujarat, fears another division. “In 1947, India was partitioned into two countries. In the 21st century, Indian society seems to be fated to undergo another sort of partition, spatial segregation born out of fear,” she wrote in The Hindu.
Pakistan has already had a second dismemberment thanks to the supremacists in West Pakistan; Hindutva supremacists should tread cautiously and be very careful for what they wish for. In seeking to marginalise 189 million fellow citizens they are gambling with the very security and unity of India. Pakistan learnt this to its cost when it sought to marginalise its Bengali citizens. Not that it appears to have drawn any lessons from it as its politicians continue to trade in hate.
While politicians in the two countries are engaged in competitive nationalism, the two feeding off each other, the pressing bread-and-butter issues seem to be nobody’s priority. It’s revealing that both India and Pakistan are at the bottom of the heap on most social indicators. Shamefully, more people in India live in poverty than in all of sub-Saharan Africa, according to a UN study, and in Pakistan 40 per cent of its population lives under the poverty line, official figures show.
Ultimately, inclusion and tolerance are the best guarantee of security and progress. Modi coined a catchy slogan, “Sab Ka Saath, Sab Ka Vikas”, but has done little to make it work. It’s time to put some meat on the bone if he’s serious about realising even a fraction of his 2022 vision of a new India.
Hasan Suroor is a London-based commentator