‘The idea of India is stronger than the Indian; the idea of Pakistan is weaker than the Pakistani,’ writes veteran journalist M J Akbar in his latest book, Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan.
Indeed, it seems as if the March 2 killing of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Federal Minister of Minorities, is just one more nail in the coffin of the idea of Pakistan. This latest high-profile assassination came only two months after the murder of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who was another backer of a liberal, secular Pakistan.
The lack of clear and vocal support for these two slain politicians from members of the public is worrying, although it’s clear that their silence is largely down to fears for their own safety. Also troubling, though, have been the demonstrations that have taken place in support of Taseer’s killer. It all raises significant questions over the fate of liberalism in South Asia’s most volatile nation.
The pain and anger felt about this silence by the general public and the ruling class was best expressed by educated young people through blogs and social websites. In the Express Tribune’s blog, for example, Sadaf Khan recently wrote a post saying: ‘as one by one our leaders fall, all we do is watch with fear, mostly quiet, terribly afraid and totally powerless. Some voices are raised but muted quickly—for what strength do words have when fighting bullets?’
At a time when those in the Arab world have been coming out in droves and putting their lives at risk in pursuit of democracy, progressive voices in Pakistan are under threat and being marginalized by religious extremism and fanaticism.
But the truth is that fanaticism is also a reality in India. The rise of Hindutva groups involved in terror attacks, for instance, is just one indication that there’s a gradual radicalization of politics taking place in this country, under the banner of organizations claiming to represent the interests of Hindus. The recent confession by Swami Aseemanand and his friends over their involvement in blasts at various Muslim-dominated areas and their places of worship in India between 2006 and 2008 highlights the existence of a network of terror working to undermine secular and liberal values in India.
Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar says that the ‘rump of India will never be able to consolidate its own nationhood, of which secularism is the bonding adhesive, or effectively counter regional terrorism, whose home lies in Pakistan, or take its due place on the international stage, unless it first sets its house in order on the subcontinent.’
So instead of gloating over Pakistan’s ‘descent into chaos,’ India should look within itself. It would be a good start if strict legal action is taken against those who are found guilty in terror attacks in Muslim-majority areas. The biggest country in South Asia needs to demonstrate firmness in dealing with those involved in tearing apart the fabric of a liberal nation. If we keep ignoring signs of the presence of a Hindu terror network in our midst, we’ll soon be at the mercy of extremist groups that look like the Tehreek-e-Taliban and Lashkar-e-Toiba.
For Pakistan, meanwhile, the drift toward intolerance is taking the country ever further from the vision of an inclusive society backed by founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah. In an opening address to the Pakistan parliament in 1947, Jinnah said: ‘You are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state…Make no mistake, Pakistan is not a theocracy or anything like it.’
The sentiments underscored by Jinnah’s statement seem so distant now when looking at the current reality within Pakistan. Pakistanis must reclaim the idea of Pakistan before it’s too late.