Over the past few months, odd statements and news articles have been popping up that, to me sitting across the border, seem quite familiar.
Take Dina Nath Batra’s complaints regarding Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus – An Alternative History: “…The author has correctly stated that text of Vedas did not undergo any change of correction during thousands of years. When the text remains the same, it is oblivious [sic] that its meaning and message have remained the same. Therefore the core principle of Hinduism has remained the same as enunciated in Vedas. In other words, the core principles of Hinduism are eternal (Sanatan). Distortions and deviations do not constitute the core of any religion. That in the aforesaid book, the author has made basic blunder of equating and mixing core principles of Hinduism with the stray distortions. Or, “The author has hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus by declaring that Ramayan is a fiction.”
Ms Doniger, had she written about Islam, would have faced a much more hostile reaction from Pakistan, even possible charges of blasphemy. Our feelings, quite frequently worn on our sleeves, tend to be hurt quite easily, by newspapers in languages we don’t understand, or books we are never going to read.
Misogyny seems to be present across borders as well. Pakistan has the Council of Islamic Ideology, which barred DNA evidence from being used in cases of rape and also lobbies for the legal age of marriage for women to be lowered to 9.
There seem to be broad parallels between Pakistani and the Indian right wing for the simple fact that both see religion to play an important part in politics and public life. ‘Hindutva’ is simply political Hinduism. It sees Hindus as a nation and a political constituency, which is hardly dissimilar from the idea of the ‘Ummah’, the political extension of Muslims.
But religion in public life is hardly unique to Islam or South Asia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the leader of an avowedly Christian party, and Shas, the Israeli ultra-orthodox Jewish party, plays a fundamental role in Israel’s politics. Religion is an important part of people’s lives, and, within the context of South Asia, it is entirely legitimate for people want to realise a political component to religion – in fact, it is what led, in part, to the creation of Pakistan.
The question, however, is how far political religion can go. Pakistan’s answer to that question is: quite far; we are the “Islamic” Republic of Pakistan, after all. A non-Muslim can’t be president; Ahmedis are to be declared non-Muslims in writing by every Pakistani; blasphemy carries the death penalty; no alcohol - to name just a few features of our overt, political religiosity.
India, on the other hand, has self-consciously kept its laws, and at least some of its parties, secular. It is the primary product being sold by Congress when it has little concrete from its 10 years in power to show. What is its worth? Would a BJP victory threaten it? Even if it does, how bad would that be?
I think it’s too early – and probably contrived - to say that Modi’s tenure will mimic the Pakistani right wing’s rule in Pakistan. But the signs are not good. In India, "Those who want to stop Narendra Modi are looking towards Pakistan. In the coming days, they will have no place in India. They will only have place in Pakistan," said BJP leader Giriraj Singh at rally in Jharkhand on Saturday. Modi’s communal record in Gujarat is atrocious, whether he himself had a hand in it or not. His refusal to take any responsibility for the carnage is terrifying. Comparing the death of a thousand Muslims – if not more – to the death of a puppy is despicable. The past is generally a good predictor for the future, and it looks like 160 million Muslims ought to ready themselves to be thought of as puppies – better than lambs to the slaughter at least.
But there is only so much damage the BJP can inflict on minorities, given India’s constitutional constraints and political culture. Muslims do form a sizable voting bloc, and are aware of what their votes can get them. Even with a victory, Modi will have some formidable regional parties, who have their own agenda and constituencies - and drive a hard bargain - to build a coalition with. Also, India’s communities are diverse in more ways than one, and in many cases different bonds – cultural, linguistic, caste, but economic in most cases – can be stronger than religion.
But minorities and Muslims in particular, would hardly want to test the BJP’s resolve in living up to its manifesto. After all, if anywhere a monolithic religion is taking over all aspects of political and social (and private) life; it is in Pakistan - as its own minorities know fully well.