Religious freedom in the subcontinent

  • What is common in India and Pakistan?


A recent report on how much a country allows religious freedom or not, has slammed both Pakistan and India among others, for what it claims persecution in the name of faith. While the document prepared by the US State Department shows concerns of varying degrees for both nations, not unexpectedly both have denied the findings and stuck to their own narratives, irrespective of reality.

Pakistan and India have many commonalities. They remained one nation from the times of Asoka and Akbar to those of the British, until the historic Partition separated them into two entities. While India maintained the mantra of secularism, Pakistan based its existence on the Two Nation theory and chose Islam at the core of every major decision, with over 90 per cent of its population following the religion. Still, many insist that Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of the nation, had envisioned a secular state, with Islam as the uniting and guiding force, much on the lines of Kamal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. While the latter did indeed move on to be prominently secular, with modernisation to levels similar in Europe, Pakistan stumbled from a fairly modern to an increasingly conservative society, with its legislation gradually conforming to the Sharia almost in entirety.

India, on the other hand, amended its constitution during the mid-1970s, asserting that India is a secular nation and that institutions were “to recognise and accept all religions, enforce parliamentary laws instead of religious laws, and respect pluralism.” Unlike Pakistan, India does not have an official state religion.

India remained largely true to its proclamation, until recently. The country’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, often said that India’s composite culture was one of its greatest strengths. But the Hindu nationalists, who later united under the banner of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), hold a starkly different view; they envision India as a majoritarian nation-state, not a multicultural one. As the political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot says, “the tensions inherent in these competing visions of Indian nationhood have come to the fore in recent years, especially since the BJP’s landmark electoral victory in 2014.”

The most alarming attack on India’s secularism came in 1992, when activists tore the Mughal-era Babri Masjid to the ground to make way for a Ram temple. BJP had won the state elections in Uttar Pradesh a year earlier, the state where the mosque stood for centuries. In 2002, a brutal anti-Muslim pogrom shook Gujarat during Narendra Modi’s tenure as chief minister. In 2014, it was Modi who became the prime minister of the nation, with the BJP winning an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. Since then, India has been consistently moving towards the ideals of a Hindu rashtra.

While Pakistan always condemns India’s atrocities in Kashmir as well as its curbing the rights of Indian Muslims, India laments when allegations of Hindu girls in particular forcibly converted to Islam cross the border. Both are quick to react to any incident of a right violation across the border, and both are equally prompt in dismissing the condemnations as attacks on internal matters

Cities previously bearing Islamic names have been rechristened (Allahabad is now called Prayagraj). Hindu vigilantes have been trying to ‘discipline’ minorities (Muslims and Christians), with videos often circulating on social media of Muslims lynched and even murdered for slaughtering cows or carrying and consuming beef, as cows hold a divine status in the Hindu religion. Muslims and Christians in India are also targeted to be converted to Hinduism. There have been talks at state level of removing Mughal history from Indian textbooks as well as iconic Mughal buildings, like the Taj Mahal, from tourism promotions. And BJP coming back to power for the second term with a thumping majority “has called into question the future viability of the country’s secularist tradition and commitment to diversity.”

The question resonates in this year’s US report on International Religious Freedom The report, acknowledging India’s “long history as a secular democracy”, the constitutional right to religious freedom, and the nation’s independent judiciary, regretfully states that “this history of religious freedom has come under attack in recent years with the growth of exclusionary extremist narratives— including, at times, the government’s allowance and encouragement of mob violence against religious minorities”.

In response, India has angrily shrugged its shoulders, insisting that no foreign country has the right to criticise its record.

At the same time, Pakistan, despite its claims of protecting minorities and their rights has also come under ire. The same report states that “In 2018, religious freedom conditions in Pakistan generally trended negative despite the Pakistani government taking some positive steps to promote religious freedom and combat religiously motivated violence and hate speech. During the year, extremist groups and societal actors continued to discriminate against and attack religious minorities, including Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Ahmadis, and Shi’a Muslims.”

The report has also criticised the “abusive enforcement” of the country’s blasphemy laws, as well as forced conversions of non-Muslims “despite the passage of the Hindu Marriage Act, which recognises Hindu family law.”

Pakistan has termed the observations “biased” and “unsubstantiated” and like India, has said that Pakistan did not support reports that made observations on the internal affairs of sovereign states. Yet, actual facts and figures lend more support to the report than the state’s narrative.

The 2019 Religious Minorities in Pakistan report compiled by Members of the European Parliament has stated that every year at least 1000 girls are forcibly converted to Islam. The same report commented on Pakistan’s educational system that “The textbooks in schools extend the intolerance with systematic negative portrayals of minorities, especially Hindus. While teachings avoid denoting the contribution of religious minorities to the cultural, military and civic life of Pakistan, anti-Islamic forces are declared to endanger its very existence.”

In September 2018, Atif Mian was removed less than a week after being selected as a member of the government’s Economic Advisory Council, owing to pressure from Islamist groups. He belongs to the Ahmadi community, declared non-Muslim by the country’s constitution.

In May 2014, a member of the then ruling PML-N, Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, revealed in the National Assembly that around 5,000 Hindus were migrating from Pakistan to India every year. A survey by the All-Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement revealed that out of 428 Hindu temples in Pakistan only around 20 survived, and remained neglected by the Evacuee Trust Property Board. However, in April this year, Pakistan decided to restore over 400 Hindu temples which had either been demolished or converted for other uses.

And although the Pakistani government also allow Sikhs from India to make pilgrimages to Sikh places of worship in Pakistan and for Pakistani Sikhs to travel to India, between 2014 and 2018, at least 10 Sikhs were targeted and murdered in the country.

Hence, it may be no surprise that the percentage of minorities in Pakistan has dropped from 23 per cent at the time of Partition (which also included non-Muslims in East Pakistan) to 3.7 per cent now.

Both India and Pakistan take pride in their multi-cultural and multi-religious diversity. Both their constitutions provide sufficient rights to their minorities. But in both the countries, these constitutional rights are violated. Whether a nation participates in the violation or the state is unable to curb intolerance, it affects the environment of religious freedom.

There is yet another commonality. While Pakistan always condemns India’s atrocities in Kashmir as well as its curbing the rights of Indian Muslims, India laments when allegations of Hindu girls in particular forcibly converted to Islam cross the border. Both are quick to react to any incident of a right violation across the border, and both are equally prompt in dismissing the condemnations as attacks on internal matters. The stance is correct, except, if the internal matters are wisely tackled, there would be no room left for any condemnation.