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My initial column writing for many years was for newspapers in Pakistan. I have visited it many times, have spoken at its universities and its literature festivals often and know the place intimately also through study over the last three decades.
What is striking to me is that while India has been moving consistently away from secularism and towards a Hindutva-style State, Pakistan has been attempting to move in the other direction, meaning away from religion.
In 1947, Pakistan wanted to be constitutionally a religious state. Integration of religion into law and government would lend a positive impulse to the nation, according to Jinnah’s successor Liaquat Ali Khan. Speaking only a few years after the atom bombs were dropped on the Japanese, Liaquat said mankind’s material and scientific development had leapt ahead of the development of the human individual. The result was that man was able to produce inventions that could destroy the world and society. This had happened only because man had chosen to ignore his spiritual side and if he had retained more faith in god, this problem would not have come up. Religion tempered the dangers of science, Liaquat felt, and as Muslims, Pakistanis would adhere to Islam’s ideals and make a contribution to the world. The State’s enabling of Muslims to lead their lives in alignment with Islam did not concern non-Muslims, so they should not have a problem with the reference to that, he said.
This is what was intended by the Muslim League, but what happened was different. The focus shifted from Muslims to non-Muslims. Pakistan constitutionally restricted minorities from becoming president (in the 1960s) or prime minister (from the 1970s). Meanwhile, the laws concerning Pakistan’s Muslims fell away in time. The law enforcing fasting in Ramzan — quite needless because most sub-continental Muslims observe the fast anyway — ran into opposition after Muslim restaurant owners and multiplex owners complained. The law enforcing zakat by debiting 2.5 per cent from the bank accounts of Pakistan’s Sunnis failed because people withdrew their money just before it was due to happen. The Shias, who have a hierarchical clergy to whom they give the money directly, had previously objected and were exempted.
Pakistan shares with India the penal code and Pakistanis are as familiar with the numbers 302, 420 and 144 as we are. Here they tried to change the laws. Early Islam existed at a time when there were no jails. Punishment for criminal offences was usually corporal instead of detention. In the 1980s Pakistan introduced amputation of limbs as punishment for theft and trained a set of terrified doctors to carry these out. But Pakistan’s judges, trained in Common Law like India’s, were reluctant to pass these sentences and so the laws remained frozen and unused. Pakistan introduced stoning as a punishment for adultery but nobody has been stoned to death.
A brief period of enthusiasm, also in the 1980s, for lashing those accused of drinking alcohol ended. In 2009, Pakistan’s Federal Shariat Court read down the punishment for drinking, with the judges saying it was not a serious crime. Under president Pervez Musharraf Pakistan returned the punishment for rape — which was conflated with fornication if the survivor could not produce witnesses to the act — from shariah back to the penal code. A shariat court order demanding a ban on interest in the banking system, which would finish off the economy, has been ignored by successive governments.
The last major attempt to Islamise Pakistan was over two decades ago under Nawaz Sharif: The so-called 15th Amendment, which was defeated in the Senate. Pakistan remains insufficiently Islamic and, with no hierarchical clergy like Iran’s, can never become theocratic. Unlike Saudi Arabia it has never had moral police because Pakistanis are culturally South Asians with local practices.
While Pakistan has attempted to secularise, India has gone the other away. The one thing India can claim is that it does not prevent Muslims from holding high office. India has had Muslim presidents but unlike Pakistan, India’s presidents are figureheads with no real authority. If they had the power to dismiss Parliament, such as Pakistan’s presidents had, it would be interesting to see how many Muslims India would have elevated.
Today, there is no Muslim chief minister in India for the first time since 1947, no Muslim minister at all in 15 state Cabinets, and in 10 states there is only one Muslim minister usually given minority affairs. Of the 303 Lok Sabha MPs of the ruling party, none is Muslim. There was no Muslim among its previous 282 Lok Sabha majority either. When Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who has not been given a Rajya Sabha seat, loses his position as minister, there will be no Muslim in India’s Union Cabinet for the first time. Whether the exclusion of minorities from power is through law as in Pakistan or through practice as in India, the exclusion is real.
On the side of the laws of course India has moved substantially away from pluralism. Starting in 2015, Bharatiya Janata Party states began criminalising the possession of beef, triggering a series of beef lynchings.
In 2019, India’s Parliament criminalised the utterance of triple talaq in one sitting, punishing Muslim men for a non-event (because the Supreme Court had already invalidated triple talaq earlier). After 2018, seven BJP states criminalised interfaith marriage by disallowing conversions and invalidating such marriages, including those which had children. Conversions to Hinduism — defined as “ancestral religion” — are exempt and not counted as conversions in the BJP states of Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh. Nobody has ever been convicted of forced conversion in India so these laws are not required but the intent is to harass.
In 2019, Gujarat tightened a law that keeps Muslims ghettoised by denying them access to purchase and lease of properties from Hindus. In effect, foreigners can buy and rent properties in Gujarat that Gujarati Muslims cannot. We need not get into the treatment of Kashmiris here because the collective punishment imposed on them no longer arouses interest in us. In effect there is no real difference between India and Pakistan as they move towards each other from two sides. One began at the communal end but has edged towards secularism. The other began at the secular end and has slipped into communalism.
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