Aakar Patel | From secular to communal: The changing story of India & Pakistan

Today, there is no Muslim chief minister in India for the first time since 1947

My initial column writing for many years was for Pakistani newspapers. I have visited Pakistan many times, have spoken at its universities and its literature festivals often and know the place intimately for three decades.

What is striking is that while India has been moving consistently away from secularism and towards a Hindutva-style state, Pakistan is trying to move in the other direction, away from religion.’

In 1947, Pakistan wanted to be constitutionally a religious state. The integration of religion into law and government would lend a positive impulse, felt M.A. Jinnah’s successor Liaquat Ali Khan. Speaking only a few years after the atom bombs were dropped on Japan, Liaquat said mankind’s material and scientific development had leapt ahead of the development of the individual. Man could thus produce inventions that could destroy the world. This happened only because man had chosen to ignore his spiritual side, and if he had retained more faith in God, this wouldn’t have come up.

Religion tempered the dangers of science, Liaquat felt, and as Muslims, Pakistanis would adhere to Islam’s ideals. The State’s enabling Muslims to lead their lives in alignment with Islam didn’t concern non-Muslims, so they shouldn’t have a problem with that, he said.

This is what the Muslim League intended, but what happened was different. The focus shifted from Muslims to non-Muslims. Pakistan restricted its minorities from becoming President (in 1960s) or Prime Minister (from 1970s).

Meanwhile, the laws concerning Pakistan’s Muslims fell away in time. The law enforcing fasting in Ramzan (quite needless as most subcontinental 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 bank accounts of Pakistan’s Sunnis failed as people withdrew their money just before it was due to happen. Shia, who have a hierarchical clergy to whom they give 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 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 wasn’t a serious crime. Under President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan returned the punishment for rape (which was conflated with fornication if the survivor couldn’t produce witnesses) from the Shariah back to the penal code. A Sharia court order seeking a ban on interest in banking, which would finish the economy, has been ignored by successive governments.

The last major attempt to Islamise Pakistan was over two decades ago under Nawaz Sharif: the 15th Amendment, which was defeated in the Senate. Pakistan remains insufficiently Islamic and, with no hierarchical clergy like Iran’s, can never become theocratic. Unlikely Saudi Arabia, it never had a moral police as Pakistanis are culturally South Asians with local practices.

While Pakistan attempted to secularise, India has gone the other away. The one thing India can claim is that it doesn’t 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 ruling party’s 303 Lok Sabha MPs, none is Muslim. There was no Muslim among its previous 282 Lok Sabha majority either. When Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who hasn’t been given a Rajya Sabha seat, loses his position as a minister, there will be no Muslim in the Union Cabinet for the first time. Whether the exclusion of minorities from power is through the law, as in Pakistan, or through practice as in India, the exclusion is real.

On the side of laws, of course, India has moved substantially away from pluralism. Starting 2015, BJP states began criminalising the possession of beef, triggering a series of lynchings. In 2019, Parliament criminalised the utterance of triple talaq in one sitting, punishing Muslim men for a non-event (as the Supreme Court had already invalidated triple talaq earlier). After 2018, seven BJP states criminalised inter-faith 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 BJP states like Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh. Nobody has ever been convicted of forced conversion in India, but the intent is to harass.

In 2019, Gujarat tightened a law that keeps Muslims ghettoised by denying them access to purchase and lease properties from Hindus. In effect, foreigners can buy and rent properties in Gujarat that Gujarati Muslims cannot. We needn’t get into the treatment of Kashmiris as the collective punishment imposed on them no longer arouses interest in us.

In effect, there’s no real difference between India and Pakistan as they move towards each other. 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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