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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Secular retreat

A line runs through India, Pakistan and Turkey today

Written by Khaled Ahmed | Updated: May 27, 2017 12:02:32 am
Indian Muslims had thought of the caliphate a hundred years ago; maybe they are thinking of it again as well. C R Sasikumar.

In Pakistan, the beleaguered “liberal” — the term “secular” is embargoed by vigilante terrorism now — is bemused by the evolution of the Muslim state to a hardline savage one, which favours elements that kill its own people. There was a middle period when one thought that this state would settle down to being a secular dictatorship under military commanders, but when democracy returned to Pakistan, it was soon ambushed by the “religious state” which was pledged in the Objectives Resolution of 1949. Now, the military dictator who took over the country was Islamic, rather than secular.

When democracy did return, it was steeped in a religious creed that tended to negate the “modern state” one thought that Muhammad Ali Jinnah wanted to create in 1947. Now, when the Muslim masses are given the choice of democracy, they in fact want the sharia, as they did in Egypt during the Arab Spring. In Pakistan, the caliphate of the Islamic State is peering over the border wall as the country’s terminal destination. Indian Muslims had thought of the caliphate a hundred years ago; maybe they are thinking of it again as well.

But the Hindu was intellectually ahead in India, conforming to the classic Athenian model which says that trade puts you ahead in terms of brains, as opposed to the visceral Spartan warrior figure. While Muslims thought of khilafat, there were Hindus like Rabindranath Tagore and B.R. Ambedkar who were thinking in terms of the future, Tagore even telling Europe about what horrors nationalism would inflict on the nation state there. Ambedkar was more prescient about the Hindu-Muslim divide; he knew why Muslims would not be able to live peacefully in secular India. While writing India’s constitution — which he abstained from calling “secular” — he likely knew what the religious Hindu too was capable of.

It was commerce that gave Athens its great thinkers. In India, it was the unleashing of productive energy in the post-Nehruvian period that should have consolidated the secular identity which thinkers like Ambedkar had dreamed of. But what good economics actually did was poverty alleviation which gave rise to the new middle class on the basis of “transition” rather than “change”. That religion returned after a good economic performance holds true for both India and Pakistan. Behind Pakistan, there was the thrust of the Islamic world, the changing Middle East, from where Pakistan earned most of its $20 billion in remittances. In India, the BJP won big after people rejected the secular parties which were wedded to the earlier socialist and welfare-based models.

Pakistan was always religious, but it became abrasively so as the poor transitioned to middle class status. Being abrasive eventually became deadly because of the state’s flawed policy of open borders for proxy warriors who were fed on Islamist funds coming from abroad and state patronage at home. In India, the rising Hindu middle class gave rise to religious hooligans who used street power to intimidate the state into changing its identity. Many in Pakistan compare today’s India to Pakistan’s state of terminal self-immolation; some have started likening its trajectory to Turkey too.

Pakistan doesn’t surprise anyone because what ails it is ailing almost all Muslim states in the world, from Bangladesh to Indonesia. Turkey, like India, survived in its secular identity for decades, before it

succumbed to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is often compared to Narendra Modi in India. Like India, Turkey has transformed backwards; untouched by Kemalist secularism, Anatolia is pushing its rising middle class westward. What Erdogan will do in another 12 years in power bestowed on him by a recent referendum doesn’t need much guessing. But will India proceed on its current extremist trajectory?

Most observers don’t believe so, but some Indian intellectuals are signaling despair now. Yet, as long as there are people around like the former Supreme Court of India judge, Markandey Katju, there will be hope for India returning to its globally appreciated identity. As reported by The Indian Express (‘Markandey Katju suggests making ‘The planet of cows’ in India, leaves Netizens in splits, IE, May 2), Katju, taking a cue from Hollywood’s famous film The Planet of the Apes, suggested that India make The Planet of the Cows! It was reported that he feels such a film could garner 10 times more revenue than the epic franchise Baahubali that has currently gripped the entire country.

However, will non-Hindus suffer in India just as the non-Turkic, non-Muslim and non-Sunni communities are suffering in Turkey? There are signs of the state’s retreat in the face of the street power of thugs in India, just like the Pakistan state’s retreat in the face of bloodthirsty religious fanatics hunting for blasphemers. Will blasphemy also figure? Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History was withdrawn and dumped by a scared Indian publisher because she used sources that offended, but which didn’t offend in the past when the country was confident under the philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s tolerant gaze. Pakistan too would kill for a book of this kind, based on Islamic sources that Muslims didn’t mind not long ago.

George Friedman of the online publication Geopolitical muses, “Secularism’s way of accommodating religion is to create a radical distinction between public and private. Religion is to be part of private life, while the public sphere should stay neutral on religious matters.” This is what Jinnah said too in 1947.

The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

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