News about India protesting to Pakistan, in a written demarche, the destruction of a temple in Teri village of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa elicited some public interest. But my tweet went viral when I posed the obvious question:
“What kind of unilateralism is this? India questions mob’s destruction of temple in Pakistan. In fact Pakistani authorities promptly arrested culprits. But when mob destroys/damages mosque in India any nation asking questions violates Indian sovereignty. Can’t have it both ways.”
People on both sides of the India-Pakistan border shared my tweet, confirming that healthy interest in both nations survives in civilised discussion of their dilemmas, despite frozen bilateral relations.
The simple point is that if India can speak about the danger to freedom of religion in Pakistan, why can’t other nations raise questions about the treatment of minorities, especially Muslims, in India? Successive Indian governments, but particularly the present one, go berserk when questioned on that count.
Of course, there is a difference between the pre-Modi era and the present one when it comes to gratuitous comments by Pakistan on developments affecting the Muslims in India. In the past, India argued that the Indian constitution provides adequate safeguards for minorities to seek redress. Thus, Islamabad’s observations were dismissed as unnecessary interference in India’s internal affairs and a breach of Indian sovereignty. But that argument has been wearing thin since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s re-election in 2019. The amended citizenship law officially created religion-based discrimination, with Muslims entering India without valid papers or who overstay unable to regularise their stay, unlike the followers of other South Asian religions.
The Indian protest over damage to the temple in Pakistan re-asserts the principle of universal protection to followers of the Hindu faith. In the past India used to take up such cases involving historic Sikh Gurudwaras or important temples when Pakistan was reluctant to set matters right. This time, Pakistan had shown great zeal in remedying the wrong by promptly arresting nearly 45 persons, including a Muslim cleric.
India nevertheless chose to make its point. This is a new assertion of oneness amongst all Hindus, regardless of their citizenship, and thus a mirror-image of the Muslim concept of Umma – the universal brotherhood of one community transcending political boundaries. Thus, it was not just a case of protecting historic religious places of importance to Indians in India but even a religious place that Hindus in Pakistan valued. If India was only evangelistically pushing Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights on freedom of religion one would feel proud of the nation. After all, those values and other human rights were enshrined in the Indian constitution, indirectly reflecting the 1948 Declaration. However, this cannot have been the impulse behind the Indian statement given how the increasingly majoritarian stance of the Union government is progressively breaching the Universal Declaration.
Unfortunately, the implications of this finger-pointing at Pakistan have perhaps not been fully digested by a saffronising South Block.
What defence will India have when the Democrat administration of President Joe Biden, after assuming office on January 20, starts turning its attention to the BJP ruled states which are ratcheting up their anti-Muslim agenda under new pretexts like ‘love jihad’? Saudi Arabia may be neutralised at present after the Modi government’s alignment with the pro-US and pro-Israel parts of the Arab world. But these are transitory alliances that will get tested as Washington tries to heal the fractures that President Donald Trump has exacerbated in the Islamic world. Concern for human rights is a two-way street and India may find its majoritarianism under greater scrutiny in near future.
The role model for votaries of Hindu Rashtra is Israel, where a controversial law was passed in 2018, under the guise of a Basic Law, declaring Israel as nation state of the Jews. Their highest court is examining its constitutionality. Benny Gantz, till recently sharing power with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calls the latter’s aggressive defence of the law a threat to courts and democracy. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin courageously warned that the law (and especially a since deleted provision legalising housing discrimination) “could harm the Jewish people worldwide”, besides being used as a weapon against Israel. Even associations of US Jews objected to it. All of them understood that making Christians, Arabs and other Muslims second-class citizens may play well domestically but will churn the animosity of their followers.
This wisdom may not have dawned on Indian government yet, but it is hoped that like in Israel the defenders of universal values will speak up, including India’s highest courts. Otherwise, domestic politics and foreign policy will get tangled in a bigger mess.
K.C. Singh is a retired Indian civil servant and was the Indian ambassador to Iran.