India has important lessons to learn from the grotesque lynching in Pakistan of a foreign national last week by religious extremists. Their Hindu nationalist rulers pursue the same kind of state-driven fundamentalism now that they are facing their arch-enemy.
On Dec. 3, hundreds of people in the city of Sialkot, in Pakistan’s Punjab province, were party to the killing of a Sri Lankan factory manager. Priyantha, a Christian had merely taken from the factory machinery stickers that belonged to an extremist right-wing party featuring Quranic verses in preparation for an international client visit. This was considered desecration by the mob who dragged him from his factory and beat him to death before setting fire to his body.
Prime Minister Imran Khan called it “a day of shame for Pakistan” and promised justice. Clerics condemned the violence as “un-Islamic.” More than 100 people were arrested over the murder, but it all might be a bit late. The lynching is a reminder of “how far this nation has descended into the abyss”, lamented the country’s Dawn newspaper. “What have we become?” tweeted one anguished Pakistani. “We’ve created monsters,” read another pained tweet.
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The young men taking selfies in front of the burning corpse speak to the brutal zeal of Pakistan’s youth, radicalized by a process decades in the making. The Pakistani elite gradually gave ground to extremist Islamists since 1947’s bloody independence and partition of India sub-continent.
Sialkot’s hatred has deep roots
From the beginning, the promise of Pakistan’s founding leaders to grant equal citizenship to all sounded implausible, given that the country broke away from India on the basis of religion. The newly formed nation began to forge a union of different ethnic groups, with little else in common. Top-down secularism was met by bottom-up Islamism as the new country tried to unite them. Pakistan struggled with its identity for several years, and adopted a secular Constitution from India within just two years. In 1956, it declared itself an Islamic Republic.
The influence of religious parties and the clergy subsequently grew, helped by the Pakistani military’s use of India as the bogeyman to justify the undermining of democratic institutions and its own immense power. Framing the rivalry in religious terms—with Muslim Pakistan as the counter to Hindu India—it became imperative for the generals to befriend the mullahs, who helped keep secular parties in check.
Pakistan was ruled for 33 years by four military dictators. Each of these coopted religious organizations to justify their rule. They also supported their demand for Islamization via Sharia courts and new laws. For electoral gain and to entrench Islamic extremism, civilian governments also used the mass appeal of these groups.
External factors also played a part, especially the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s role as a frontline state in the U.S.-backed Afghan jihad to expel the Soviets. The network of madrasas that produced radicalized young men was expanded with foreign aid. The Soviet forces left Pakistan in 1989. Pakistan had become an Islamicist state, ensconced with jihadis who were battle-hardened and armed with an Islamist ideology that was taking over. Instead of dismantling the fanaticism-fueled machinery, the military used it to wage proxy war against India during the ongoing conflict over Kashmir.
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These volatile mixtures of power and politics are responsible for frenzied mobs such as the one at Sialkot. These mobs are composed of young angry men who are either school dropouts or have been indoctrinated in madrasas or are illiterate. In Pakistan, 25 million kids are not in school. With low prospects of proper work, and easy to mobilize as foot soldiers of radical Islam, they are the products of Pakistan’s chronically underdeveloped economy and historically low state spending on education—itself a consequence of an oversized military budget that leaves few resources for other needs.
In the following: viral photo [Caution: graphic scene] of one such young man taking a selfie as Kumara’s body burns, the words “Apna time ayega“His mobile phone’s back can show that “my time” is his motto. It’s the catchphrase of a rap song from a Bollywood film about a young Muslim man who hip-hops his way to fame from his wretched shack in a Mumbai slum. The song is beloved for its positive message about the strength of the poor, which has been widely adopted in memes and advertisements as well as politics. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s supporters even appropriated it for his re-election campaign in 2019.
India’s anti-Muslim extremism is escalating
The time has certainly come for India’s Hindu extremists. On the day of the Sialkot killing, in New Delhi’s glitzy tech and finance hub of Gurugram, they gathered to protest against Muslims praying.
As Gurugram doesn’t have enough mosques, the local administration had earmarked several open spaces where Muslims could congregate and offer their Friday prayers. Lately, Hindu activists—emboldened by state patronage afforded by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—have made it a point to descend on these sites to prevent Muslims from doing so. There were once about 100 prayer spots, but the number has dropped to just 20 over three years due to sustained campaigns by Hindu groups. Local officials gave in to the mob’s demands and removed the remaining sites from the list. They asked Muslims to find other places to pray.
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This is just one example of the increasing failures of the state to protect minorities. Munawar Iqbal Faruqui (a Muslim comedian) was told recently by Bangalore police that he had to cancel his performances because extremists threatened the venues and they could not be stopped.
A raft of new laws have granted vigilantes legitimacy. These include prohibitions on religious conversions, cow slaughter (considered holy by Hindus), and interfaith marriages. They find support at every level of administration, from the police to the higher bureaucracy, as Modi attempts to remake India’s secular republic into a Hindu state. India is letting go of a great opportunity that Pakistan must reclaim.
Lynchings and attacks against Muslims have become a common occurrence. Christians are also being targeted. One right-wing group broke into a Catholic missionary school, in the central part of Madhya Pradesh. Hindu extremists still find Muslims to be a problem. Constituting 14 to 15% of the population, compared to the 2.5% who are Christian, they are a far more dangerous “other” against whom Hindus must unite.
It’s no coincidence that every time an election is round the corner, Modi and his supporters can’t stop talking about Pakistan. The brutalization of Hindus in Pakistan—real and perceived—is used to great effect by the BJP to charge its base for revenge against Indian Muslims. Conflating national, religious and political rivalries into one existentialist threat, the words “Pakistani,” “jihadi,” “Taliban,” and “Muslim” are used interchangeably.
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Hindu nationalists resent any comparison of their terroristic foot soldiers with Islamic terrorists. But while the history and nature of extremism is different in the two nuclear-armed countries—which have fought four wars—their mobs are not. The average Hindu vigilante, like his Pakistani counterpart is the result of low education spending and unqual opportunities. An estimated 40% of India’s youths are neither in employment, education or training. They are basically doing nothing, which is why their Fridays in Gurugram are spent outside the district’s shiny offices chasing Muslims, rather than inside.
The paranoia, political opportunism and despair that breed adversaries on both sides are also the same, spurring them into action against the “other” in a cycle of hate. South Asia’s time will never come if it can’t break out of it.