There is no destiny more unwanted than that of a parent burying her own child. Two days ago, in Peshawar, 132 schoolboys were buried by their parents. We know that these children were killed by the Pakistani Taliban, who are usually holed up in the mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Members of this group also brunt alive female teachers at the same school to further amplify their unfathomable message of revenge.

Meanwhile, some notable residents of Pakistan, like Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, blamed India for the Peshawar attack. Others like Imran Khan, the erstwhile playboy-fast bowler turned religion extremism sympathiser, whose party is in power in Peshawar, took five hours to condemn the attacks while refusing to name those responsible. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif decided that it was time finally not to distinguish between the “Good Taliban” and “Bad Taliban”. I suppose the Good Taliban simply prohibits little girls from going to school, while the Bad Taliban kills little boys who are in school. Yet, even his initial reaction, as Khaled Ahmed writes, was not to name the Taliban.

Ahmed, one of Pakistan’s most fearless commentators, also writes that the violence of the Taliban has been internalised in Pakistan. He writes of a Christian couple being burnt alive by a mob on allegations of blasphemy and a church in Peshawar being bombed about a year ago. The Taliban forced the schoolboys in Peshawar to chant religious verses before murdering them. Religion, Ahmed writes, has been twisted beyond belief.

Outrage across borders

India has responded appropriately in the circumstances. Our prime minister has called theirs and expressed condolences. Schoolchildren and parliamentarians this side of the border observed a two-minute silence to express solidarity with our neighbour. And the edit pages of our many newspapers have expressed outrage and suggested next steps in times such as these.

While there is little that one can truly do to comfort those who have lost their children, or have any meaningful ways to reaching politicians who make decisions on either side of the border, one can use this monstrous murderous act to reflect on our choices as a nation.

In August 1947, freedom came to India and Pakistan a day apart from each other. The two countries carved from the same land, took their freedom from the same coloniser and had been served till then by a common army and bureaucracy. Yet, each made very different choices, when it came to their core identities.

Commitment to liberty

India chose its identity as that of a liberal democracy, with a Constitution that committed itself to liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship – while ensuring equality of status and opportunity. Simply put, faith of any sort would be a private matter, while the public persona was that of a citizen of a country. This India did not differentiate between its citizens on the basis of private choices like religion.

More or less, India stuck to that constitutional compact. We lost our way once in a while – as we recognised personal laws on marriage, divorce and succession. And ignored the Constitution’s directive of a uniform civil code. But, on the whole, our constitutional character was based on elected representatives making law in parliament – our secular temple or mosque or church of democracy. Those laws would be tested against the tenets of the Constitution by judges who adopted the process of well-reasoned judgements that were publicly available as the means for justifying their decision.

We have our issues with this system – parliamentarians are disappointing, the quality of debate in Parliament has fallen, and judgements are often far from being well-reasoned. But, the public persona that the Constitution expected both from the state and from the citizen was of equal opportunity for every Indian irrespective of religious preference.

Religion as the guiding principle

Pakistan made a different choice – selecting the primary character as that of an Islamic State. The text of the constitution made categorical choices – for instance, only a Muslim could be president. More importantly, religion was part of the publicly anticipated character of not just a citizen, but also of the mode of reasoning. The old men of apparent faith would make decisions, the politicians would cater to them, and the armed forces would characterise themselves as defenders of the faith.

Religion as a primary characteristic for any nation is a difficult marker. It has numerous strands of interpretation, its traditional power holders are rarely elected and have no need to engage in a publicly available process of reasoning. Further, it is perfectly acceptable to discriminate on grounds of gender or against those who believe in other faiths. When religion becomes part of the process of decision-making by the state, then it is very difficult to characterise murder as murder and discrimination as unacceptable. It becomes difficult to name the Taliban as the murderers and perfectly acceptable to think of them as good and bad.

We in India today confront our own choices – afresh. Today, our nation’s public discourse is even more charged with demands for infusing state action with a religious touch. When a serving minister characterises her nation’s citizens into the legitimate and illegitimate on the basis of their religious beliefs, when Christmas becomes a holiday to be parleyed with, and when Sanskrit becomes not a choice but a political mandate – we as Indians take a step towards the darkness. We turn away from the light that is Constitutional morality and of religion being a personal choice. We move towards the darkness that is theocracy and the abyss of dogma and lack of mutual respect.

Let us on both sides of the border take a moment to use this brutality to move towards the light – of reason, respect for different religions and a complete lack of tolerance for any terror. Let us never forget the descent into the Peshawar nightmare.

Menaka Guruswamy practices law at the Supreme Court of India. Her doctoral work was on constitutionalism in India and Pakistan.