I first visited India in 2011, a country that I had long romanticised in my imagination. I had envisioned India to be everything Pakistan is not – secular, tolerant, diverse and democratic. I remember seeing at the border, just a few metres away from the no man’s land, a board which read “India, the largest democracy in the world, welcomes you." Not far from it was a monument dedicated to the memory of millions of Punjabis on both sides who lost their lives or loved ones at the time of Partition. On the top of the Indian gate, painted in its tricolour was the emblem of India’s Republic, the four lions, which were originally used by the emperor Ashoka for his capital.

One can imagine how fascinating this must have been for a history buff. By that time I had dedicated a few years to tracing historical monuments. Only recently, I had visited the ruins of Taxila, which once served as the capital of Ashoka. I had written several articles on pre-Islamic and non-Muslim heritage of Pakistan and how that was being destroyed in the name of nationalism. There was an attitude in Pakistan that preserving non-Muslim heritage and celebrating it somehow weakened the Pakistani nationalism. Standing on the India-Pakistan border, on the other side one could see that the Indian government was keen to use emblems from its ancient history. In Pakistan the religious right was exerting that the archaeological sites of the Indus Valley should be filled with earth again as they represented the zaman-e-jahiliyah, the time of ignorance before the arrival of Islam, while in India there was a feeling that these ruins were part of the Indian heritage even if they were on the other side of the border.

What enhanced my fascination was this image of India as a secular democracy. I had grown up on Bollywood. Amar, Akbar, Anthony, the blockbuster movie from the 1970s had been one of my favourites – the story of three separated brothers, each one of them adopting a different religion but sharing the same blood. Many times during my school years I had got into arguments with my friends over the status of Muslims in India. Giving the example of Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and APJ Abdul Kalam, I would assert that India provided opportunities for its minorities to thrive.

A failed state?

Conjoined with this image was that of India Shining. At the turn of the century, India was reinventing itself, emerging as a strong economic hub while Pakistan was drowning further into sectarian and religious conflict. I had no doubt that in a few years India would emerge as a major economic power. It was around this time that I started believing that Pakistan needed India for its identity more than India needed Pakistan. Having been carved out of India, Pakistan constantly needed to look east, highlighting the persecution of minorities in India to justify its creation to itself. Pakistan was obsessed with India, whereas I thought India, now that it was shining, could not care less. Over the years though, as I visited the country many more times, engaging with the intellectuals, I realised that perhaps India needed Pakistan as much as Pakistan needed India for its national identity.

My first encounter with this concept took place at a Metro station in Delhi. Waiting for the train to arrive I started talking to a young man standing next to me. “What do you do?” he asked me. “I am a journalist. What do you do?” “I am also a journalist. I focus on minority issues,” he told me. “That’s a coincidence. I too write about minorities,” I said. At that time I was working on my first book. “That’s wonderful. Let’s exchange visiting cards,” he said. The train had arrived by now and we had stepped in. His hand was in his pocket about to take out his wallet for the card. “Who do you write for?” he asked me. “For a number of Pakistani newspapers.” “Are you from Pakistan?” he asked me. He had a serious expression on his face and his hand returned from his pocket without the card. “Can I see your visa?” he said. “I am not carrying my passport.” “Can I see your press card or any other identity?” he said. I showed him my card. “You know you should be careful these days. People are suspicious of Pakistanis after the Mumbai attacks. You should carry a copy of your passport or visa. You know I don’t think I have my card right now but why don’t you give me your email and I will send you an email,” he said. He did send me an email later. He was a Muslim. Maybe he actually did not carry his card as he stated. It was clear, though, that my nationality reminded him that he had forgotten his card.

“You know Pakistan is a failed state,” he told me, as the train sped through. “And it has done this to itself. It has promoted terrorism for so long that now it has become a victim of its own actions.” He did not need to make the comparison with India. It was self-evident. Pakistan is a failed state, while India a shining country, a new Asian tiger. But are things really that simple? Had Pakistan disintegrated to such an extent that it could be called a failed state? There is no doubt that bomb blasts had become a routine at major cities of the country at that time, but had the state machinery collapsed? Given that Pakistan has survived that horrible situation and has emerged with some semblance of economic improvement goes to show that to call it a failed state would be a little harsh.

An incomplete picture

Besides, one needs to realise that the very definition of a failed state is an artificial category. Pakistan has failed as a state on many fronts – to curb terrorism, to provide shelter and food to its most vulnerable and to protect the rights of minorities, but then in other categories it was as much a functioning state as any other. Despite the horrible law and order situation, the private sector still survived, schools, hospitals and universities functioned, and people continued to live their lives in an ordinary manner. One could make a similar argument for India if one were to focus on certain aspects of the failures of the state. The Gujarat riots of 2002, farmer suicides, and the law and order situation in the North East and Kashmir are features that could identify India as a failed state. But that does not fit the broader framework of Shining India, of a secular and democratic India, as opposed to a battle-ridden, military-run Pakistan. Terror attacks and bomb attacks in India are perceived as an anomaly in the framework of shining India whereas similar attacks in Pakistan are perceived as fitting a larger narrative of Pakistan failing.

Something similar happened to me when I visited Delhi a year later for a conference. Shashi Tharoor was to make the first speech for this peace conference. It was an immaculate speech which lay the entire blame of India-Pakistan conflict on Pakistan. There was one line that stayed with me. He said, “Pakistan is a thorn on India’s side,” essentially implying that India wants to move on and progress whereas Pakistan is an irritant. I noticed a similar sentiment at the Bangalore Literature Festival that I recently visited. One of the most popular sessions at the festival was by the eminent historian Ramachandra Guha. The historian talked about how there has been a rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India similar to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan. One of the members of the audience asked the question that given that India is surrounded by the “fundamentalist” Pakistan and Bangladesh, isn’t it inevitable that India would become fundamentalist.

Surprisingly, Ramachandra Guha's session also tapped this concept of depicting Pakistan as the “barbarian” other to depict India as “civilised”. I am not asserting that Ramachandra Guha said these words and, perhaps, neither was this his intention, but it felt as if he was unconsciously operating under the same framework in which India tends to look at Pakistan and defines itself as a secular liberal democracy. He was talking about the freedom of speech in India and explaining how that space was diminishing. Then, casually, he mentioned that India, despite the worsening situation, is still much better than Pakistan in terms of freedom of speech.

My intention is not to defend Pakistan or assert that Pakistan has freedom of speech. Pakistan is one of the most dangerous places for journalists in the world, where dissenting opinions are often shot down or shut up in other ways. However, there are still various nuances which I feel a lot of intellectuals in India tend to overlook. There is an entire tradition of challenging the state and the establishment in Pakistan that is usually ignored when such statements are made. One needs to visit the work of people like Najam Sethi, Khalid Ahmed, Hamid Mir and Ayesha Siddiqa to understand that there is a space in Pakistan, and has always been, to challenge the establishment. There is no doubt that the situation, like in India, is changing rapidly. But the point that I am trying to make is that Pakistan is not the “barbaric” other that it is usually understood as, compared to India the “tolerant” one. The truth is both countries have more in common than they would like to admit, yet they continue to view the other as its exact opposite.

Haroon Khalid is the author, most recently, of In search of Shiva: a study of folk religious practices in Pakistan, and A White Trail: a journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities.

Corrections and clarifications: This piece has been edited to clarify that Shashi Tharoor called Pakistan a "thorn in India's side", not "India's back" as earlier stated.