For the past few days, the row between those who stand for free speech and those who don’t has intensified in India. As a journalist from Pakistan, I stand unequivocally with the students and journalists in India who are being vilified and targeted by hyper-nationalists. In the process, I am getting more than my usual share of nasty comments from Indians – and Pakistanis – on social media.
Indians are telling me to butt out of commenting on the JNU controversy. Pakistanis are pointing fingers at India with a holier-than-thou attitude, as if Pakistan has no issues. Sadly, there is no dearth of ammunition on either side, but each seems blind to excesses on its own side. Some Indians go to the trouble of sending me reports and photos of human rights violations in Pakistan. They tag me with news and photos of such violations, particularly about disappearances in Balochistan, the forced conversion of kidnapped Hindu girls, and violence. As if I didn’t know. These are issues I’ve been writing on for years. Pakistanis do the same with comments, reports and photos of human rights violations in India. They want me to condemn those incidents but they don’t like it when I speak of such violations in Pakistan. They want me to turn a blind eye at home.
This is a classic case of the “whataboutery” that Mrinal Pande wrote about recently. She primarily referred to issues arising from the JNU controversy and the tensions between rationalists and hyper-nationalists within India. But the argument applies equally to India and Pakistan too. As soon as you say something about a violation in India, Indian hyper-nationalists turn around with: But what about Pakistan…? And vice versa. That’s one of the reasons for my hashtags #India #Pakistan #same2same.
The bottom line, as Pande says, is that we need to “call a spade a spade, an injustice an injustice and a lie a lie. Because something also happened under a different government earlier does not mean that it should be allowed to take place again”.
So, let’s substitute “government” with “neighbouring country” and “again” with “here”. This makes it: Just because a wrong took place in a neighbouring country does not mean we should allow it to take place in our country. Or anywhere.
One Pakistani tagged me with this tweet (pardon the spellings): “Intl media reported #intolerance in #India is touching alarming levels & may even threaten her existance. Pak is not like that”. Pakistan “is not like that”? I think it is more like that than this gentleman cares to admit. The difference is that unlike India, Pakistan hasn’t had the benefit of a continuing democratic political process. It is democracy that allows disgruntled political elements to let off steam and in the long run smooth rough edges.
Democracy as a pressure release
In Pakistan, policies shaped by military dictators over the years have led to “religious” (in quotes because the real agenda is political power) militants becoming immeasurably more strengthened than their counterparts in India. As I write in an essay for a forthcoming book Making Sense of Modi’s India (Harper Collins), military rule artificially keeps matters, including the economy, under control. It’s like a pressure cooker from which the steam isn’t allowed to escape. So, when the lid is lifted, whatever is stewing in the pot erupts.
In India, the existence of a democratic political process enables a continuous letting off of steam, preventing its contents from erupting. This eventually neutralises potential dangers even when communal politicians are elected to power. With the eyes of the world and the Indian electorate upon him, Prime Minister Modi is forced to distance himself from the extremists causing havoc in the name of religion or nationalism – two issues which are often conflated, as they have been in the JNU row. Modi may not take as strong action against the hyper-nationalists, but he cannot afford to let them run totally amok. Meanwhile, of course, they will cause immeasurable damage.
#India #Pakistan #same2same.
But why should a Pakistani care about what happens in India, or comment on rights violations and the sedition row in India? Don’t we have enough problems of our own, as some Indians like to point out?
My answer is that we care because India is our mirror image, the estranged bigger sibling with the benefit of a long-running democratic political process, barring the three years of Emergency rule imposed by Indira Gandhi.
Pakistan has only just embarked upon this process. The 2008 elections, followed by the 2013 polls saw an elected government handing over power to another elected government for the first time ever. We see a shift taking place as the legislative powers start to come into their own. We are long way from where we should be, but it’s a start and we are on the right track. To then see the rising tide of religious intolerance conflated with hyper-nationalism in India is disturbing.
To borrow a chant from the "Black lives matter" movement: Tell me what democracy looks like... This is what democracy looks like. It was Martin Luther King who said: Injustice anywhere, is injustice everywhere. Therefore, an inclusive, democratic India is good for democracy in Pakistan. Just as an inclusive, democratic Pakistan is good for India. It is a far better alternative than that offered by the brainwashed, hate-filled killjoys who form the brunt of the militant cadres of each country, feed off each other and refuse to let peace prevail.