India and Pakistan have more influential holy men per square mile than anyone has ever counted. Some are just rich, others both powerful and rich. Once upon a time, their followers were only the poor, superstitious and illiterate. But after the massive resurgence of religion in both countries, this base has expanded to include politicians, film and cricket stars, and college-educated people who speak English and drive posh cars.

It is rare for an Indian holy man to bite the dust but one just did. The self-styled messenger of god, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh of the Dera Sacha Sauda was convicted of two rapes by an Indian court. He is also accused of 52 other rapes, two murders, and storing 400 pairs of testicles in his refrigerators cut from 400 devotees on the promise of getting them nirvana. An avid supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Singh travelled in entourages of 100-plus cars and claims to have 50 million to 60 million followers. Vote-hungry politicians have touched his feet and done deals. After his conviction, his crazed followers rioted, convinced of a conspiracy against their god. So far, 38 people have died, hundreds injured, cars and public buildings set on fire.

But although Singh is one of India’s bigger holy men, he is still small, dispensable fry. The really powerful ones are those who have learned the value of using religion in national politics. Today, India is living out the extremist Hindutva ideology of Gowalkar and Savarkar with a head of government who is unabashedly committed to Hindu supremacy. This holy man’s clear and evident role in the communal riots of Gujarat in 2002 had led to his being banned from entering the United States in 2005. However, no Indian court could find any wrongdoing committed by the then chief minister, now prime minister.

Spiritual and political

Pakistan’s holy men also come in two sorts. The pir resembles the Hindu and Sikh spiritual guru in some respects. He hands out amulets, prescriptions, and blessings – usually for a hefty price – to credulous mureeds (followers). Pirs allegedly have magical healing powers. For example, Benazir Bhutto was a mureed of the prescient Pir Pinjar, a man who claimed to cure terminally ill patients by spraying water on them with a garden hose. Her husband, former president Asif Ali Zardari, had a black goat sacrificed daily on the advice of his pir. But educated Muslims increasingly spurn such practices and the pir is losing out.

The second kind of Pakistani holy man – the mullah – has had a very different trajectory. Once a poor and largely harmless cleric, he was the butt of many a joke. Sought only for funerals and Friday prayers, he eked out an existence by teaching the Quran to children. Allama Iqbal heaped scorn upon him: “Teri namaz main baqi jalal hai na jamal, Teri azaan main nahin meri sehr ka payam.” (The prayers you lead are empty of grace and grandeur, Your azan is cold and uninspiring).

But the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 changed the mullah’s fortunes. Indispensable to the United States-Pakistan-Saudi grand jihad alliance, this once pathetic figure could now be seen driven around in an SUV, commanding a militia, or screaming through multiple turbo-charged loudspeakers. Some eventually became successful land-grabbers, wheeler-dealers, and shady entrepreneurs. Few Pakistanis will fail to recognise the identities of Maulana Diesel, Maulana Whiskey, and Mullah Disco.

Serious conflict between mullah and state came after 9/11. General Pervez Musharraf’s apparent surrender to America enraged the mullah, who resolved to seize control of the Pakistani state. Ensconced in the heart of Pakistan’s capital, armed vigilante groups from Islamabad’s Red Mosque and Jamia Hafsa took over a government building, in January 2007. They kidnapped ordinary citizens and policemen, and repeated the demands of tribal militants fighting the Pakistan Army. From their FM station they broadcast a message: “We have weapons, grenades and we are expert in manufacturing bombs. We are not afraid of death.” Islamabad turned into a war zone and, by the time the insurrection was finally crushed, 150-200 lives had been lost.

Pakistani courts have failed to convict our holy men (as well as women). For example, Maulana Aziz and Umme Hassan (his wife, who headed Jamia Hafsa) were exonerated of any wrongdoing and are today going about their normal business. The court had ruled that possession of heavy weaponry by the accused could not be proven. It dismissed TV footage that showed Aziz’s students with gas masks firing Kalashnikovs. Weapons seized by the army and placed in a police armoury disappeared mysteriously. Although 10 of Pakistan’s crack Special Service Group commandos died in the crackdown, the army – known for quick action in Baluchistan – also did not pursue the case.

Modernity to blame?

Why have Indians and Pakistanis become so tolerant – nay, supportive – of holy men, whether of the spiritual or political kind? Why are those who aspire to power so successful in using religion to motivate their electorates? After all, this is the 21st century, not the 12th.

The culprit could be modernity. Technology has created enormous psychological distress by doing away with traditional ways of living and bringing in a new, uncertain and ever-changing world. Older forms of associations such as the extended family and village community, together with their values, are disappearing. Cramped living conditions, pollution, ugliness all around, and job insecurities are a fact of life for most urban dwellers.

There is enormous nostalgia for the time when the world was supposedly perfect. This is why people looking for simple answers to today’s complex questions eagerly buy the wares peddled by holy men. Just as Hindutva encourages Indian Hindus to dream of the authentic India, Muslim clerics tell their followers to dream of reclaiming Islam’s ancient glories.

But this is clutching at a straw. It gets far worse when religion is infused into politics. This produces a highly toxic, explosive mix as large masses of people blindly and unquestioningly follow holy men. Instead of dividing people still further, whether inside or outside national boundaries, South Asian states should aspire towards becoming a part of cosmopolitan world society removed from the prejudices of religion, caste and race.

This article first appeared on Dawn.