Was Congress MP Shashi Tharoor unjustified when he proclaimed on July 11 that India would turn into a Hindu Pakistan if the Bharatiya Janata Party is voted back to power in the 2019 general elections?

This question has been the subject of much debate on either side of the parliamentary aisle and far beyond membership of the House. Observers are either infuriated by his assertion or consider it an important warning. Irrespective of these differences, in every article, tweet and Facebook argument, the idea of Pakistan that this phrase depicts has been unquestionably accepted. It seems obvious, a no-brainer, to everyone here in India that Pakistan is indeed hell on earth. The only question is whether India is headed in that direction.

We seem oblivious to the fact that this expression is ridden with insensitivity. We have taken for granted that Pakistan is a broken state filled with hate-mongering demons and monsters and, therefore, in order to frighten Indian citizens, we just need to call out its name. Isn’t it surprising that the erudite and diplomatically-groomed Tharoor, who has occupied the highest offices at the United Nations, did not pause for a moment before this utterance? What he is intending to say is obvious but to construct it in a manner that diminishes and simplifies the realities of Pakistan is indeed unfortunate.

There can be absolutely no argument that Pakistan has always been a struggling democracy where successive governments played an active part in the complex international war games perpetrated by the West in its neighbourhood. And Pakistan has used this to aid and abet terrorist outfits. It is also a reality that these misadventures have come back to hurt its citizens repeatedly. Nevertheless, Pakistan is an independent, legitimate Islamic country by choice, not force or tradition. Islam is constitutional for its citizens and that is something we must respect. An Islamic Pakistan cannot be shamed, and by inference Islam as a constitutional element must not be belittled to make a point.

Why not Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka?

Pakistan has not collapsed because it has an Islamic constitution, its ruptures come from a skewed separation, a crusty military and a corrupt political establishment. Pakistan’s incendiary flirtations with the Taliban and Hizbul Mujahideen do not emerge from Islamic brotherhood, they are political and tactical. We have to wonder if a non-Islamic Pakistan would have automatically made it a far more cordial neighbour. Definitely not. The very same problems would have cropped up because of the locational and global politics of the past 70 years. Inadvertently, Tharoor has laid the blame on Islam as practised in Pakistan for its present state. He is also stating that the Islam supported by the state is coarse, intolerant and jingoistic. If there is any country whose name would fit his description, where democracy and people’s will have never been considered, it would be Saudi Arabia. Yet, very rarely do you hear a leading politician compare India’s possible socio-religious slide under Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a country like Saudi Arabia. A mighty oil-rich country, possibly the most regressive society in the world, which we want to do anything to befriend. But would we dare denounce its leadership, religion or political structure?

One could argue that my defence of an Islamic Pakistan makes a Hindu India acceptable. The issue here is dual. We wanted a secular country and therefore chose this path in complete awareness. We have to understand why and what it means to everyone of us to be secular. Secondly, there is a distinct difference between Pakistan choosing to be Islamic and Right-Wing forces today wanting a Hindu India. This is historical, contextual, demographical and socio-cultural.

Having said this, the state of minorities in Pakistan is a matter that needs to be raised and raised loudly. Blasphemy laws, attacks on minority Shias, Hindus and Christians, and the repression of Baloch and Pashtun dissenters are all cause for serious human rights concern. But are minorities in Pakistan worse off than those in Myanmar or Sri Lanka? Would India be comfortable with a Constitution that gave preferential status to Hinduism as Buddhism is given in those two countries? I am sure we do not want our minorities to be treated like the Rohingyas in Myanmar or Sri Lanka’s Tamils. But why then do metaphors not emerge from other parts of our neighbourhood? Simply because we do not consider the trials and tribulations of minorities in other countries within our sphere of influence with the same level of seriousness.

Not a post-BJP phenomenon

It is an Islamic Pakistan that abolished triple talaq in 1961 while India did it just last year, making me wonder about our regressiveness. How many times have we spoken out against the atrocities faced by Russian dissidents or Chinese minorities? The issue of majoritarian hegemony or undemocratic dictatorship that may or may not emerge from religious tyranny is found across the world but we always choose to use Pakistan as a scape goat. Ultimately, like every nation, our observations and elegant arguments are geo-political and self-centred.

In constructing such a phraseology, are we saying something about the people who live in Pakistan? They love their nation and fight for their rights much like people in India. When we stigmatise a nation as a virulent, violent religious state when reality is far more nuanced, we are also failing its people. The people of Pakistan are under threat from self-cultivated extremists and the permanent shadowy military, but they do vote and challenge the establishment. Among people in India, we have etched Pakistan as a primitive, oppressive society where women and the common person have no voice. This is untrue. Like any country, Pakistan has shades of grey. But when we create such analogies, we encourage more hatred and misnomers among our own citizens.

In spite of being a secular democracy, our track record with minorities is not blemish-less. This is not a post-BJP phenomenon and the Congress is as culpable. Be it Muslims, Dalits, the terror unleashed on Sikhs in 1984 or the violent exodus of Kashmiri Hindus from the Valley, there are many uncomfortable inflections in our history post-Independence. We have stifled tribal voices and protestors in Kashmir, not to forget that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act – which gives security personnel sweeping powers to search, arrest and even shoot to kill, with a degree of immunity from prosecution – is still in force in states like Assam and Manipur. We have repeatedly failed our various minorities and the BJP is today taking advantage of our innumerable failures.