Uncivilized Indians?

BAD MANNERS – The idea of India versus the idea of Pakistan
March 19th, 2009
Courtesy and Thanks: Wichaar.com
During the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2009, Pakistani writers experienced a special kind of Indian incivility. Both in casual conversation and in formal question-and-answer sessions, they were asked if they thought that Pakistan was a good idea, the implication being that it wasn’t. Mohammed Hanif, the author of a wonderful satirical novel about Zia’s Pakistan, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, responded to a variation on this question by saying, patiently, that debating the virtue of Pakistan’s founding idea was less important than coming to terms with the fact that Pakistan was a real country that had to be reckoned with.

The interesting thing is that this question is often asked by people who can be reasonably described as liberals. They don’t want the reality of Pakistan undone and they would be appalled to be clubbed with sangh parivar rhetoricians who attack Pakistan as a Muslim abomination. And yet, despite themselves, the question rises unbidden to their lips. It isn’t normal in polite society to ask someone to repudiate his national identity as a preliminary to conversation and yet, well-intentioned Indians do precisely that.

Part of the reason for this is that the last few years have seen India’s stock rise in the world at the same time as Pakistan’s reputation as a nation-state has declined. Pakistan’s co-option into the ‘war against terror’, its role in incubating terrorists and the ugly spectacle of the state’s impotence in places like the NWFP and Swat have raised large questions about the nature of Pakistan as a nation. In their role as amateur physicians, liberal, non-chauvinist Indians are happy to attribute Pakistan’s current problems to its founding idea, and their diagnosis makes that idea sound like original sin.

Why do they do this? If I were a Pakistani I might reach for the idea that Indians, sixty years after the event, aren’t reconciled to Partition, that the need to write an alternative (happy) ending for the story of Gandhian nationalism makes them brood unproductively on the wrongness of the world as it exists. And I wouldn’t be wholly wrong: there is an element of historical denial in Indian attitudes towards Pakistan. But the liberal Indian’s need to press his Pakistani counterpart to admit to the wrongness of Pakistan is rooted in other things.

It’s rooted, first and most importantly, in the difference in the way the nation is imagined in India and Pakistan. Instead of basing its nationalism on the idea of a homogeneous People (as every European nationalism did), the Congress built it on its claim to represent different sorts of people.

In contrast, Pakistani nationalism was derived from the classic European template, the principle of sameness, which in Pakistan’s case was a shared religious identity: the Romantic idea of a homeland for a People, the subcontinent’s Muslim People. Had India embraced the RSS’s dream of a Hindu rashtra and become a Hindusthan instead of Hindostan, India would have been Pakistan by a different name. But it didn’t so choose, and that choice had important consequences for the evolution of the two republics.

An Indian liberal’s understanding of democracy and secularism is often subtly, but fundamentally, different from that of the Pakistani liberal. The difference I’m talking about has little to do with language or culture: it is located squarely in politics. Six decades of experience as a pluralist democracy has left Indian liberals with a particular set of political reflexes and instincts that are different from those of the progressive Pakistani.

Take the statement that Pakistani civil society is broadly secular because its electorate, whenever it’s given a chance to vote, votes overwhelmingly for secular political parties like the Pakistan People’s Party or the Pakistan Muslim League and not for fundamentalist or Islamist or ulema-controlled organizations like the Jamaat-e-Islami.

There is a useful and important distinction to be made between parties that support the implementation of sharia law and parties that support a secular code of law. And it’s likely that a majority of Pakistanis would rather not live in the Dar-ul-Islam dreamt of by fundamentalist Muslim parties. But this doesn’t make a country’s politics ‘secular’, not in the Indian construction of that term.

For an Indian like me who thinks of himself as liberal, the Pakistani state and the politics it sanctions, the politics within which its democratic processes are contained, isn’t and can’t be secular because Pakistan announces itself as an Islamic republic. It isn’t secular in the same way that Israel isn’t secular because it was brought into being as a Jewish state and functions as one. In my political lexicon, the term ‘secular’ means, above all, that the state must not be owned by, or act on behalf of, a religious community. This means that political dispensations that call themselves Jewish or Islamic or Buddhist (as Sri Lanka does) are, by definition, incapable of nurturing a secular politics. They are majoritarian, denominational states, inimical to the pluralist democracy that Indians have come to equate with political secularism.

This reflexive scepticism about the secular potential of denominational states is rooted in India’s domestic politics. Historically, the most serious threat to the pluralist and secular idea of India written into the Indian Constitution has been Hindu majoritarianism. The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh would like to reconstitute India as a Hindu state. This would be, like Israel, a constitutional democracy with minorities free to worship and vote and associate, but nonetheless a state defined by the culture, the priorities and the prejudices of its religious majority.

This is not to claim that India’s constitutional pluralism translates into secular institutions or automatically protects minorities from discrimination and prejudice. It is to argue that to have this backwardness, this discrimination, these prejudices institutionalized and given the force of law in a formally majoritarian state is the secular Indian’s worst nightmare.

Majoritarianism is an ideology that creates two classes of citizens – those considered ‘natural’ citizens (Jews in Israel, Muslims in Pakistan, Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka) and those who live under their protection (Arabs in Israel, Hindus in Pakistan, Tamils in Sri Lanka). No matter how earnestly such states enumerate the rights enjoyed by its minorities, they remain second-class citizens. For the secular Indian, the argument against majoritarianism in India is systematically subverted by the embrace of majoritarianism by its neighbours.

To look at the Sri Lankan and Pakistani flags is to see majoritarianism graphically proclaimed. The Sri Lankan flag has most of its surface area taken up by a Sinhala emblem, a rampant lion, while its minorities are represented by two thin stripes, one green (for Muslims), one orange for Tamils. The Pakistan flag is mainly green; the colour represents Islam as does the crescent-and-star device centred in the flag. The smaller white stripe stands for Pakistan’s religious minorities. Why is this important? It is important because states whose insignia and founding constitutions explicitly endorse a denominational affiliation create a dilemma for their ‘liberal’, ‘secular’ or ‘pluralist’ citizens.

The Indian liberal, even when he feels beleaguered by majoritarian mobilization or oppressed by its electoral success, knows that the Constitution is on his side. In his arguments against Hindutva, for example, he can invoke the Constitution because all the best lines in that charter were written for him. It is possible for a democratic pluralist or a liberal in India to be both politically correct and patriotic, to resist the state as it is by invoking the state as the Constitution lays down it should be.

But it’s hard for him to imagine how his Pakistani counterpart can reconcile liberal principles with the foundational idea of Pakistan, the idea of a Muslim homeland. Big ideas set limits on politics: no political party in Pakistan can challenge the illiberal, discriminatory idea of an Islamic republic and remain politically credible. This cuts both ways: it also follows that a Pakistani liberal will find it hard to be nationalist: to affirm the founding myth of Pakistan is to compromise his liberal values.

The case of Israel is a good example of the tension between liberal democratic values and the denominational nation- state. The recent bombing of Gaza and the slaughter of innocents were endorsed by every non-Arab Israeli party and by many who describe themselves as progressive or liberal. These liberals chose to be true to the Zionist ideal that underwrites Israel and to do this they had to park their principles.

Which brings us back to the rudeness of “do you think Pakistan was a good idea?” Indians oughtn’t ask this question because it’s rude and, given Pakistan’s current troubles, suggests a malicious satisfaction derived from its misfortunes. But it is important for Pakistanis to recognize that the motive behind it is a political anxiety, not Schadenfreude. The question springs from a need to be consistent in their view of the world: opposing majoritarianism within India necessarily implies rejecting it in the world. When they put the question, they are clumsily asking for reassurance that the pluralism enshrined in the idea of India has some resonance beyond its borders.
Courtesy and thanks: Wichaar.com

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