The Daily Star (Beirut)

Pakistan and India: Independent But not Free

On Aug. 14-15 Pakistan and India celebrated the 56th anniversary of their independence from Britain. In reality, the anniversary marked the independence of India and the birth of Pakistan, whose history began only after decolonization. It is a sad commentary on the political condition of South Asia that even though the region has been independent for over half a century, it is still not free.

Today, both India and Pakistan are caught in a frenzy of religious fervor that is fundamentally negative in its orientation. Rather than standing for something, religious anger, activism and mass mobilization in both countries merely stand against something. India's religious revival is taking the form of a Hindu nationalist movement that is rabidly opposed to secularism and to religious minorities. Hindutva ­ the Hindu nationalist movement ­ showed its true colors in March 2002. It used the burning of a train by Muslims rioting against the molestation of women as justification to unleash a pogrom that killed over 2,000 Muslims. Nearly 200,000 Muslims lost their property, had their businesses and livelihood destroyed, and, overnight, became refugees in their country.

Compare the response in the US to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when officials rushed to protect America's Muslim minority, to that in India, where government officials, politicians and bureaucrats worked to facilitate the massacre. One quickly realizes how the episode helped undermine India's secularism, pluralism, democracy and hopes for freedom. In terms of shock value and implications for the future, the Hindutva movement had perpetrated the worst crime against India's soul since independence.

In Pakistan, the call to apply Islam in the public sphere has degenerated into violence against religious minorities. Muslim extremists continue to enjoy great freedom in Pakistan. They seem to have only one purpose in life, to find a community they can target for violence: Ahmadis, Shiites and Christians have all experienced the hatred of Pakistan's "Islamization." In the last decade sectarian violence has taken thousands of lives and prevented the emergence of a stable state. Democracy still remains only a potentiality in Pakistan.

Pakistan's growing Talebanization, thanks in part to America's "war on terrorism" and the emergence of odious characters such as influential politician Maulana Fazlur Rahman, suggests the country's future remains deeply entangled with religious hatred and violence. If religious parties do not adopt more moderate and pragmatic programs, it will only be a matter of time before Pakistan itself becomes a victim of terrorism by Muslim militants, and most certainly the next stop in the war on terror.

Besides giving religion a bad name, religious zealots have only contributed to the destabilization of South Asia, heightening the prospects of a nuclear disaster. As extremists jockey for positions of power in India and Pakistan, the prospects of seeing their murderous hands on nuclear triggers is rapidly becoming a new nightmare for security experts in the region and elsewhere.

Both India and Pakistan are deeply traditional and religious societies. It is unrealistic to expect them to become completely secular. Somehow the two nations must find a way to accommodate the political impulses of their faith-based communities, without undermining the civil liberties of minorities, disrupting political and economic development and, most importantly, raising nuclear security dilemmas.

Today, religious zealots in both nations pose a domestic and international threat. Both India and Pakistan, in spite of all their wars and pervasive political and social turmoil, have progressed economically as well as technologically. Both are poised to break away from their low-income status and become middle-income, industrializing and globalizing nations. Both nations have large diasporas that can help bring in foreign direct investment, technology and international business.

India is well situated to become a major international economic and cultural power. Indian culture, partly due to the popularity of cinema, gives India the kind of soft power only America enjoys worldwide. India is now acknowledged as a software giant. With its huge pool of management and technology experts, it alone can compete with China for the status of future global power.

Pakistan's credentials as a nuclear power, and its role as a front-line state in the war on terror, has forced the world to accept it as an important international actor. Pakistanis in Europe and America are also developing their own tech-centered capabilities that will contribute to Pakistan's development.

It seems that God alone stands between success and disaster in South Asia. The competing processes of economic and technological growth and religious-political degeneration represent a unique illustration of what author Benjamin Barber referred to as Jihad versus MacWorld. It is a tragedy that long after their independence India and Pakistan remain slaves to their own demons. Religion should empower not enslave. It should enlighten ­ not make beasts out of ­ humans.