Vinod Mubayi

O, what a fall was there my countrymen,

Then I, and you, and all of us fell down

Whilst bloody treason flourish’d over us

This Shakesperean lament over the fate of a country is a fitting coda to the situation South Asia finds itself in at this juncture: 75 years after the Partition of British ruled India into two states on the basis of religious identity defined by the so-called two-nation theory.

Many fault lines existed apart from religion in the vast subcontinent ruled by the British for almost two centuries including caste, language, ethnicity, culture, region, and regional history, among others. However, religious identity, specifically that of the two largest communities, Hindu and Muslim, became the defining basis for nationhood and decided the fate and lives of many millions, mostly in the Punjab and to some extent in Bengal, in a few heated months in 1947.

While the origins of the two nation theory may be debated, and its political connections to developments in the late 19th century explored in the context of the British colonial policy of divide and rule, its more modern adumbration was provided in the 20th century by Hindu and Muslim ideologues who had little or no connection to the Indian national movement for freedom from British rule that envisaged a modern, democratic India with equal rights for all communities irrespective of sect, religion or ethnicity. Prof Ishtiaq Ahmed in his magisterial autobiography “Jinnah: His Successes, Failures and Role in History” provides a detailed analysis of the arguments of Muslim intellectuals such as Muhammad Iqbal, Choudhry Rahmat Ali, and above all Mohammed Ali Jinnah in favor of the two-nation theory and the creation of the separate state of Pakistan. Less well-known, perhaps, and certainly less advertised are the arguments of Hindu ideologues such as Savarkar who in 1923 provided a theoretical construct for the notion that Hindus and Muslims in India constituted two different nations since India was both the pitrabhumi (fatherland) and the punyabhumi (holy land) of the Hindus while the punyabhumi of the Muslims (or the Christians, another minority) was outside India.

This curious construction that denied the concept of territorial nationhood was further enhanced by RSS ideologues like Guru Golwalkar who claimed that minority Muslims could only reside as “second class” citizens in India without rights or privileges. In fact, the RSS English organ Organizer in its issue on the very eve of Independence, dated 14 August, 1947, rejected the whole concept of a composite nation in the following words: “Let us no longer allow ourselves to be influenced by false notions of nationhood. Much of the mental confusion and the present and future troubles can be removed by the ready recognition of the simple fact that in Hindustan only the Hindus form the nation and the national structure must be built on that safe and sound foundation…” (quoted by Prof. Shamsul Islam).

Paradoxically, RSS also continued to emphasize its concept of an Akhand (unbroken) Bharat over some undefined area stretching from (perhaps) Afghanistan to Burma. The fact that this area would contain a significantly larger number of Muslims which could conflict with the RSS notion of Hindu nationhood remains unexplained although it is obvious that the conflation of geography with nationhood based on religious identity would lead to mass confusion followed by disruptive and brutal migration, what later came to be known as “ethnic cleansing”, as happened to many millions displaced during the Partition of 1947.

The two-nation theory in conjunction with the indefatigable efforts of Jinnah led to Partition and the birth of the new country of Pakistan. Ishtiaq Ahmed has explained this entire process in great detail in his biography of Jinnah. However, Pakistan as created in 1947 did not last as the bonds of language and region proved to be stronger than those of religious identity with the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971. India, with the adoption of a liberal constitution and under the leadership of the stalwarts of the national movement, like Gandhi, Nehru, and Azad, seemed for some decades to have forged a different future. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a former RSS member soon after independence also added to a sense of revulsion for the protagonists of the Hindu nation. Unfortunately, this did not last and, particularly in the last decade, RSS and the votaries of the Hindu nation have emerged with renewed fervor turning India’s much celebrated constitutional secular democracy into a veritable farce. Minorities, especially Muslims but lately Christians as well, are being systematically “othered” and demonized by the supporters and agents of the current rulers who are bent on turning India into a majoritarian state, the Hindu rashtra (nation) of the RSS.

In a passionate address (the 5th Anita Kaul Memorial Lecture, 2022, titled ‘The Elephant Outside the Classroom: Education for a Democratic India’) delivered at the India International Centre in New Delhi on October 19, 2022, the educator and social activist Farah Naqvi pointed out the regressive direction in which India is currently heading in the education of its children and the atmosphere that minority children, especially Muslim and Dalit children, have to confront every day in their classrooms. The steady drip of hate and othering, Naqvi says, is leading to a crisis. A selection of her remarks is worth quoting at length:

“We are at a point of crisis – as a country and as educators of our children. If we want a democratic future for India… we have to confront the divides in our classrooms. 

That is the elephant I want to speak about – the social divide and hate that is infesting our society and therefore our classrooms. No classroom can be an oasis of equality in a highly unequal world. We have lost the ability to confront squarely the social divides in the context of the classroom. They have been pushed beyond discussion in educational public policy. As the elephant becomes bigger and stronger and more conspicuous, the silences in the space of education have gotten deeper and coded social interactions in classrooms have become endemic.

A nation forged from the fires of partition, we promised ourselves a secular India, and 75 years later still blame 9 and 10-year-old Muslim children for sins their fathers did not commit. As Dalit assertion has grown, so has the violence. Our classrooms are paying this price for the tough conversations we never had. Why?

Because 75 years ago, when we stood on the horizon of freedom, we did promise ourselves the end of hierarchy based on caste, religion, gender and much else. The framers of the constitution were alive and alert to the grave harm that social division does. We gave ourselves Article 15 (The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them), Article 16 (There shall be equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters of employment under the State), and Article 17 (Abolition of Untouchability). Under Directive Principles, we gave ourselves Article 39 – which spoke of giving our children freedom and dignity. We enshrined affirmative action for Dalits and tribals. 

Our leaders desperately hoped there was something inexorable, inevitable about the march of modernity; the modern man/modern women would leave behind (the ‘medievalism’ of) caste and community as primary markers of their identities as we all embraced a scientific temper, a new humanism, and our new identities as citizens of a free land. We were expected to grow less and less attached to the ascribed identity (the ones we were born into) and to forge instead a bond as citizens with the larger republic and with each other. We would be a secular state. With diversity of equals.

We boxed the secular promise into familiar tropes. ‘Unity in Diversity.’ Looked grand, but it was never the grand diversity of equals. Because the optics of unity was not matched by actual justice and equity on the ground. Imagine the trauma and plight of a Muslim child today who has to trot out his skull cap for the national ‘Unity in Diversity’ photo-op, knowing well that wearing the same skull cap can now get him lynched to death on a train. 

The Indian education system is one of the largest in the world with over 1.5 million schools, 8.5 million teachers and 250 million children. If what I have spoken about today is affecting even 10% of these children, either at the giving or the receiving end, that is 25 million children too many.

We need to remember in this moment, when we are witnessing hate assemblies make calls for violence against minorities; when an elected representative, an MP [Member of Parliament], has taken that first unthinkable step and openly called for an economic and social boycott of an entire community; in this moment we must remember from history, that genocide never begins one fine day with mass killings. It begins with the everyday othering and bigotry that I have described, which is a frightening part of our classroom reality. If we are to regain a democratic future, we need to do everything in our power to stem that rot in the hearts of our children.”

The Christian minority is also, unfortunately, not faring any better. In 2022, there have already been over 550 violent attacks on India’s Christians, according to the United Christian Front (UCF), an Indian NGO. This is the largest number for any year on record. Violence is being used in some tribal communities to convert Christians to Hinduism and if those affected refuse they are beaten up and forced to leave their villages and homes. The journalist John Dayal writing in the Deccan Herald of Dec 28, 2022 states “Consistently since the early 1990s, certain political forces have sought to build up a narrative that the majority religious community is under threat from Muslims and Christians. While Muslims have been painted as aggressors and destroyers of Indian values over the centuries and with some strange loyalty to Pakistan, Christians are held as agents of Western civilization who are out to convert every Hindu in India to Christianity. These are highly motivated lies that are spread by every mode of traditional and modern communication system, ranging from whispers at the time of elections and abusive barbs from political leaders, to the use of social media in spreading hate and mischief. Much hate has been directly traced to senior leaders and spokespersons of political parties.”

It needs to be recognized that the hate and othering of minorities now being witnessed in India is also a result of the two-nation theory. In Pakistan that proclaimed itself an Islamic state at the outset the othering of the very small number of minorities that remained was routine from the beginning. Paradoxically, the behavior and feelings expressed by private people, Pakistanis and Indians, Muslims and Hindus, unconnected to their state in any capacity, who meet outside their immediate environments is quite different as close bonds and friendships form quickly based on commonalities of language, culture, food, and so on. It appears that it is the state establishments in both countries that wish to keep the elements of confrontation, hate, and otherness at the forefront to prevent development of normal relations between their citizens. This is likely the reason why a visa for travel between India and Pakistan and vice versa is so difficult to obtain. Governments of both countries wish to restrict travel between the two countries as much as possible to perhaps minimize contacts between their peoples.

While 75 years of existence as independent states created on the basis of religious identity has not led to any positive outcome for the region so far, only hate, confrontation and four wars between India and Pakistan, the future challenges faced by the region may have little to do with the way these states were created. It needs to be noted that the South Asia region faces very severe problems due to climate change as reported by the relevant United Nations body dealing with this issue on a global basis. The catastrophic floods in Pakistan this last summer, the heatwaves in the region, prospective sea level rise, and other challenges are harbingers of the disasters that confront the people of South Asia. Changes in Himalayan geology, melting of the glaciers whose presence ensures water to many millions, and a disastrous drop in groundwater levels that threatens agricultural production, all presage a calamitous future that will require unprecedented levels of cooperation between the countries to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

So, what is the way forward? It does not appear so far that the governments of India and Pakistan are anxious to cooperate, so the people of the countries have to step forward. How and in what way they can is being demonstrated by recently formed organizations such as the South Asia Peace Action Network, SAPAN, that is bringing together concerned people from all South Asian countries who are more interested in the survival of their neighbors and themselves rather than scoring ideological points at their neighbors’ expense.

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