We, the Arabs, have too many problems that make any attempt to discuss other issues appear as an intentional diversion. Still, what has happened and may happen, in India, must be among the great challenges facing Arabs and Muslims all over the world.
Rahul Gandhi, a scion of the Gandhi – Nehru dynasty, that has become synonymous with independent, non-aligned and secular India, has just been elected leader of the Indian Congress Party; the party which led the world’s most populous democracy’s struggle for independence.
It is quite important to appreciate the significance of this event against the background of escalating religious extremism, not only in Pakistan, a nation specifically founded under religious banner as a ‘Muslim state’; but also in India, itself, where ‘Congress’ has lost ground to the extremist religious and ethnic populism of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by the current Prime Minister Narenda Modi.
It is actually ironic that Mr Modi, who has built the better part of his popularity on his strident sectarianism, shot his rise to power from his powerbase of Gujarat, the state where the Mahatma Gandhi was born, and the state which geographically closest to the Muslim and Arab worlds.
Indeed, India’s independence in 1947 was the first test for the ability of ‘Political Islam’ to co-exist with, and adapt to, modern political institutions in the Third World Countries during the countdown of classic colonialism. It was also its first experiment in co-existing with other religions in independent entities where Muslims were a religious minority.
In the Indian Sub-continent, the historic choice was made one year before the Palestinian ‘Nakbah’ and the creation of the State of Israel.
‘Pluralistic state’ and ‘religious state’
The choice was simply between the two concepts of ‘pluralistic state’ and ‘religious state’; between the optimists who believed in the possibility of building a co-existence that transcends ethnic, religious and linguistic divides, and the pessimists who doubt such a co-existence regarding themselves as realists.
This was exactly the case in pre-1947 India, where many Muslims were ‘realistic’ doubters in a subcontinent where Muslims constituted a minority, and where tens of major languages and hundreds of accents were spoken by hundreds of millions.
The Indian Muslims were thus divided; as subsequently was the Indian national movement which led the struggle for independence from the empire that had always valued India as its ‘crown jewel’.
Eventually, the difficult decision was made, and its repercussions have continued and may become worse in the future. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the All-India Muslim League insisted that the Muslims should have a state of their own, opposing what saw as utopian dreams of intellectuals like ‘the Mahatma’ Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and even some Indian Muslim leaders such as Abul Kalam Azad and Dr Zakir Husain.
Partition came to pass in 1947 with the declaration of two states; India and Pakistan. Pakistan then was actually two ‘Pakistans’: West Pakistan where Punjabis made up the majority ‘ethnic’ group, followed by Sindhis, Pathans (Afghans), Belouchs and other ‘muhajir’ (immigrant) communities from other parts of India, and East Pakistan comprising a huge Bengali majority.
The partition was certainly not an amicable divorce. It became a fait accompli after a deep disagreement between old ‘comrades-in-arms’.
Population exchange took place against a background of massacres and forced displacement, creating ultra extremists on both sides of the newly declared borders. After the thousands of those who lost their lives in the process, the conflict claimed its most influential victim; Gandhi, the greatest leader and ‘The Father of the Nation’, who was assassinated on January 30th 1948, by a Hindu activist who believed the great man had gone too far in appeasing and accommodating the Muslims.
Since that landmark, India and Pakistan took divergent paths.
During the Cold war, Pakistan became an integral part of the West’s military alliances intended to ‘contain’ Communist threat, joining both CENTO (Formerly, Baghdad Pact) and SEATO. Later, during the Soviet-Sino ideological schism, and capitalising on the border conflict between India and China, Pakistan established a ‘special relationship’ with China. India, on the other hand, became an independent leading force in ‘the Non-Aligned Movement’, the Commonwealth, and the Afro-Asian groupings and conferences.
Internally, Pakistan has failed to build a proper democratic system, as the army emerged as a dominant player and continues to dominate the country’s national, regional and ‘Islamic’ policies. Since 1947 the Pakistani army has wielded its influence either directly through its generals-presidents (such as Presidents Muhammad Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, and Parvez Musharraf), or behind the scenes through intermittent weak democratic reigns blemished by corruption.
This has not been the case with India, which despite its complicated cultural, ethnic and linguistic mosaic, has managed thanks to its federal democratic system to survive all shocks, control secessionist threats, and establish the required balance that allows the smooth running of a huge country inhabited by more than one billion people. In fact, despite the fact that the Hindus make up around %80 of the population, the nationalistic Hindu BJP’s support in the last polls was in the region of %31, which is why it leads a coalition government.
Furthermore, in 1971, Pakistan paid a heavy price for its failure to deal with two problems: The first, its mishandling with its geographic – ethnic problem (as 2208 Km-1372 m separate West Pakistan and East Pakistan across northern India; and the second, its ongoing open conflict with India over Kashmir.
Exploiting a political crisis between the country’s two parts, following divisive general elections that year, India intervened in the ensuing fighting, and helped East Pakistan break away and declare its independence as Bangladesh.
India, in the meantime was having a different kind of problems. For a start, and despite its solid democracy, relative stability and technological advances, ‘Congress’ was gradually losing its invincibility and aura as a result of accumulating problems. The main beneficiaries from the old party’s decline have been the extremist populists who today threaten India’s cordial relations with many of its neighbors, as well as shaking its internal cohesion and national unity.
If successful in leading Congress back to power, Rahul Gandhi may provide an opportunity to reflect and put an end to dangerous regional and international gambles.
He may, hopefully, be able to stop the rise of extremists’ terror of all kinds in the name of religion. If anything, the destruction of Ayodhya’s Babri Mosque, the Bali attacks, and the plight of the Rohingya clearly show that Asia is neither safe nor immune.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances. Eyad tweets @eyad1949.