India’s Malala lesson: Do not fan the flames of orthodoxy

Published: 04th November 2012 12:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd November 2012 11:37 PM   |  A+A-

The shocking incident in the jihadi-infested Swat valley of Pakistan where Islamists shot at 15-year old girl Malala Yousafzai for daring to campaign for the right of girls to go to school has stirred the conscience of the world, including some in Pakistan. Even Pakistani army chief General Kayani who visited the seriously wounded girl in hospital, described Malala as “an icon of courage and hope… fighting to preserve (values) for future generations”.   President Asaf Ali Zardari described her as his own daughter and called for a struggle against the militant mindset.

The popular outrage within Pakistan following the incident has kindled hope of things changing for the better in this Islamic country.  This optimistic sentiment is best illustrated by the Newsweek (October 29) cover story’s headline, “‘The Girl Who Changed Pakistan’ and the accompanying blurb that reads: ‘The 15-year-old girl who may finally turn the tide on extremism.’

Is this optimism realistic? The public uproar in Pakistan may give hope to the uninitiated. But those who have followed the developments resulting in the birth of Pakistan and its degeneration into a theocratic jihadi state would find it difficult to agree.

India was divided in 1947 on a religious basis because the overwhelming majority of Muslims could not reconcile to the idea of living as equals with the infidel Hindus over whom they had ruled for hundreds of years. Their misplaced arrogance and an uncertain future in a free but competitive India fuelled their demand for partition.

The evolution of Pakistan and its emergence as an epicentre of Islamic fundamentalism has to be seen in the context of this radical mindset, which was central to its creation. The infidels (read Hindus and Sikhs) have almost been decimated in Pakistan and their share in population has dropped from about 20 per cent in 1947 to little over 1 per cent now.

After the Islamic state was done with the non-Muslims, the focus now is on those who the “true believers” suspect to be apostates. The very Pakistani society that has been shaken following the dastardly assault on Malala was either an active participant or remained passive witness to the near liquidation of religious minorities. The DNA of Pakistan is incapable of creating a pluralistic and tolerant society which can live in peace, either with itself or its predominant Hindu neighbour.

Two years ago, when Lahore governor Salman Taseer was killed by his bodyguard Qadri, after the Pakistan Peoples Party leader called for a modern state, the killer was hailed at huge demonstrations. The state found it difficult to get a judge to try the killer. Lawyers assembled in thousands and showered the murderer with rose petals when he was brought for trial. In contrast, it was difficult to find a maulvi to perform the last rites for Taseer. Surely, there is popular sanction or endorsement for radical Islam in Pakistan.

Unfortunately, the “secular” India also promotes the same jihadi mindset which brought first Pakistan into being, and now to this sorry pass. While Hindu women got equal right to property, right to divorce and adequate alimony, gender equality at work, etc., even a tiny stir towards giving Muslim women similar rights, was strongly opposed by their community leaders. In the latter case, the opposition was based on the Muslim leadership’s interpretation of Sharia. The state also refused to listen to the incipient liberal modern opinion among Muslim leadership itself. The Shah Bano case was the most critical instance when the Supreme Court  upheld that the Constitution’s guarantee of equality must supersede the claims of religious texts in issues like gender equality and right to alimony. 

The Congress government of the day under Rajiv Gandhi succumbed to Islamic irredentism without even putting up a fight against it. The result: a majority of the Indian social order remains free from allegedly scripture-based discrimination against women; a minority refuses even a suggestion that their social practices are against globally recognised human rights.

There is thus a social divide in our country that encourages the Muslim leadership to continue to keep its society under wraps in the name of religion. That exclusion is extending to education through religious schools like madrasas, and personal law is being defended as immutable even where it contradicts human rights.  Now that exclusivity has gone ahead to demand an exclusive Muslim financial system.  

The unfortunate part of it is that our self-styled “secularists” are fuelling such exclusivism. The rising division within Indian society into one following liberal laws in tune with the basic human rights enshrined in the Constitution and another subject to a seventh century legal framework can one day move from division in social laws to one in criminal laws and judicial system. Recently reports from Kerala have said that an underground Muslim organisation has been trying to enforce such a division.

In Jammu and Kashmir, the separatist leaders of the Hurriyat raised a hue and cry over the proposal to build a road to the pilgrim centre Amarnath, saying this would change the character of the state. The National Conference-Congress government backed down.

Contrast this with what is currently happening in Delhi where an illegal wall constructed overnight over a maidan site has been ordered to be demolished by the court. The local MLA has threatened an agitation to retain the wall he built, claiming it was the site of an old mosque. The court had to order police protection for demolition while experts looked into the mosque claim.

After the Malala incident, President Zardari said: “We have suffered from the unintended consequences of the choices we all made.” India’s political leaders who are cosying up to religious orthodoxy will have to repeat Zardari’s words.

Balbir Punj is a BJP leader and Rajya Sabha member

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