Cynics, as well as some jaded pundits, focused on the South Asian scenario seem resigned that the South Asian twain — India and Pakistan — are condemned to live apart, forever.
And yet they see, to their utter consternation, the lengthening shadows of radicalism of a most frightening kind eerily creating a weird nexus in their world view as to how their civic societies must be moulded and fashioned on lines that were never within the frames of perception of their founding fathers.
The Pakistan Supreme Court rejected, last week, the review petition of Mumtaz Qadri, the ‘acclaimed’ assassin of Salman Taseer, Governor of Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab, who was gunned down by Qadri in broad daylight on a busy street of Islamabad. Qadri had petitioned the apex court against the death sentence passed against him by a lower court and also upheld by the Punjab High Court.
Taseer was killed, in cold blood, because of his critique of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law that lays down the death penalty for anyone guilty of blaspheming against Islam’s Holy Prophet. Taseer wanted the law reviewed because of its rampant misuse in the settling of personal scores and vendettas in the contentious law’s religious guise.
Taseer’s murder rekindled the memories of Indira Gandhi being gunned down by her own security guards. Qadri, his assassin, was also one of his security guards who took it upon himself to punish Taseer for daring to question the blasphemy law, or suggest amending it. His defence lawyers had argued that it was their client’s religious obligation to punish Taseer for his maverick behaviour.
Rejecting the review petition, the apex court’s judges unanimously agreed that suggesting review or amending the blasphemy law wasn’t, in itself, an act of blasphemy. By the same token, no individual was entitled to snuff life out of his victim just because their religious beliefs or dogmas differed from each other.
Qadri, now, has the slim chance of the Pakistani President — a crony of PM Nawaz Sharif — commuting his death sentence. However, if the ongoing hectic pace of capital punishment implemented in the country — and those sitting on the death row for years now being feverishly hauled up the gallows - since last December’s dastardly murder of 140 school children in Peshawar is any indicator, Qadri should stand virtually no chance of escaping the noose.
But, as the thinning ranks of Pakistani secularists have ample room to rue, Qadri is no ordinary assassin. His heinous crime notwithstanding, he has been a hero to the burgeoning brigade of religious fanatics and radical vigilantes from the moment he gunned down Taseer and boisterously hectored that he was merely discharging his religious duty to silence a heretic. Qadri’s initial trial in a lower court had all the trappings of a Hollywood thriller. The government prosecutor who pleaded the court for the death penalty for Qadri was killed in mysterious circumstances. The judge, awarding him the death penalty, had to be evacuated through a back door because a rowdy throng of Qadri’s partisans — dozens of lawyers amongst them — were crying for his head. Some months later, he fled the country in panic with his family because of mounting threats from the vigilantes against them.
In prison, Qadri became a celebrity and was feted like a VIP in his cell; prison guards fawned over him and did his bidding without demur. One Christian detainee, awaiting sentencing for his alleged crime of blasphemy, was murdered in his cell by a prison guard when so ordered by Qadri. His religious sermons were recorded, made into DVDs and sold by tens of thousands. No wonder then that Pakistan’s emasculated secularists and liberals are keeping their fingers crossed and hoping that President Mamoon Hussain will not succumb to the relentless pressure on him, from religious fundamentalists, to spare Qadri the gallows.
Pakistan’s slide into religious radicalism has been a fact of life for at least four decades. It began under General Zia-ul-Haq, the military strongman, who courted the company of Saudi Arabia’s Wahabis, the most radical of Islamic sects, and inexorably drew Pakistan to the new catch-slogan that its socio-cultural ethos was anchored in the Arabian Peninsula.
Nonsense, remonstrated the liberals and secular intellectuals who, on the rock-solid strength of history, argued that Pakistan’s social ethos was rooted in India’s Persian-influenced Indo-Gangetic culture honed over a millennium by both Hindus and Muslims. The Arabian provenance of their faith, they insisted, had nothing to do with it.
But the Pakistani liberals and secularists have been on the back foot ever since and, now, it seems — to their utter horror — so are their Indian counterparts who have been steadily under assault from the right-wing vigilantes and radical proponents of Hindutva, with their strident campaign that India belongs only to its majority Hindus.
The lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq, the unsuspecting resident of Dadri — within hailing distance of Delhi — on suspicion of consuming beef (which turned out to be mutton when laboratory-tested) is a heinous crime that flies in the face of India’s globally-acclaimed, all-inclusive, secularism. The banishing of Pakistani ghazal maestro, Ghulam Ali, from Mumbai, and disfiguring — in an act of crass vandalism — the sponsor of the launch of former Pakistani Foreign Minister, Khurshid Qasuri’s latest book, Neither a Hawk nor a Dove, in Mumbai, again, in quick succession, are unmistakable pointers to the ascendancy and backlash of religious intolerance and radicalism in India.
Is India’s universally-admired secularism going to meet its Waterloo just because its majority population has arrogated to itself the right to dictate the eating habits of its minorities?
If cow slaughter is sacrilegious then isn’t it ironical that India, on the BJP’s watch, is today the world’s largest exporter of beef? Or is it a case of double-standards where slaughtering a cow is kosher for exports but an act of provocation if consumed by those to whom it’s just another food?
It’s frightening when the Chief Minister of Haryana, on Delhi’s door-steps, declares in an interview that if Indian Muslims wished to stay on in India they will have to give up beef, forever.
When Jinnah was arguing his two-nation theory, and the partition of India, he was opposed by tens of millions of Muslims who thought he was going against the grain of that millennium-old, all-embracing, Indo-Gangetic composite culture Hindus and Muslims had painstaking evolved. What else explains the fact that India still has nearly as many Muslims as Pakistan?
Aren’t the radical advocates of an exclusivist India, of Hindutva mould, inadvertently prodding Indian Muslims to revisit that morally-courageous decision and rue it? There’s a lot in this embarrassing question for all the Indian followers of Gandhi and Nehru to ponder and cogitate.
The writer is a former Pakistani diplomat. Email: K_K_ghori@yahoo.com