The border between Pakistan and India is one of the most volatile in the world and the people on both sides are chauvinistic towards each other. Pakistan is a Muslim-majority country, which is not a theocracy by law, but certainly has elements of a religious state. India has a majority Hindu population and a secular constitution. However, India’s secularism has recently been under threat. In 2002, as chief minister of Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi presided over anti-Muslim riots that killed at least 1,000 and perhaps as many as 2,000. Meanwhile, cricket star turned prime minister Imran Khan called Osama bin Laden a martyr in the National Assembly of Pakistan. When the premiers of democratic states have radical inclinations, the public is liable to be radicalised too. After all, it is the collective will that made them prime ministers in the first place.
Anti-Muslim sentiment in India has grown. India is home to roughly two hundred million Muslims. The constitution grants equal rights to all citizens regardless of their faiths. But the reality on the ground is very different. Multiple cases have been documented in which mobs have forced Muslims to chant anti-Pakistan slogans and praise Hindu deities. An additional menace is posed by the cow vigilantes: hyper-religious Hindus out to oppress Muslims.
Religious discrimination is rampant in Pakistan too. Schoolchildren are officially taught that Hindus are the enemy. Most of Pakistan’s Hindu temples have been demolished, and many of those remaining have been turned into commercial centres, while the number of mosques continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Last year, when the government attempted to construct the first Hindu place of worship in Pakistan’s capital city, they had to desist because of severe backlash from the fundamentalists.
There have been many reports of Hindu girls being abducted, converted to Islam and forcibly married to Muslim grooms, who are often much older than them. The abductors and their sympathisers claim that the girls have voluntarily converted, but this raises some obvious questions, such as whether children can convert, why these conversions tend to involve young girls (and not boys or older people) and why they result in immediate marriage. This and other grave injustices against minorities are sensitive topics in Pakistan.
On the other side of the border, recent legislation against so-called love jihad is based on the spurious idea that Muslim men often lure Hindu women into marriage—even when both parties are consenting adults. The law discourages inter-faith love marriages and is therefore a direct attack on the individual freedoms that any secular society should guarantee.
Violations of human rights are becoming the norm. The number of mob lynchings (brutal beatings) has increased in both countries. People have become increasingly radicalised. In Pakistan, an allegation of blasphemy can threaten or end anyone’s life. Even practicing Muslims are not immune. According to Pakistani law, blasphemy is a capital offence and the hyper-religious tend to assume that the accused are guilty until proven innocent. Such cases often end in extra-judicial killings. Judges are usually fearful of vindicating the accused, which can put their own lives in danger. Politicians face deadly attacks for standing up for the rights of persecuted minorities and their murderers are glorified. Mob psychology plays a huge role in all of this.
India too is becoming increasingly intolerant. People are lynched and murdered while spectators watch. It is hard for the peace-loving citizenry of either country to stand against the rising intolerance.
The ethnonationalists want India to become a Hindu rashtra (nation) in which Hindu nationalism is the primary identity. The Pakistani Islamists want an Islamic Pakistan. In both cases, they want the majority population to become the custodians of the state and, in return, the state will protect their interests at the cost of the suppression of minority rights. Hostility towards minorities is partly caused by domestic political problems in both countries, for which the respective minorities are made the scapegoat.
India unilaterally changed the constitutional status of Indian Kashmir (to which Pakistan lays claim) on 5 August 2019. Since then, relations between the two countries have been frosty and trade has halted. Trade talks have recently been in the air again, however. The military, which handles Pakistan’s foreign policy, seems to be interested in back-channel diplomacy with Indian hawks. If normality could be restored, things would improve greatly. But India must also restore human rights in occupied Kashmir. If the two countries can agree on the future of the region, the majority populations will probably become more amicable toward their own minorities.
Radicalisation is easy, but deradicalisation is tough. Both India and Pakistan must decide whether they want majoritarianism or substantive democracy. Majoritarianism does not help a nation progress, nor does mere electoral democracy. Both Pakistan and India need a more substantive form of democracy, which promotes a peaceful social environment and equal rights for all. This would be hard to achieve, but extremely rewarding. How minorities are treated is the litmus test of a democratic state.