Our Indian mirror

Published March 29, 2024
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

SOON after the Babri Masjid was demolished by Hindu nationalist mobs in Decem­ber 1992, Fahmida Riaz wrote an epic poem entitled Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle. Three decades later, her words ring truer than ever.

For progressives in Pakistan, India has often represented the possibility that the postcolonial state can be democratised, that ideologies like socialism and secularism can be mainstreamed, and that relations with the world can be guided by principles such as non-alignment and anti-imperialism.

But over the past few years, as Pakistan has been pulverised by various iterations of ‘hybrid’ militarised rule, it has become increasingly difficult to look towards our neighbour with any degree of envy. In June, India will go to the polls and all indications point to a victory for Narendra Modi and his BJP. Only Jawaharlal Nehru has enjoyed three successive terms in government; Modi seems set to overhaul Nehru’s long legacy. Soon, our Indian mirror will likely show Pakistanis an image of our own brutalised selves.

1. Democracy: Indian political life is not overdetermined by an all-powerful military. This is no small mercy. But seen on a broader canvas, the political mainstream in both India and Pakistan has been transformed by the combination of digitalised mass media and an extremely young population. In Pakistan the establishment cultivated troll armies and is now suffering blowback. In India, Modi and the BJP have built an even bigger captive audience that is unremittingly rechristening India as a majoritarian polity.

It has become difficult to look towards our neighbour with any degree of envy.

More generally, the Modi regime has ruthlessly clamped down on independent media and political dissidents. In the lead-up to elections, it has incarcerated competitors like Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party whilst also defanging an already emaciated Congress. All of this is happening to the loud acclaim of a large and expanding social base.

Secularism: Indian secularism has a long but flawed history. The father of the Indian constitution and iconic Dalit leader Dr Ambedkar warned that if all Indians were equal on paper, actually existing Indian society was deeply hierarchical. For decades, a wide cross-section of social and political forces defended and fought for secular principles in spite of societal resistance. Today, the Hindu right has been mainstreamed to a degree that was unimaginable even when the Babri Masjid demolition took place.

While organisations such as the RSS were created in the 1920s, they remained sleeping giants until the turn of the century. In Modi’s India, the Hindu right has fully ingrained itself in society through welfare groups, religious mobilisation and ideological campaigns. Its vigilante role is like the religious right in Pakistan, but one step ahead: it also wins elections.

Economy and environment: Since the end of the Cold War, India has enjoyed exalted status as a major success story of neoliberal globalisation. It has been lionised as the world’s software and pharmaceutical outsourcing hub, has produced glittering spectacles like the IPL, boasts the world’s biggest film industry and has been described as home to a huge middle class.

While India is not overburdened by a military-run corporate empire and its economy has a stronger productive base, the myth of prosperity now rings hollow. Tens of millions fell into poverty during and after the pandemic and inequality has reached earth-shattering proportions: the richest one per cent of Indians today have a bigger share of income than the same ruling class did under British rule.

Meanwhile, big industrial conglomerates like the Ambanis and Tatas pillage India’s peripheries along with mu­ltinational ca­­p­ital for minerals and other na­­tu­r­­al resources. In­­di­genous populations and nature in Orissa, Jhar­k­and and Bihar are expropriated in ways similar to the Baloch and other peripheries here.

Foreign policy: India once championed the Palestinian cause. Today, it is aligned with the murderous Zionist regime, and clamours to be the right-hand of US imperialism. It certainly enjoys autonomy in trade relations with powers like Russia but Modi’s India puts to shame the once proud legacy of a country that led the Non-Aligned Movement. In the realm of Indo-Pak ties, Modi has mirrored the reactionary forces that demonise the ‘other’ to appease hawkish galleries.

Pakistan and India are both home to very young populations, ecological crises and toxic politics. They are not the same, but their disturbingly similar trajectories will only change if enough of us on both sides coalesce around progressive alternatives that speak the language of a wider South Asian post-capitalist peace. Popular, democratic impulses in both countries’ peripheries give us hope. But the time to build a critical mass of support in the mainstream is running out.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2024

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