Is India the New Pakistan?

Forget about the tireless efforts the military and the mullahs in Pakistan make to manufacture and promote a state-sponsored anti-India narrative. There has always existed a parallel "people's narrative" in Pakistan about India that has historically remained popular among the country's young aspiring musicians and artists. This alternative narrative interestingly has several attributes similar to the words and phrases that describe the "American dream".

According to this narrative, emerging Pakistani artists have believed for generations that the Indian showbiz industry is so welcoming and rewarding that no matter who you are and where you come from; if you work hard, you will make it to the top. People will not judge you based on your country of origin or the religion you follow. The narrative continued to thrive year after year because this promise recurrently proved itself true.

In 1980, for instance, a fifteen-year old teenage Pakistani girl, Nazia Hassan, became an overnight sensation in India by singing the song Aap Jaisa Koi for the movie Qurbani, which is now cited as South Asia's first pop song. While Nazia, only after performing in India, became a big star, the then military regime in Pakistan headed by the orthodox Muslim dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, remained deeply hostile to Nazia and her brother, Zohaib, who also regularly performed with her on the stage.

The Nazia-Zohaib songs were barely aired on the Pakistan Television because General Zia was predominantly a denier of women's rights and freedoms. India remained such an attractive destination for ambitious Pakistani youth that even from the deeply conservative province of Balochistan, a twenty-year old girl, Zeba Bakhtiar, risked antagonizing the religious right in the pursuit of her dreams to work in Bollywood movies. In 1991, she played the lead actress role in the romantic movie Henna.

Afterward, many more gifted Pakistani artists who felt underappreciated at home and desperately needed a gigantic market, instant fame and big money and, above all, less social pressure moved to India. Iconic singers like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Adnan Sami, (and more recently) Atif Aslam and Ali Zafar and Sufi rock bands like Junoon and Fuzön all took their work to unimaginable heights of success after breaking into the Indian market. India was one place where Veena Malik, a model and actress from Pakistan, even went on to experiment with nudity on the cover page of a fashion magazine with an ISI tattoo (referring to the country's pro-Taliban spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence) and work in erotic movies.

However, that decades-old Indian dream has suddenly been interrupted not only for the Pakistanis but even many Indians, especially the Muslims living in the Hindu-majority nation. Since the election of the Hindu right-wing prime minister, Narendra Modi, India, the world's largest democracy, is rapidly and alarmingly transforming into an unwelcoming, intolerant and violent place. Assertive Hindu extremists have begun to trample over the country's democratic and pluralistic values.

Vikram Seth, the influential Indian novelist and poet, is right in arguing that the greatest thing the world has to lean from India is not information technology or yoga. It is just how people from so many religions and cultures live together.

"This is our most precious psychological resource," he said in a recent interview, "today, I have Christen friends who feel less at home in their own country [India]; I have Muslim friends who feel threatened."

This month has particularly witnessed a dramatic surge in xenophobia in India where Hindu extremist activists forced to cancel a concert of Ghulam Ali, a seventy-four year old legendary Urdu singer from Pakistan who is equally popular in India, in Mumbai. On October 12, in what the NDTV called as the "brazen display of shaming India", members of the same extremist group, the Shiv Sena, who had previously demanded the cancelation of a book launch event featuring the author and Pakistan's former foreign minister, attacked the organizer with black paint.

On October 19, Shiv Sena, whose operatives broke into the offices of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), succeeded in disrupting talks between the cricket authorities of the two countries. The talks were meant to find a way to resume cricket matches between India and Pakistan. On the same day, the International Cricket Council (ICC) announced the withdrawal of Aleem Dar, a Pakistani umpire, from matches between India and South Africa because, according to the ICC, "under the present circumstances, it will be unreasonable to expect from Aleem that he will be able to perform his duties to the best of his abilities."

Prime Minister Modi has failed to discourage and punish extremists and guard India's great democratic values. The rise in anti-Pakistan sentiments and activities among the far-right Hindus coincide with another unprecedented yet unrelated movement by dozens of distinguished Indian writers and poets to return their literary awards in protest against the shrinking space for free speech in India.

The Indians justifiably insist that they need no lectures of tolerance from Pakistan. However, Pakistan still makes a great case study for them to assess the catastrophic consequences of mixing religion with politics. If Pakistan could not become the haven of peace and tolerance by patronizing and enforcing one religion (i.e. Islam), India can't either.

What is happening in India today is reminiscent of the Pakistani experience. For example, when the Taliban initially began to curtail civil liberties in remote parts of Pakistan, policymakers and opinion leaders distanced themselves arguing that their actions did not represent the majority of the Muslims. The government believed Pakistan, a country with nuclear weapons, was easily capable of controlling the Taliban. Pakistanis would get offended if you asked them if their country was the new Afghanistan (with respect to the Taliban rule).

Hence, lack of action on the part of the Pakistani government and silence from the "silent majority" population ultimately led to the paralysis of the whole society. The Taliban made advancements from rural towns to the nation's capital. They grew so powerful that they could easily attack Pakistan's most important civil and military installations whenever and wherever they wanted. In spite of the massive damage the Taliban have caused, many Pakistanis still remain in a perpetual state of denial and one often hears them say, "Well, they [the Taliban] cannot be Muslims" or "they are all foreign-funded terrorists."

Pakistan does not have a success story to teach India how to grapple with religious intolerance. Nonetheless, India can still learn from Pakistan where we experimented with mixing religion and politics. And, in a nutshell, it sucks! People do have the right to believe that their religion is awesome but that awesomeness should not come at the cost of someone else's freedoms. India will remain a great model for the rest of the world as long as it stays a democratic, pluralistic and secular society. With no religion, should India, or any other country, trade precious values like democracy, tolerance and individual freedoms.