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India and Pakistan share more than a border

22 August 2023

By Claire Thomas, Co-Executive Director of Minority Rights Group

Despite their differences, India and Pakistan have a lot in common: a birth (14-15 August 1947), a (contested) border, and a strong current of religious fundamentalism that shapes politics. Religious persecution and hatred – of Muslims, of Hindus, and many other religious minorities – have in these neighbouring countries become vital tools for the concentration of power.

In both states, this spills over into violence.

In majority-Hindu India, religious celebrations regularly function as window-dressing for Hindu extremists to attack Muslim minority communities, often resulting in deadly violence. It is not solely Muslims who are affected; in December, mobs burned effigies of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Meanwhile in Pakistan, an attack on a Christian community last week saw churches vandalized and homes set on fire. The country’s Ahmadi community, forbidden by law from describing themselves as Muslim, was recently barred from celebrating the Islamic festival Eid-ul-Adha. They live in daily fear of targeted hate speech and violence.

Each year on 22nd August we unite to remember victims of such acts, as we observe the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. Many such awareness days are dedicated to a specific group or community: to Indigenous Peoples, Afro-Descendants, or people with a disability, to name a few. They are not confined to the past. Today is different, as we are called to look back at what has happened and ensure it is remembered. The fact that it is limited in this way is symbolic of the sensitivity religion holds in international diplomacy.

Nonetheless, I cannot bring myself to mark this day by looking only at history. I ask you to consider the future with me, to think about where we will be in just one year’s time – 22 August 2024.

By then, both India and Pakistan should have held general elections. Campaigning for next year has begun, and, predictably, religion is already being weaponized in both states to rally support and sling mud at opponents. By this time next year, will the parties which scapegoat and demonize religious minorities have succeeded once more in mobilizing hatred for political advantage? Will democratic forces have been able to stem the tide of hate speech, online and offline, where slurs mingle with incitements to murder religious minorities? As the electoral dust settles, will graves have been dug, will repairs to damaged homes and businesses be underway? Will the widespread violence we are already witnessing in both states escalate into mass crimes or genocide?

The point of history, of commemorating past events, is to learn their lessons. It is not enough for the international community, for us, to say phrases like ‘never again’; we must show we mean them through concrete action.

Thankfully, hate is not the majority view. 84 per cent of Indians feel that respecting other faiths is a core national value. Intolerance is rising in Pakistan, but 68 per cent of Pakistanis would not mind having people of different religions as their neighbours. So why does it feel like the tide of hatred is rising all around? Why do some rank Pakistan the country at highest risk of mass killing, with India rapidly rising to eighth place?

Hate speech wins elections. It preys on fear, and it is highly contagious. Challenging it is central to overturning majoritarianism the world over. Ending it requires a social media savvy electorate which doesn’t take everything seen onscreen at face value. It requires politicians brave enough and with sufficient integrity to win favour without scapegoating. Big tech needs to get serious about addressing its opaque algorithms and ineffectual content moderation that have proved capable of feeding a genocide. We need the press and social media to inform us, not enrage us for clicks. Civil society has the power to challenge hate speech, but as governments around the world crack down on civic space, we must all support initiatives that protect it.

We cannot abandon those facing religious persecution to fight it on their own. Commemoration without action in the present dishonours the victims this day remembers.

By this time next year, will I still be asking the same questions? Most probably.

But if there are more of us united in taking action to create a better world for religious minorities, at least I will know we are taking steps in the right direction.

Photo: Christians protesting the August 2023 attack on churches in Jaranwala, at Karachi press club, Pakistan. 18 August 2023. Credit: Pakistan Press International (PPI)/Alamy Stock Photo