The death of Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh in Bangalore on September 6 is confirmation of the Modi government’s role in rising extremism and hate in the country. Her writing against Hindu nationalism and online threats from Hindutva activists online make this an open and shut case – while those who pulled the trigger are yet to be identified, it is clear that the rising intolerance against anyone that questions the jingoistic narrative in India is the real reason for the respected journalist’s death outside her house.
Pakistan is no stranger to this; what started with the Bhutto and Zia governments’ attempts to Islamise the country through the declaration of Ahmedis as non-Muslims and the Hudood Ordinances has now culminated into full-blown hate against minorities, anyone even accused of committing blasphemy and all those who dare probe too deeply in matters deemed too sensitive for discussion.
Pakistan’s road towards intolerance was never straight and without obstacles – gradual and incremental changes alongside spineless decisions made by successive governments led to a point where the governor of the most populous province in the country was assassinated by a member of his own security detail, who was turned into a martyr with his remains enshrined and is still hero-worshipped.
Each life lost through the misuse of religion for personal or political gain has had a lasting effect on the level of intolerance in the country. The deaths of Salmaan Taseer, Rashid Rehman, Shahbaz Bhatti and countless others have not only led to voices being silenced, but are direct reasons for fewer voices being raised in the future. Debates on the blasphemy law are avoided by members of the intelligentsia, politicians and journalists alike, because the outcome might result in death.
More specifically for journalists however, the possibility of losing their lives as a direct result of what they write is something they accept as a potential hazard – an inescapable fact even – and the lack of protection offered by the state does not offer any comfort either. But beyond what a journalist accepts as given, the death of Gauri Lankesh pinpoints two glaring problems with the Modi government’s failure to curb – and many times even encourage – the rising intolerance in the country; the lack of room afforded to the media to deviate from the given nationalist narrative and the rise of hatred and intolerance that was not as pervasive before.
A quick comparison of the narratives peddled by major media houses of both neighbours is enough to demonstrate the problem faced by India; Pakistani media circles feature polar views, outright criticism of the government – with blatant and often biased character assassinations on occasion – while mainstream media in India (barring a few exceptions) is pretty much saying the same thing; Pakistan is the enemy and India is well on its path to becoming a global power.
The Modi government’s rise was on the back of nationalist fervour and anti-Pakistan propaganda in any case, and there is a very thin line for that rhetoric to slip from anti-Pakistan and pro-Hindu to anti-Muslim and anti-liberal. The Gujrat riots under Modi’s time as Chief Minister, his allegations against Pakistan or even his time in RSS as a youth can be ignored, but the silence of a sitting Prime Minister over the murder of a journalist at the hands of the ideological children of the BJP speaks volumes. Condemnations only matter if they are issued immediately; any face-saving measure by the government is of no use now.
The start of a dangerous new trend, killing Muslims suspected of eating beef is also a clear signal of the current ideological trajectory of the eastern neighbour. With the government’s failure to control Hindu nationalists and mobs from attacking Muslims over perceived insults, it is clear that a secular country such as India can just as easily become as intolerant as the neighbour it professes to be so different from.
Ultimately, rising intolerance in both India and Pakistan means the same thing; shrinking space for the freedom of expression and the inability to have diverse opinions and belief systems. Strategic and nationalist interests aside, this is good for neither country, nor for the region at large. Free thought is the lynchpin of progress, and each individual murdered in the name of flawed and misguided attempts to make the country ‘great’ or more ‘united’ is a resounding blow against tangible improvements in granting citizens the freedom to question the accepted narrative. Gauri Lankesh’s death will be remembered as a dark day in the history of India, and with the Modi government’s silence, it looks like more dark days loom ahead.