In 2002, when Gujarat was aflame with communal violence that lasted for three months and led to the deaths of over 2000 Muslims, Narendra Modi, then the Chief Minister of the state, was accused of being complicit in the pogrom both by using inflammatory language that incited Hindus to engage in violence against Muslims, and by presiding over a government machinery that did little or nothing to protect the Muslim community. Over the course of the past decade, even though dozens of people have been successfully prosecuted for the parts they played in orchestrating and carrying out the massacres of 2002, Modi himself was exonerated by a Special Investigation Team appointed by the Indian Supreme Court. This was despite the existence of considerable evidence that suggested otherwise. Indeed, it was the strength of these allegations that prompted the governments of the US and the UK to break off relations with Modi and refuse him entry into their countries.

Scholars working on the subject of communal violence in South Asia have long pointed towards the fact that ‘riots’ are rarely spontaneous. More often than not, incidents of large-scale religious violence are planned and executed with cynical precision in order to achieve concrete economic and political goals that have little, if anything, to do with entrenched religious differences or disputes. In the case of the Modi administration in Gujarat, it was argued that the communal discord of 2002 served to play an important electoral role for the BJP, galvanizing the support of the party’s predominantly Hindu vote bank in the run-up to the state-level legislative elections held later that year. For critics of the BJP and its brand of Hindu nationalist politics, these events served to confirm the notion that a government controlled by this party, and headed by a man considered by many to be the architect of the violence in 2002, would have disastrous consequences for India’s Muslims. Indeed, since the collapse of the hegemony of the Congress party in the late 1980s, there is considerable evidence to show that Muslims in India have been experiencing greater amounts of discrimination and marginalization. As a group, they are amongst the most socioeconomically disadvantaged in India, and the indifference shown towards them by the state has been exacerbated over time by the hostility generated from events like the terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008.

For some commentators in Pakistan, the election of Narendra Modi and the condition of India’s Muslims essentially vindicates the idea of Pakistan as a nation that was formed to escape Hindu tyranny. However, those who make this argument confuse cause with effect. Disagreeable as Modi undoubtedly is, it has to be recognized that he is the product of a political party that has espoused an exclusionary nationalist narrative itself rooted in the experiences of 1947. The communal hostility that was generated in the years leading up to Partition, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the division of the subcontinent, cast a long shadow over politics in both India and Pakistan. When Jinnah and the Muslim League used Islam as a basis upon which to mobilize political support for Pakistan, and when groups like the RSS and elements within the Congress responded by appealing to Hindu sentiment, the groundwork was laid for the subsequent communalization of politics in South Asia.

The effects of this on both sides of the border have been clear. In India, communal violence and the generally underprivileged state of the Muslim community run counter to the principles of secularism and socialism that were part of Nehru’s original vision for the country. In Pakistan, Islam has been used a means through which to suppress any and all dissent that runs counter to the interests of the political and military establishment. Islam and the threat of the Hindu, Indian ‘Other’ remains the raison d’être of the Pakistani military, justifying both the tremendous expense involved in its maintenance, and its expanded role in the country’s politics. The notion of Pakistan as a united Islamic polity has also been the basis upon which the genuine grievances of the country’s smaller provinces have been ignored, as is currently the case in Balochistan. For the Taliban and other Islamist militant outfits, themselves products of the military’s attempts to wage war against India through proxies, Pakistan’s identity as an ‘Islamic’ state justifies their ideological appeals to Shariah. For Pakistan’s political parties, it is not uncommon to invoke Islam as a means through which to acquire legitimacy. After all, lest we forget, Nawaz Sharif himself sought to become the ‘Khalifa’ of Pakistan when he attempted to have the 15th Amendment to the Constitution passed during his previous term in government. Finally, private citizens themselves have often taken it upon themselves to become the custodians of morality and the ‘national interest’, using Islam to legitimize all manner of actions, ranging from spurious allegations of blasphemy to honour killings. In both India and Pakistan, the cost of politicizing religion and emphasizing exclusionary nationalist identities has been disproportionately borne by ethnic and religious minorities, as well as by women.

Here, it is important to note that, to a very large extent, the BJP was able to defeat the Congress because it promised economic development and an end to corruption. While it is impossible to know if the new government will be able to deliver on its electoral pledges, it is abundantly clear from Modi’s record in Gujarat that the model of development he and his party favour is one that is rooted capitalist economic growth that benefits a small minority at the expense of the majority. Not coincidentally, it is the same model that is championed by Nawaz Sharif. This is where the real irony of South Asian politics can be seen. India and Pakistan are both home to some of the poorest and most marginalized people on earth. The sheer scale of poverty and deprivation in the two countries is staggering, and yet there is little indication that the governments on both sides are committed to addressing this state of affairs. Instead, the defence establishments and political parties on both sides invoke each other to legitimize their power, deflecting attention away from more pressing issues of public policy that might have a more direct impact on the lives of average Pakistanis and Indians. Skirmishes on the Line of Control are guaranteed to raise approval ratings for governments in India and Pakistan, even as they weaken labour laws, withdraw subsidies, and privatize state assets by handing them over to a select few crony capitalists.

In 1997, the renowned Pakistani economist Mahbub-ul-Haq argued that if India and Pakistan were to reduce or even freeze their military expenditure, the resulting ‘peace dividend’ would yield sufficient resources to fund universal primary education and other social programmes throughout the subcontinent. Instead, India and Pakistan have chosen to follow a different trajectory, one in which the animosity between the two countries continues to fuel a ludicrously expensive arms race. To the extent that the problems in India and Pakistan, particularly in terms of exclusionary communal politics, can be attributed to their enduring hostility and the maintenance of their expensive rivalry, it is clear that peace in South Asia is a necessary prerequisite for improving the lives of the hundreds of millions of people in the region who continue to live in poverty.

In this context, the announcement that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will be visiting Delhi next week to attend the swearing-in ceremony of his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi is welcome news. Modi’s decision to extend an invitation to Nawaz Sharif, and the latter’s acceptance of this offer, are both positive steps that augur well for the future of the peace process in South Asia. We can only hope that the meeting between the two leaders will be the start of a fruitful engagement that finally manages to exorcise the ghosts of partition.

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.