February 12, 2006Foreign AffairsPublic Policy

Best to keep religion out of it

Indian leaders must stop using religious events to make trips to Pakistan

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

L K Advani did it last year. Jaswant Singh did one recently. And Dr Manmohan Singh intends to do it in June. Senior politicians from India, it appears, have all decided to open places of worship, head pilgrimages or lead religious processions in Pakistan. If using cricket as a platform for diplomacy is getting banal, using religion goes against the secular identity of the Indian state. It also makes very bad political sense.

It does not befit India’s leaders, especially those who hold constitutional office (both L K Advani and Dr Singh do), to assert their religious identity in their official capacity. When they do so within India, it may be argued, though tenously, that it is in their personal capacities. But they must use tremendous discretion while doing so abroad. More so when it comes to Pakistan, for it is no ordinary abroad’. It is a state which came about on the premise that religion and politics cannot be separated. Therefore it is positively mindless of India’s politicians to appear to suggest to the Pakistani people that India is after all, a Hindu’, Sikh’, Christian’ or whatever country — anything but the secular one that it is. If at all India needs to hold up the example of a secular state, it is in its immediate neighbourhood. It is as necessary to uphold secularism in foreign affairs as it is in domestic ones.

And conveying wrong impressions to the Pakistani people is not the only place where it makes poor political sense. The lack of religious freedom is a problem in Pakistan. Its minorities live in constant fear of blasphemy laws and official discrimination. For many Indians (including this blogger), Jizya, the religious tax which Islamic rulers imposed on their non-Muslim subjects was something to be found in history books. As Amit Varma discovered, it is very much alive in parts of Pakistan to this day. The plight of those Pakistanis, so often citizens belonging to its religious minorities, who are charged under blasphemy laws is more well-known. Although the government of Pakistan’s Punjab province, under Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervez Elahi has made attempts to reach out to the Sikhs, by and large the picture remains one of religious intolerance. High-profile visits to Hindu and Sikh places of worship by Indian leaders gives the Pakistani government an opportunity to show off its tolerance’ to the international media. It is unclear why the Indian prime minister and the Opposition leader have to provide celebrity endorsement for Pakistan’s dubious product.

If religion becomes either an excuse or worse, the basis for bilateral diplomacy, it may cause Gen Musharraf one day to ask to address his fellow religionists in India from the Jama Masjid at New Delhi. Is this a scenario that the Indian government finds desirable?

Given the state of affairs, there is little reason for the Indian prime minister to visit Pakistan except to discuss official business. For that he should not need an excuse. Neither cricket nor religious events are necessary as pretexts. For all other reasons there is the telephone.

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