Best to keep religion out of it

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

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.

13 thoughts on “Best to keep religion out of it”

  1. Nitin,

    I see no problem with Indian leaders visiting Hindu and Sikh temples (or any other place of worship) when traveling to Pakistan. Many of the temples visited are significant to the two religious traditions. Nankana Saheb, for instance, is where Sikhism all began. Indian leaders routinely visit Buddhist shrines when in Sri Lanka. The visits foster inter-religious dialogue and in the instance of Pakistan provides moral support to the concept of religious pluralism.

    Let us examine three other secular countries, i.e. the United States, Japan and Mexico. President Bush, like previous American Presidents, visits church regularly both in the United States and overseas. He participated in a Sunday service when in Beijing. Clinton was the same.

    Japan’s Koizumi is noted for his visits to Shinto shrines despite court rulings advicing him against such high profile visits in his official capacity. He is quick to retort that the visits were in his “private” capacity. It is a fine line that one draws. The President of Mexico, Vincente Fox, also makes it a point to visit churches – if only to make a statement. In fact, the “Lady of Guadelupe” had figured in his campaign flag. Why should India be any different?

    If secularism implies that one can not visit a place of worship of ones choice either in ones country or abroad, then I suppose its demise would be inevitable. It should not be confused with anti-religion much like the Indian left tends to do!

    Best regards

  2. Jaffna,

    Improving inter-religious understanding or supporting the cause of religious pluralism in Pakistan are nice to have, even if India’s constitutional officers really have no business indulging in such ventures. But you will agree that visiting shrines in Sri Lanka is quite a different matter from visiting them in Pakistan. There’s that nasty business of Partition, and the insecurity in Pakistan’s national psyche. Moreover, I don’t see why India needs to change how Pakistanis want to run their country. If they prefer to organise their state around one religion, then that’s their choice, if it is achieved through democratic means. If it is religious tolerance that Indian leaders seek to demonstrate, then they should do so at home. They’d do better to advertise separation of religion from the state (where India has done quite well), rather than religious harmony (where the record leaves a lot to be desired).

    As for American presidents visiting Beijing churches or Koizumi doing his Yasukuni round, their motives are clearly political. The statements they make must be seen in the particular contexts in their international relations. Why, for example, don’t American presidents attend Christian services in Saudi Arabia?

    I’m not suggesting that secularism should preclude leaders from visiting religious places during trips abroad. As I wrote, they must use tremendous discretion when doing so. For reasons I mention in the post, using religion as pretext for visits to Pakistan is not a good way to go.

  3. Gentlemen:

    While usual dealing with Pakistan, I am with Nitin, no bhai-bhai. The rest (like Srilankan prez visiting Guruvayoor) are welcome to visit Indian shrines. But this one is different!

    Read this interesting trip report on Jassu-bhais visit to Balochistan. This phrase caught my attention:

    Enter Jaswant Singh. The man from Jaisalmer pestered the Pakistan government into allowing him to lead a group of Indian pilgrims by road from India to Baluchistan. Even for Singh, whose persuasive skills have put him in the race for the UN secretary generalship, it was not easy. But Singh was not one to give up easily. He met the Indian Prime Minister who agreed to speak to Pervez Musharraf and only then did Islamabad relent.

    The adaptation of Hinglaj in the Hindu family was thus good politics. In the absence of local history, it is difficult to say when all this happened. But a distinguished scholar, David Gordon White, professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in his book on Siddha tradition claims that a fourth century Greek geographer, called Ctesias, has referred to Hinglaj in his work.

    Indian diplomats are rarely allowed a peep into this side of the world. The Jaswant Singh trip was, in a sense, a godsend.

    There was no harm in pushing our luck, reasoned the Indians and requested a ‘recce’ trip. No deal, said Islamabad. Can we at least send an officer a day in advance to Hinglaj so that he can go through the arrangement and is in situ to welcome the Indian leader of the Opposition? the official tried again.

    I think Indian diplomats were testing water in this case to see how far the Pakis entertained! Seems like they had fun at Paki govt’s expense – good for them.

  4. Nitin,

    Ok, let us agree to disagree here. The United States is insistent that its troops serving in Sa’udi Arabia have access to church and synogogue. US officials do join their soldiers in sunday service/saturday shabbat when traveling there.

    Pakistani officials routinely visit Ajmer while traveling to India. Likewise, there is no harm if Indian officials visit Hindu/Sikh places of worship when traveling to Pakistan. It is not about bhai-bhai, it is simply a matter of venerating places of immense religious importance to ones personal faith. As I mentioned, Nankana Saheb would be a pilgrimage of a life time. Who would want to miss that?

    Anyway regardless of what we might argue, Indian officials will continue to visit Pakistan and many will continue to drop by places of worship while doing so as well. And thank god for that 🙂


  5. Jaffna, I agree whole-heartedly with Nitin here. Pakistan is a special case as Nitin pointed out – quite unlike Sri Lanka, and much more like Saudi Arabia. The existence of Jaziya was an eye-opener. It’s not about the people – it’s about the system. Official or semi-official visits give these dictators unnecessary credibility – and enhance their non-existent moderate credentials.

  6. I don’t think anything would be wrong if Indian leaders (whether from BJP or Congress) go there just for religious purposes. It’ll atleast push the focus on minorities in Pakistan, and the establishment will be forced to take some liberal steps towards them.

    The military leadership in Pakistan will continue to exist even if Indians choose to ignore them.

  7. “They’d do better to advertise separation of religion from the state (where India has done quite well),”

    India has done well in seperating church and state ?

    The Indian government runs temples, funds religious schools (only non-hindu, article 30), funds the religious activities of private individuals and does a lot of other crap that blatantly violates seperation of church and state.

    It’s not just the saffronists either, Indian ‘secularists’ do the same or worse in order to try and win votes.

  8. meh,

    Alas! You are right. It is unfortunate that secularism in the Indian context only means the lack of an official state religion.

  9. I am a Pakistani, living in Hyderabad, Sindh. The same place where Advanis came from. I think what is bothering you is that the image of Pakistan is enhanced when international media cover these trips and report how well managed, protected and served are the minorities places of worship. The welcome the indian guests recieved is also warm. What is the harm if credit is given where it is due? Furthermore it is the fact that Hindu places of worship are very well maintained in Pakistan especially in Sindh and Balochistan.
    There are deep historical ties among neighboring states of Sindh, Rajasthan and Gujarat. Let people to people contact ( politicians included) built up and think positively. It really hurts when our good intentions are misinterpreted.

  10. Masd

    This is not so much about how Pakistan treats visiting delegations from India, or how historical/religious sites are maintained, or even about people-to-people contacts. Those are all matter for anothe debate. This one is about the constitutional propriety and political wisdom of Indian leaders and their use of religion as an excuse (or platform).

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