In August 1947, as their nations were born amid flames, mass rape and some of the 20th century’s bloodiest ethnic massacres, leaders of a fledgling India warned that Pakistanis had erred in insisting on their own country. Many contemporary observers might call them prescient. While Pakistan is now a nuclear power with a GDP per capita not too far behind India’s, it is rife with extremism, burdened by debt, led by weak and corrupt civilian politicians and dominated by an army that dictates affairs of state despite having lost every war it has fought.
Before gloating, however, Indians should recall why exactly Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah was so determined to carve a Muslim-majority homeland out of the former British India: He predicted the rights of Muslims would be at risk in a country dominated by Hindus.
Seventy-five years later, India is in danger of proving him right. Under a right-wing, Hindu nationalist government since 2014, led by charismatic Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the country has grown distinctly hostile toward its Muslim population — the world’s third largest. Indian Muslims have been targeted by politicians, the media and vigilante mobs. Their rights have been eroded and their place in society diminished. The country that fought so bitterly against partition now appears intent on confirming its central logic.
At the time, of course, fear of discrimination wasn’t the only factor motivating Pakistan’s proponents. Muslim landowners saw an opportunity to usurp rich farmlands. Preachers envisioned a society run according to Islamic principles. Peasants were told they’d finally be free of the yoke of Hindu moneylenders. Even the lawyerly Jinnah was not above occasional demagoguery, darkly intoning that Hindus and Muslims were too different ever to live together in peace.
Still, Jinnah’s main fear was how little power Muslims would wield in a united India. That’s what drove the initial break with his former allies in the Indian National Congress party — including Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister— a decade before independence. And it’s why Jinnah retracted his support for a last-minute compromise brokered by the British in 1946, after Nehru intimated that the Congress would not honor the agreement once the British were gone.
Partition very nearly proved Jinnah’s case. Somewhere between 200,000 and two million Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were killed within a few short weeks of independence; 14 million were uprooted from their homes. The biggest massacres arguably began with attacks on Muslim villages on the Indian side of the new border.
India’s founding fathers, however, risked their lives to undercut Jinnah’s argument. When riots spread to the Indian capital Delhi and police and petty government officials joined in pogroms targeting Muslims, Nehru took to the streets, remonstrating with mobs and giving public speeches promoting communal harmony while only lightly guarded. He insisted the government machinery exert itself to protect Muslims as well as Hindus.
With even members of his cabinet convinced that India would be better off without tens of millions of citizens suspected of split loyalties, Nehru barely prevailed. The pressure to expel Muslims only really subsided months later after a Hindu fanatic assassinated the revered Gandhi, shocking the cabinet into unity and prompting public revulsion against Hindu bigotry.
That consensus and the rights enshrined in India’s secular constitution largely preserved religious harmony in India for more than seven decades. Al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups made few inroads among Indian Muslims, even as jihadists flourished in nearby countries. While sectarian riots have repeatedly broken out, especially after provocations such as the 1992 demolition of a mosque in Ayodhya to make way for a Hindu temple, tensions have for the most part remained local and limited. And even if Indian Muslims faced discrimination and were on average poorer and less well-educated than Hindus, few doubted that they were full citizens — especially when their votes were needed at election time.
What makes the changes that have proliferated under Modi so dispiriting and dangerous is their corrosive impact on those feelings of belonging. The problem isn’t even so much the most horrific cases of bigotry, including dozens of lynchings of Muslims around the country. Those at least still draw outrage in some quarters, as well as international attention.
What’s worse is the steady and widely accepted marginalization of India’s nearly 200 million Muslims. An overheated and jingoistic media portrays them as potential fifth columnists, who should “go back” to a Pakistan most have never visited if they don’t like the new India. (Pakistani sponsorship of extremist groups that have carried out brutal attacks in India has exacerbated fears of an internal threat.) There’s widespread acceptance of hate speech, including open calls to exterminate Muslims. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has pursued laws that threaten to disenfranchise millions of them.
Indeed, an Indian state once convinced of its duty to protect minorities now seems unremittingly hostile. Prejudice has seeped into the courts and the police, as well as all levels of government. Laws have accepted at face value ludicrous conspiracy theories such as “love jihad” — the idea that Muslim men are romancing Hindu women in order to convert them. Modi’s decision to strip Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, of its constitutionally guaranteed autonomy has made clear that even enshrined protections are vulnerable.
Meanwhile, at the federal level, Muslims’ share of political power is dwindling. Though they make up more than 14% of the population, they account for less than 4% of members of the lower house of parliament. Among the BJP’s 395 members of parliament there isn’t a single Muslim.
True, India remains a democracy not an authoritarian state, with powerful regional politicians and some brave and independent activists and journalists. In states where Muslims make up a larger share of the voting population, they have been better able to defend their rights. Nor is India the only country where politicians and media figures are fanning ethno-nationalism for partisan gain.
Yet the trend lines are ominous. India’s political opposition is weak and divided. The mainstream media has caricatured Muslims to a degree that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. The northern Hindi belt is bursting with millions of undereducated, underemployed and angry young men. Politicians there and elsewhere know it is far easier to direct those frustrations at defenseless scapegoats than it is to fix schools and create jobs.
Modi likes to call India the “mother of democracy.” But the central test of a democracy is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens — whether their rights are protected and their views heard. Nehru and India’s other founding fathers saw it as their most basic duty to prove Jinnah wrong, forging a pluralistic India that would thrive because of its diversity not despite it. Three quarters of a century later, Indians should ask themselves whether they, not their former brethren across the border, are the ones now making a mistake.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• India’s Leaders Shouldn’t Keep Playing With Fire: Mihir Sharma
• Pakistan’s Political Crisis Is an Energy Crisis: David Fickling
• In Kashmir, India Is Making a Momentous Mistake: Editorial
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Nisid Hajari is a member of the Bloomberg editorial board covering foreign affairs. A former managing editor at Newsweek and an editor and foreign correspondent for Time, he is author of “Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition.”
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