NEW DELHI: Imran Khan’s comment on minorities in India, made with regard to Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah’s recent remarks, has sparked a definite controversy across borders with politicians, actors, sportsmen and civil society members jumping into the fray.

Khan’s comment, that he would teach India how to treat minorities and that Mohammad Ali Jinnah had foreseen what was coming in India, drew sharp criticism not just from Shah himself but also from cricketer Mohammad Kaif and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi.

Almost all the attacks thrown at Imran Khan mentioned the problems faced by minorities within Pakistan, and drew Khan’s attention towards inclusiveness and diversity as an underlying principle of the Indian constitution.

The most recent reaction came from former RSS and current BJP leader Ram Madhav who said, “When Imran Khan or Pakistan talk about fair dealing of minorities, it’s like devil preaching Vedas.”

Beyond the rhetoric, if one looks at the two countries’ record in terms of violence against religious minorities, and the discrimination practised against them, both India and Pakistan have been in a close race to the bottom. In the last two decades both nations have shown great reluctance to protect minorities in their respective countries.

Historian KN Pannikar, at a recent seminar in Delhi, underlined the success of fundamentalist forces in gaining power in both countries as a major reason for this.

“The success of fundamentalist forces in gaining access to state power, in varying degrees of control, and thus exercising influence over the government, has brought about a social and political climate inimical to the interest of the minorities. At the same time liberal support which is crucial for minorities’ well being has become substantially weaker and uncertain. The partition of the subcontinent had already undermined the sense of security minorities enjoyed, jeopardising the social peace which characterised community relations,” Pannikar said.

After Partition, the constitutions drafted by both countries resolved to treat all citizens equally. However, minorities on both sides have been subjected to large scale violence, even at the hands of the state, suppression through discriminatory laws and everyday forms of discrimination.

Many observers agree that things have become worse in the last two or three decades. According to figures tabled in 2012 by the government of Pakistan, religious minorities in that country which formed 23% of the population in 1947 came down to 4% in 2012.

A recent Human Rights Watch report on minorities in Pakistan states that 19 people are still on death row there after being convicted under the draconian Blasphemy Law, and hundreds are awaiting trial.

There were largescale protests across Pakistan by right wing Islamist groups after Asia Bibi was acquitted by Supreme Court of blasphemy charges earlier this year.

According to the report, in 2017 “Pakistan witnessed an increase in blasphemy related violence while the government continued discriminatory prosecutions. Provisions of Pakistan’s penal code that perpetuate discrimination against members of the Ahmadi religious community remained unchanged.”

The situation pertaining to minorities in India has been more or less the same. India which has for long boasted about its secular and democratic traditions, is today fourth from the bottom in the world on indicators of religious tolerance, according to a report by the Pew Research Center based in Washington, D.C.

Amusingly, Pakistan ranks higher than India on this scale. The report further states that tension between religious groups has long divided India, but that such rifts have increased greatly since 2015.

The major takeaway from an Indian perspective is that despite legal provisions for safety, minorities here face high levels of restriction on their activities. The country has also experienced extremely high levels of social hostility over the past decade.

This is exacerbated by the open or undercover participation of the state. A 2018 report by Human Rights Watch on minorities in India states that the government consistently failed to prevent or credibly investigate attacks against minorities in India.

Laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Public Security Act, and state laws prohibiting ‘cow slaughter’ have too often been used by governments in a bid to alienate and oppress minorities. Arbitrary arrests harm youths’ employment prospects. Cow slaughter laws attack minorities’ livelihoods.

Reacting to the blame and bragging by politicians on either side of the border, minority activists in Pakistan believe that merely pointing fingers and scoring points won’t solve much. Is there a genuine conviction in both countries’ establishments to emerge as democracies? If so, they say the respective governments must consider such research findings by reputed organisations and act on them, as a matter of concern beyond electoral calculations.

Kapil Dev, a minority rights activist in Pakistan associated with United Nations work in the country, told The Citizen that “the situation of religious minorities in both neighbouring countries has not been ideal. In such a situation, the statement by our prime minister is a positive move. It will put more onus of responsibility on the PM to ensure the protection and promotion of minorities.”

Interestingly, Dev also pointed out Pakistan’s drift towards democracy in the recent passing of a bill that outlawed forced conversion. And also the passing of the Hindu Marriage Act by their parliament recognising marriages between members of the Hindu community.

From the Indian side, veteran minority rights activist Shabnam Hashmi remarked to the Citizen that, “the state of minorities continues to be precarious in both the countries. There is a need to take strong steps to ensure the well being of minorities in both the countries.”

For the moment, no matter how much hostility there is between the two countries and their governments, on the question of minorities India and Pakistan seem to be each other’s mirror image. In the words of Pakistani poet Fahmida Riaz who died last month, “Tum to bilkul hum jaise nikle…” (You turned out just like us…)