NEW DELHI: When we review the state of democracies on the subcontinent, the prognosis is not good. Even a cursory look at the vital signs shows these democracies are in bad shape. South Asia is blighted by chaos, mayhem and political upheaval.

We see sporadic outbreaks of violence against minorities in India. A couple of months back we witnessed a spate of violence against the Muslim community. Christians also come under attack regularly. We have read about the desecration of churches and rape of nuns in different parts of the country.

In Pakistan minorities are persecuted with impunity. We regularly come across news of the killing of the Shias, the Ahmadiyas and the social activists. In Bangladesh secular bloggers are being hacked to death.

Sabeen Mahmud was shot dead a few weeks back in Pakistan. More recently Ismaili Shias became the target of Sunni extremism. Hindus are not allowed to live in peace in Pakistan and Bangladesh. ‘Atheist bloggers’ are being hunted down and killed in Bangladesh. This is a sorry state of affairs and it speaks volumes about the weakening of state and its machineries in all these countries.

We see social networking sites filled with updates, and requests for writing petitions showing solidarity with Muslims being targeted anywhere. People take to streets to show their solidarity with the victims, shouting slogans against the perpetrators. Recently, support and solidarity for Rohingya Muslims was making the rounds on the Facebook and Twitter. However, the dissenting voices of activists and intelligentsia are usually conspicuously absent when it comes to speaking against the harassment and persecution of minorities present within the minority. And even when they speak at all, they sound feeble. Why do we want to tread so cautiously when circumstances call for defending the weak and marginalised sections of the community as well as those dissenting against the tyranny within the minority?

The harsh treatment meted out to Ahmadiyas, Shias, and women within the Sunni world of South Asia is an open secret. An exhibition of the Quran by the Ahmadiyas was forcefully shut down on the second day of the exhibition in the national capital of Delhi a couple of years back. The launch of Noor Zaheer’s book ‘Denied by Allah’ was disturbed in the last World Book Fair at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi. ‘Denied by Allah’ was denied even a patient listening by the self-appointed guardians of Islam who claim to be speaking on behalf of the entire Muslim community. The news of murders of the Bangladeshi bloggers has been coming in regularly and this trend is very disturbing. The question that crops up in mind: Why is this targeted killing of ‘atheist bloggers’? Does it have anything to do with blasphemy that Islamists are busy propagating about these ‘bloggers’? Even if it is blasphemy, how could one justify killing people? One simply cannot take anybody’s life! This is non-negotiable. Are we moving towards resurrecting Inquisition and the culture of burning people at the stake?

Incidentally, this issue of blasphemy could be dealt with in two fashions. One finds two models from the tradition. The first is from Prophet Muhammad’s life itself. During the time of Prophet Muhammad a few poets used to caricature him in their poetry. Being one of them, Ka’b ibn Zuhayr was apprehended and brought to the Prophet as a culprit. One of the companions of the prophet wanted Zuhayr’s head cut off. The prophet asked his companions not to hurt Zuhayr. Then the Prophet asked Zuhayr as to what he recites. Zuhayr recited a beautiful ode to Muhammad. The prophet put his burda (lit. mantle) on Zuhayr’s shoulder in appreciation, which also symbolised the latter’s forgiveness. This ode to the prophet became a genre of Arabic poetry and was titled Qasida burda (lit. the mantle ode).

Syed Ahmad’s (famously known as Sir Syed Ahmad khan who was the founder of Aligarh Muslim University) life provides another instance of grappling with this issue. When William Muir Esqr. of Bengal Civil Service had penned The Life of Mahomet in 4 volumes having some objectionable stuffs, Ahmad did not create a ragtag group of young people wielding machetes baying for blood. Sir Syed read the book; set out for England; spent a good deal of time in the British Museum Library, and finally came up with his own book in Urdu and got it translated in English. More to it, he personally presented the book to Muir.

What is most obvious at the first sight is that these are not misguided acts of vengeance on the part of Islamists. On the contrary one finds a pattern and a structure to this calculated and targeted persecution of bloggers who have had played a key role in making people aware of the role of Islamists in the Bangladesh’s War of Liberation. Islamists had allied with the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh Liberation War. Razakar and Al-Badr were paramilitary groups comprising Islamists whose aim was to persecute Bangladeshi intellectuals.

The accusation of committing an act of blasphemy appears to be a charade. The fight that is taking place on the political terrain is being wrongly portrayed a battle on religious terrain. In fact blasphemy is being used as an excuse to ruthlessly eliminate the political opponents. This has become a metaphor for a tussle between moderates and extremists in which the latter is trying to get an upper hand and making its presence felt in the public spaces. In other words, it has more to do with political struggle between Islamists and secularists’ worldviews. Since Bangladesh is a democracy where Islamists, just like other parties, are also entitled to propagate their worldview. Any democrat would defend Islamists’ right to political power struggle. But this brutal and senseless killing of bloggers is morally untenable and illegal. One would argue that Islamists should also start blogging, distributing their pamphlets, and should exploit other means of modern communication for arguing against the ‘atheist’ bloggers and disseminating their point of view.

Such an unhealthy state of democracies begs the question: Are democracies coming apart at the seams? It would be too early to come up with an answer. However, it is quite obvious that the social space is shrinking very fast, which in turn shows the degree and scale of intolerance that has become part of everyday life in these South Asian countries. What needs to be done? State should play an active role before the situation transforms into ‘Hobbesian playground’ where life becomes ‘nasty, brutish and short’. And the people must remember what has oft been said, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.