When innocents get murdered, it is injustice enough in any society. When political or social activists get murdered, it is an attack on freedom. When rationalists get murdered it is an attack on human reason, the bedrock of democracy. When artists get killed by bigots, it is an attack of civility itself. The murder of Pakistan’s celebrated Sufi qawwali singer Amjad Sabri on Wednesday, claimed by a faction of the Islamist Taliban, is only the latest in a series of killings across the subcontinent on those who speak for sanity, but the brutal attack on one who represents a mystical tradition of music known for spirituality and communal harmony represents the nadir in the region’s quest for democracy, development and dignity.
Pakistan, Bangladesh and India have all faced threats to civil and democratic traditions in recent years, though the degree and manner vary. Pakistan, is of course, stuck with a Frankenstein’s monster. The origins of the Taliban and other groups who target Sufis, democrats and minority Shias or Ahmadis can be traced back decades to the state’s engagements in Afghanistan and the way the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) has played with the fire of religious obscurantism. But it must be acknowledged that the nation also has a robust civil society in which pro-democracy activists, mystical singers and modern minds who wish to see a developed Pakistan have been outspoken — such as the Nobel laureate Malala Yusufzai. Bangladesh has seen at least 10 secular activists murdered since 2013 by Islamic militants, though we may quibble on whether the killers are homegrown or outfits supported by Al Qaeda. Many more Bangladeshis, such as bloggers and writers speaking for freedom, secularism or gay rights, have been murdered as well.
India should logically be a beacon of light in the region, but sadly, it has its own bigots in a resurgence of Hindu obscurantism. Prime suspects in the murders of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi have been Hindu hardliners and this is something of deep concern in a culture that prides itself on thousands of years of liberal traditions that accommodate reason, asceticism, freedom and mysticism.
While leaders across the three nations need to show political will to crack down on hotheads who perpetrate hate crimes, there is a parallel need to invoke the finest traditions of humaneness and civility that have enabled centuries of harmonious living. This requires an evangelical approach in which ideas that support freedom, reason and civil discourse need to be promoted. Treating these killings as law and order issues is simply not enough. What we need is a rededication of efforts to uphold democracy and rule of law.