Two unexpected bits of positive news from the subcontinent: In Pakistan, Asiya Noreen, also known as Asia Bibi, a death row inmate from 2010, has been acquitted by the Supreme Court of blasphemy charges that carried the ultimate sentence.
In India, the Delhi high court has sentenced for life 16 former policemen from UP for, in the court’s words, ‘the targeted killing’ in 1987 of 42 poor, unarmed and defenceless Muslims near Meerut in western UP. This killing was called the Hashimpura massacre, after the Meerut locality from where the victims were picked up by the policemen and driven to the banks of two canals where they were shot one by one before their bodies were dumped into the canals.
In both cases, earlier judgments were reversed. In both cases, it remains to be seen whether the executive is able to enforce the judiciary’s judgment.
In 2009, Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian, was harvesting fruit as a menial worker when a dispute over the drinking water she had touched led to arguments, triggering accusations that she had blasphemed against Islam. Though acquitted, as of writing Asia Bibi seems still be in Sheikhupura Jail, north of Lahore. She may be safer there than outside, for an angry agitation has been mounted against her acquittal.
In India’s Hashimpura case, where agitations as well as appeals against the sentences should be expected, relatives of the killed burnt their meagre resources in the last 31 years seeking justice in local courts and in Delhi. During the process, many lost their jobs and some their lives.
In either instance, justice is not yet implemented, and may never be. But at least it has been pronounced, which is no small thing in the Pakistan and India of 2018.
Brave judges defying mob pressure and offering justice to humble victims is pure oxygen for citizens in India and Pakistan who have been breathing an air polluted in every sense.
The judges provide confirmation that a conscientious citizen – a judge, a journalist, a policeman, a bureaucrat, anyone -- can make a difference even when the drumbeat of intolerance aims to drown every independent voice.
In India, these independent voices seem to be gaining in confidence and unity. Compared with even a few weeks ago, these voices sound clearer and bolder. This seems to be the case with officers in the Reserve Bank, with judges, and even with officers in the CBI, which the Supreme Court once described as the government’s ‘caged parrot’.
The reputation of the Modi regime appears to be lower than it has been in quite a while. Several state assembly elections due in November and December will indicate the extent of the loss, and national elections due by May 2019 will reveal it clearly.
Narendra Modi’s preoccupation with photo ops with foreign leaders, and with opportunities like unveiling the Patel statue, suggests a marked loss of confidence in his flagship schemes of development, which these days are hardly mentioned.
The Patel statue construction (with the incongruous help of Chinese bronze and Chinese engineers as well as Chinese workers brought to the statue’s site in Gujarat) has been accompanied, as Rahul Gandhi succinctly put it, by the destruction of several institutions the Sardar had nurtured.
Also indicating Modi’s awareness that running on his government’s performance may not work in 2019 is the volley of calls on his behalf for a Rama temple to rise where the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992.
The jobs he promised are nowhere to be seen. The rupee has fallen. Petrol and diesel have risen. Farmers are in distress. Hence the pivot to Rama.
Modi has some assets. In Amit Shah, he has a loyal and energetic party chief. His own zest for marketing himself seems intact. The cry that Hindu society is threatened by Muslims and leftists will appeal to some even though it can send India’s society and economy into turmoil.
Moreover, the BJP possesses immense cash reserves, made possible by his government’s extraordinary law which ensures that even huge donations to political parties can remain anonymous.
It is therefore possible that along with the diminishing number of its allies the BJP may scrape out a bare majority in 2019. However, its tally will be nowhere near what 2014 generated, and a BJP defeat is not impossible.
In addition to the re-emergence of independent voices in India’s governance network, the apparent willingness of many opposition parties to come together is also an encouraging sign.
The coming weeks and months may see steps that take India back to the path of tolerance, institutional autonomy and the rule of law. The period may also witness unrest if extremist Hindu groups are unwilling to tolerate independent voices or the coming together of moderate forces.