As we marked Nelson Mandela Day on July 18, the world heard from Prince Harry that “we are witnessing a global assault on democracy and freedom — the cause of Mandela’s life.” But one place, one important but cracked pillar which supports the world’s democracies, went unmentioned.
I’m referring to India, a nation that once played a remarkable role in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, the decolonization of the Global South, and even the civil rights movements.
But more recently, Indian Islamophobia has corroded what was once the world’s largest democracy.
Seventy-five years ago, India became independent. Its nonviolent struggle forced the British to admit that for all their talk of freedom and democracy, there was little evidence of either. Behind great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Motilal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose, India offered a model that refused to privilege any race or religion.
They preached the equal dignity of all, no matter their colour or creed. Because of this, India inspired men like Mandela, who fought to make the world more decent and democratic.
In South Africa, the Indian model mattered immensely — I know because my grandfather, Nelson Mandela, time and again referenced India’s freedom struggle and India’s freedom fighters as examples for how we could end — but also replace — apartheid.
Although India’s leadership could have sought a more sectarian, authoritarian or intolerant model of government, the young India instead pushed a democratic and pluralistic vision, which immensely influenced the rainbow nation we have tried to build in South Africa.
But the India of today is decidedly not the India of 75 years ago.
Today, laws that properly belonged to South Africa’s apartheid past are popping up across India, from banning marriages, to stripping Indians of citizenship, to rampant mob violence. And while these policies often affect all of India’s many minorities, they are disproportionately affecting the country’s huge Muslim population, inspired by and driving cycles of Islamophobia that impact the wider world. India risks becoming the very apartheid state that leaders like Mandela and Gandhi would have abhorred.
Of course, this is not to say there isn’t bias and hatred against Hindus too. After all, a recent report from Rutgers University warned of a substantial rise of Hinduphobia on social media, which — as Indian ambassador to the UN T.S. Tirumurti warned — coincides with a general wave of religiophobia against Hindus and Sikhs. But India’s moral stance must extend to all faiths, and we cannot ignore the grip Islamophobia has on governments and societies globally.
And by indulging in Islamophobia, India is missing chances to heal religious divides, which could lead to grave repercussions during a period of geopolitical and economic instability.
Beyond economic and political mediation, we need moral leaders to take the lead. Like we saw with the great Desmond Tutu and Ghandi, faith leaders are pivotal to peace processes.
For example, weeks ago, Saudi Arabia hosted an interfaith summit where Hindu and Muslim leaders not only sat down together, but left calling for interfaith solidarity. Organized by the Muslim World League, the world’s largest Islamic NGO, and led by a remarkable voice for Muslim tolerance and moderation, Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, the summit offered us a vision of a different world — one which rejects Hinduphobia and Islamophobia for good.
Because what if India doesn’t join these efforts?
India will soon hold the world’s largest population. One frighteningly vulnerable to climate change. Already, South Asia has seen huge population flows instigated by religious bigotry, which continues to run rampant. And this doesn’t even consider the incoming food and energy crisis, or the massive nuclear arsenals deployed across South Asia.
There’s hardly a more volatile setting in which to unleash naked prejudice.
But Islamophobia is not just a moral outrage. It is not just dangerous and undemocratic. It flies in the face of India’s incredible legacy. Now more than ever, we need India’s moral courage, and its inspiring desire to imagine a better world against the longest odds.
Nothing less can solve the great challenges that threaten our wonderful and fragile world.
Disclaimer: Ndileka Mandela: Without intervention, India risks becoming an apartheid state - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view