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Editorial | Nankana Sahib Incident: New Civic Narrative Needed To Curb Bigotry

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As videos of an angry man speaking to a mob and threatening Pakistani Sikhs with violence at Nankana Sahib went viral on social media, the carefully curated post-Kartarpur narrative in Pakistan struck the first of many icebergs in its path.

But the Foreign Office in its reaction to the incident claimed that denied that the incident was a communal issue. We are called upon to believe, instead, that “there was [a] scuffle in the city of Nankana Sahib today, between two Muslim groups. The altercation happened on a minor incident at a tea-stall” and that after the intervention of the district administration, the accused are now in custody.

Today, the same Imran Chishti who had been making bloodcurdling threats against Pakistani minorities can be seen in a far more accommodating mood. He appears on social media in another video claiming that he had never meant to hurt anyone’s feelings and that he has every intention of living in peace with the Sikh community.

The video is being received with the usual smirks about a “software update” – a common term in Pakistan for the process by which a person changes their mind about an issue after coercion from authorities.

Such efforts at narrative control and fallout management might seem attractive in the short-term. But our policymakers will have to learn to think about issues beyond the short-term. Perhaps it is time to face the fact that what we need are not extrajudicial “software updates” here and there, but instead a solution to our longstanding hardware problem.

It may seem expedient to push that latter problem under the rug, but it will continue to raise its ugly head and stymie the state’s efforts to show a softer, more pluralistic image of Pakistan in contrast with an increasingly obscurantist and Hindu-nationalist India.

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The nature of the hardware problem has been written upon at length by many observers, but it would be appropriate to summarize it here. Religious intolerance has been deeply hardwired into our society. Even if most communal disputes can be traced back to prosaic issues like a property dispute or a tea-stall brawl, the fact is that an option exists in our society to give one’s grievances a religious-communal angle and expand it all – to the chagrin of a state trying to portray a different image.

That underlying problem will have to be addressed with a new civic narrative – one that is closer to what the founding fathers of the country had in mind. Managed fundamentalism with the occasional software tweak here and there simply cannot deliver the results which the state seeks.

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