The photograph said it all. Xi Jinping and Imran Khan standing together, both of them appropriately masked, for their February 6 meeting in Beijing's "Great Hall of the People". Arrayed behind them are six large flags of equal size, three of China, three of Pakistan. Thus was the Sino-Pak alliance projected, confirming, among other things, Rahul Gandhi's charge that the Modi government had failed to weaken it.
Not that India-China relations are at rock bottom. Absolutely not. India's total trade with China in 2021 reached its highest ever level of $125.7 billion, with India's exports to China at a record high of $28.1 billion. Despite efforts to reduce dependence on China, India's imports from China rose to $97.5 billion. Both figures were dramatically higher than the numbers for 2019 and 2020. Clearly, economics evades politics even if it cannot eliminate it.
India-Pakistan relations have also not vanished. In fact, no "iron-clad" or "all-weather" partnership designed by strategy can match natural bonds of culture and language, of which Pakistani expressions of loss at Lata Mangeshkar's passing were a powerful reminder.
Some specifics in India-China trade are truly interesting. It was a Chinese firm that made the immense (216-foot) Ramanuja statue in Muchintal, 35 km south of Hyderabad, which Modi recently inaugurated. For his 1000th anniversary, Ramanuja came to India from China in 1,600 separate pieces, for Rs 135 crores, and was put together on Indian soil by Chinese technicians! Something similar had happened, it will be remembered, with the mammoth Patel statue, which was inaugurated in 2018 and given the "Statue of Unity" title.
In sync with that name, the Ramanuja figure has been called the "Statue of Equality". According to the Prime Minister's Office, this statue "commemorates Ramanujacharya, who promoted the idea of equality in all aspects of living, including faith, caste and creed."
"Equality in faith, caste and creed." Ascribing this noble stand to Ramanuja, the PMO does not, however, commit the Prime Minister himself to it, at least not directly. As everyone knows, Mr. Modi has been reluctant to recall the Constitution's assurance of equal protection to Indians irrespective of religion or caste.
"Sabka Saath" is indeed a phrase he and others in the government often repeat, but it is worth noting that Modi recites "Sabka Saath" as something he desires or expects, not something he pledges or offers. "All should stand alongside me, but I may or may not stand with you. Depending on your religion or caste, my police may or may not defend you." These are not Modi's words, but this is the clear and loud message sent by his faithfully-observed vow of silence on cruelties under his watch and on hate speech, even when calls for genocide are made.
The right to practise and express one's faith, the right to be treated as an equal, not an inferior - such oft-denied rights have spectacularly come to the fore over attempts in parts of Karnataka to prevent young Muslim women wearing head-scarves from entering their colleges.
Mr. Modi can design India's landscape after the fashion of medieval kings. He can flaunt his religion from state platforms at state expense. But a Muslim schoolgirl or college girl must henceforth scrupulously hide her religion and stop wearing the head-scarf that she or her sister or mother has made or paid for. Or else surrender her right to education.
Will the next campaign be to ask Christian girls to hide any cross they're used to wearing around their necks? Sikhs shouldn't worry, we are told. No one will dare ask them to hide the unmistakable markers of their faith. But they have often been pressured, not to their comfort, to declare that their Sikhism is only a form of Hinduism.
Was this the equality championed by Ramanuja, and by dozens of others, and assured by our Constitution? We must not allow ourselves to be fooled. What is advancing before our eyes is not equality but a project of erasure, the removal of Muslim names for streets and towns, of Urdu words from public discourse, of any signs or symbols of Islam. Anyone who imagines that this destructive and menacing project will stop with Islam has missed the insatiable appetite of the uniformity bulldozer.
Inevitably, protests in Karnataka linked to the right of equality and the right to practise one's religious customs are being analyzed for their likely impact on elections in states far removed from Karnataka. But we should also look at assaults on democratic rights in India from the perspective with which I began, that of India-China relations, and the connected context of the ongoing competition between a democratic India and the one-party state that is China.
Human nature being what it is, many Chinese must be proud that their country is now often bracketed with the US as the world's dominant duo. Feeling important is nice. But we can be even more certain of another human urge, the longing to think, say and write what one wants. So far, this is where India has scored decisively over China.
Indians might envy China's military, economic and sporting spectacles, but we can be sure that the people of China envy our ability to draw cartoons of our leaders, our ability to vote as we please, and our right to choose what we wear and eat. These rights are now under aggressive assault. The vote in the polling booth is one response to the assault. Just as crucial if not more so is the courageous decision made - or not made - by a citizen, teacher, journalist, policeman or judge who confronts a case of coercion against young women.
(Rajmohan Gandhi is currently teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.