India & Pakistan

Bonds of culture

Print edition : April 04, 2014

Pakistani and Indian revellers at the India-Pakistan border in Wagah on August 14, 2012, marking their respective countries' Independence Days. Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP

It is hard to resist the feeling that the officialdom in India and Pakistan is set on controlling cultural exchange. All the more reason for the people of the two countries to stretch their hands across the barriers.

A THREE-WEEK visit to Pakistan’s three major cities—Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi—yields rich impressions. One must, of course, be careful to regard them as just that, impressions, even if they are strong enough to provoke reflections on the state of societies in Pakistan and India, the terrible estrangement between them at the governmental level, and the enormous yearning among their peoples for exchanges between them.

The National Defence University in Islamabad convened a workshop on “Kashmir: Looking Beyond the Peril” on January 27 and 28 while the Oxford University Press hosted the Karachi Literary Festival on February 7, 8 and 9. Indians were represented at both. The most conspicuous features of the workshop on Kashmir were free expressions of dissent and the participants’ and the large audiences’ willingness to listen to views hitherto regarded as heresy. It was a most rewarding experience, both inside and outside the meetings. Staying at the Islamabad Club facilitated meetings, especially with former diplomats.

One is not at liberty to quote individuals but interviewees at the Foreign Office expressed strong disappointment at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s adamant refusal to visit Pakistan and the impasse in relations between the two countries.

The Karachi Literary Festival, launched in 2010, has become a prominent feature of the cultural and intellectual calendar of the city. People came in large numbers to meet authors. Writers and poets writing in Urdu, Sindhi, Punjabi as well as in Hindi, French, Russian, Italian and German were eagerly sought after. The young predominated, and it was inspiring to see them throng the bookstalls and ask speakers pointed questions. In the three days of the festival, one met not only the cream of Pakistan’s intellectual life but also a good cross section of Pakistani society.

It can be said without fear of contradiction that the obsession with India of former times is now all but gone among the educated elite. The dominant concerns are Afghanistan and the Taliban within the country. One wishes one could say the same of India, where significant sections of society—official and academic and in the media and elsewhere—remain obsessed with Pakistan. Witness the ignorant super-patriotic TV anchors declaiming from their electronic bully pulpits evening after evening and receiving encouragement from participants in the tamash as, who ought to know better.

There are four strands in this unhealthy outlook: ambition to see India as a great power, which harks back to the romanticism of Jawaharlal Nehru; the Hindutva complex, which, let us face it, crosses the political divide (Nehru had to battle hard against Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad and P.D. Tandon); economic revival; and a certain schadenfr e ude over Pakistan’s travails. Some of these its Establishment (military and civil) inflicted on Pakistan itself and inflicted on India as well more than once. The enormity of the attack on Mumbai on November 26, 2008, has yet to be realised by Pakistanis in high positions. It is no excuse that Pakistan is also faced with the scourge of terrorism. Militant groups were set up and fostered there. Mast Gul, who in 1995 provoked the gutting of the revered shrine at Charar-e-Sharif in Kashmir, surfaced in North Waziristan in February this year. What Zahid Hussain, one of Pakistan’s foremost columnists, recalled bears quotation in extenso: “That was the time when militant groups openly operated under the state’s patronage, recruiting volunteers that mostly attracted young men like Mast Gul, fascinated by guns and with a love for adventure. There were others too motivated by religious belief….

“Many ideologically indoctrinated men died fighting in various global jehad theatres from Kashmir to Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya. Pakistan had earned the unparalleled distinction of being the only country using militancy as a tool of its foreign and security policy, turning the country into a nursery for jehad. People like Mast Gul were certainly no aberration. The ruthless use of militancy for dangerous proxy wars has ultimately come back to haunt this country. The transition of Mast Gul from street to jihadist and to ultimately ending up as a terrorist is also the story of many others.

“A large number of militant fighters like Mast Gul have now taken up jehad inwards, killing their old patrons in security agencies as well as innocent Pakistanis. Their targets are also members of the Shia community and of other religious minorities; anyone who does not subscribe to their retrogressive world view has to be eliminated” ( Dawn, February 12, 2014).

This contrasts starkly with other and reassuringly liberal trends of promise. The lot of minorities is indeed pathetic, but on February 12 Pakistan’s Senate unanimously adopted a resolution denouncing the jirgas—Pakistan’s khaps—and urged the government to ensure that the rights of minorities and women are protected. “The rights of women and minorities are not negotiable and should not be compromised in negotiations with the Taliban.” It was moved by a woman Senator, Nasreen Jalil. The publication last year of three informative and profusely illustrated volumes titled The Hin du Heritage of Pakistan, The Sikh Heritage of Pakistan and The Churches of Pakistan reflects the new trend.

The Hindu’s Islamabad correspondent, Meena Menon, reported (February 19) that the Faisalabad (former Lyallpur) district administration proposed “to develop Bangay, freedom fighter Bhagat Singh’s village, as a heritage site with a budget of Rs.2 crore as part of a plan to restore places of historical importance. The house where Bhagat Singh was born and the school in which he studied will be restored to its original form. The one-room government primary school still stands, with its walls and roof fallen in. But the blackboard and some of the old door frames are intact. Even now, a few classes are held in the grounds outside as a mark of respect to Bangay’s most famous son.” The house still has some of his family’s belongings, including his mother’s spinning wheel, a big copper paraat (kneading tray), two wooden trunks and a heavy closet of steel.

But the most significant trend in the cultural field is renewed interest in classical music. Bollywood was never short of viewers in Pakistan. Classical music was neglected. Pakistan’s distinct ghazal gayeki (style) influenced many in India. Jagjit Singh emulated the legendary Mehdi Hasan. The revival of a strong interest in classical music in Pakistan should evoke a warm response in India. Foremost in the field is the Karachi-based Tehzeeb Foundation of Pakistan. Meena Menon reported in The Hindu (March 9) about Criterion, a quarterly published from Islamabad and edited by the former diplomat S. Iftikhar Murshed. (To disclose an interest, I write for it regularly.) It publishes articles questioning conventional wisdom on South Asian affairs and espouses the cause of a liberal Islam, consistently exposing the menace of terrorism. It is a journal that certainly deserves a wide readership in India. Are these marked trends of no significance in the relations between the feuding partners of South Asia?

The partition of the subcontinent deserves to rank among the 10 greatest tragedies in the recorded history of man. There is realisation of this even among some Pakistanis. But Pakistan is a reality. Its sovereignty and territorial integrity brook no disrespect. It is idiotic to advocate a confederation to resolve our disputes, implying that Pakistan should abandon its sovereignty and accept Indian dominance as a price for a “solution” to the disputes.

Constructive approach

A constructive approach would be to seek to resolve those disputes earnestly and speedily, Kashmir being the foremost among them. Pending that, and regardless of the outcome of the process, we need to bring down as best as we can the barriers that have been mindlessly erected since March 1948. Time was when a lobby, led by a singularly veteran “editor” in Lahore, denounced such an approach as a negation of the two-nation theory and a new form of Nehru’s “Muslim Mass Contact Movement” of the 1930s. It seems that the wheel has turned full circle of late. Some in India would use a brake on cultural exchange and people-to-people exchanges as a weapon with which to confront Pakistan and “bring it to heel”. Hence, the difficult visa policy enforced since November 26, 2008. Little did Nehru realise, as he pursued a confrontationist course vis-à-vis Pakistan, that he was unwittingly weakening the secular credo on which he had so bravely staked his prestige. In this confrontationist policy, he received considerable help from Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s mindless policies. The Hindu communalists in the Congress welcomed this, as did the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. None of this suggests that India neglect its interests. Rather, it suggests clearly that liberalism in Pakistan is in India’s own interest. Pakistan harms Indian secularism when it lets loose the likes of Hafeez Saeed. India’s confrontation plays into the hands of Pakistan’s hardliners and weakens the forces of democratic and liberal renewal there. India-Pakistan relations affect the domestic clime in both countries.

In 1970, during a visit to Bombay (now Mumbai), Sohail Iftikhar, son of Mian Iftikharuddin, a close comrade of Nehru, reported that his father had bitterly complained to Nehru, during his first visit to Lahore after Partition, that he was treating them like strangers (a poor translation of the Urdu word ghair). Iftikharuddin, a Leftist and supporter of the Communist Party of India, was close to Nehru. He joined the Muslim League in pursuance of the CPI’s “Adhikari Thesis” of nationalities but never weakened his loyalty to the socialist idea. His complaint was a deserved rebuke at Nehru’s hard-line policy. He, like most, never imagined that Partition would spell the barriers it did from 1948 onwards. Walls come up and tear us apart still thanks to both countries’ malevolently conceived visa policies. It is time they broke from the past. There is a growing recognition in India also that estranged relations help neither side. Indeed, they impede India’s rise to its full stature. It is, however, hard to resist the feeling that the officialdom in both countries is set on controlling cultural exchange lest by giving a voice in policymaking to the people of both India and Pakistan its success begins to infringe on the policies they prefer. All the more reason for people in these countries to stretch their hands across the barriers. Let us begin with a freer exchange of music and literature.

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