Curbs on Culture


‘Lata’s songs won’t destabilise Pakistan while Faiz’s poems can’t break India’. 

PAKISTAN and India have been commemorating the 1965 war. Their governments and intelligentsia would do well to reflect on its baleful consequences on travel, cultural exchange and trade between them. Both countries were overwhelmed with bitterness.

Article VI of the Tashkent Declaration (Jan 10,1966) provided that the parties “have agreed to consider measures towards the restoration of economic and trade relations, communications, as well as cultural exchanges between India and Pakistan”. It remained a dead letter.

Three years later, prime minister Indira Gandhi wrote to president Yahya Khan, proposing that they “ease the regulations for travel between the two countries, encourage greater cultural contact in the field of letters, art, music, science and sport”. In reply, Yahya Khan urged “that we go back to the heart of the matter” — Kashmir and the Ganges waters. In 1969 she regretted that “today, there is almost a total lack of control between the peoples of our two countries. Commercial, economic and cultural relations are completely cut off”. Is the situation now, some 50 years later, any different?

Each side has contributed to this. Pakistan insisted on a settlement of the Kashmir dispute as a precondition to resumption of severed links. In 1997, Mian Nawaz Sharif relented from the single-point agenda and agreed to a “composite dialogue” to cover all issues including Kashmir and terrorism. I.K. Gujral backed out.

A most promising phase in India-Pakistan relations (2004-7) was interrupted by the Mumbai blasts on Nov 26, 2008. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh soldiered on only to be checked by his party the Congress.

The Narendra Modi government has hardened that position. Its single-point agenda is terrorism. What Raymond L. Garthoff, a wise scholar-diplomat, wrote of a superpower the United States, is even more true of the South Asian adversaries. “By tying virtually the whole of US relations with the Soviet Union — everything involved in business as usual, from high-level official contacts to exchange visits of art exhibits — to the continued Soviet military presence in Afghanistan, the Carter administration in essence mortgaged American policy to this issue.”

The record demonstrates that in no case was an impasse resolved because cultural links were severed. It was diplomacy that resolved the issue.

Relations between India and Pakistan are not immune to the time-tested truths of diplomacy. But the important question is can the state enlist civil society in its policy of confrontation and subject the citizen to hardships in consequence? The citizen owes loyalty to the state; not his mind, still less his soul. He has a right to know the truth.

This is recognised in Article 19(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”

Curbs on travel and cultural exchange are a blatant violation of this internationally recognised right. It is not the foreign participant but the local audience which suffers the most; be it in curbs on seminars, visits of musicians or scholars and the like.

The curbs have assumed barbaric proportions. Visas were denied to devotees who sought to participate in the annual urs of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty at Ajmer. The disease is of recent origin.

In April 1961, even amidst a diplomatic stand-off, an India-Pakistan Cultural Con¬ference was held in New Delhi. Prime minis¬ter Jawaharlal Nehru delivered the inaugural address. Eru¬dite papers were read on archaeo¬logy and history; educa¬tion; fine arts; journa¬lism and films and languages, with parti¬cular atten¬tion to Urdu.

The present situation is best illustrated by the prime ministers solemnly agreeing at Ufa to devise a “mechanism for facilitating religious tourism”. This severely limited remit betrays a mediaeval mindset.

To appreciate the great value of cultural exchange we need go no further than consult Pakistan’s former foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri’s excellently documented account of his term in office (2002-2007), entitled Neither a Hawk nor a Dove. The book was published recently by OUP, Karachi.

He writes: “Cultural activities between the two countries can go a long way towards blunting adversarial feelings. In this context, a liberal visa regime for artists, poets, writers and musicians would greatly benefit Pakistan and India. It has been aptly remarked: ‘Lata’s songs won’t destabilise Pakistan while Faiz’s poems can’t break India’. Love and not hatred is the lyrical idiom of singers and poets. Undoubtedly, a regular exchange of artists between Pakistan and India would be a good way of palliating historical wounds.”

The question is when will the leaders of Pakistan and India join hands to heal those wounds? 


The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

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