Cultural wars !

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We spent our childhood listening to Kishore Kumar and Muhammad Rafi classics on long drives out of Lahore. Jagjit and Ravi Shankar were regulars on the more sombre journeys with our grandfather. The occasional weekend rental of an Indian movie, on special parental permission, was a treat at ‘night-spends’ with the cousins. We grew up with a glimpse of the sights and sounds of “Hindustan” — the neighbour whose history was intertwined with ours, whose politics and agenda were opposed to our existence, whose secularism was a farce and whose anti-Muslim tilt led to massacres in Kashmir and Gujarat.

Our instruction in this post-partition, ultra-nationalist account of history did not, however, completely demonise or otherise ‘India.’ We benefited from our exposure to the cultural, softer, more human side of the neighbour, a benefit many across the border were not accorded. I recall sitting amidst a group of Indian and Pakistani teenagers in a cosy, wooden cabin by the bank of a lake at the Seeds of Peace camp in Maine, USA, a near decade and a half ago. Our exchange in the hour-long ‘co-existence’ sessions is difficult to forget. We talked of our histories, our conflict, our fear and our sentiment. We discovered that we were both guilty of prejudice and stereotypes. We learnt that our instruction might have been biased. We learnt that there was another side to our history.

Yet our common cultural references to Bollywood songs (contemporary and classic), Karan Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and the tv-sitcom Hum Panch, provided room for connection and friendship. This referencing, however, was one-sided. Our Indian friends were unacquainted with “Uncle Sargam’s” jokes, the magical powers of Ainak Wala Jinn, or the increasing popularity of “Entity Paradigm”. Their understanding of “Pakistanis” was overly simplistic – people subsumed by their zealous religiosity, without colour, art or expression. The increased cultural exchange between India and Pakistan in the last decade helped enrich this construction. Mahira Khan, Humsafar and Coke Studio became common references across the border. We became more real to our neighbour.

The happenings of last month have demonstrated how easily culture can become hostage to politics. Amidst the recent exchange of allegations of terrorism, the sponsoring of anti-state actors, surgical strikes or non-strikes, the two neighbours are battling it out on the cultural front as well. Right-wing political parties in India issued an ultimatum to Pakistani artists to leave; the Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association soon bared Pakistani actors and technicians from working in India; Bollywood demonstrated its commitment to ‘country comes first’ by vowing not to take on Pakistani talent; Indian television channels scrapped popular Pakistani soaps from their programming. We responded in similar vein. In an admittedly tit-for-tat move, Pakistani film distributors suspended the screening of Bollywood movies; the Pakistan Electronic Media Authority (PEMRA) too decided to ban all Indian content on television and radio channels.

The reprisal, at first, seems warranted and justified. Our cultural exclusion and demonisation must beget the same reaction. The law too can be read as warranting such response. The regulatory regime governing electronic media in Pakistan technically permits only 10 per cent airtime to foreign content on television channels. Considerations of national interest and security are also paramount to the terms of PEMRA’s licenses. Critics argue, however, that the reaction is mere knee-jerk nationalism. The ban, in their opinion, will be both costly and ineffective. For many, Pakistani cinema owes credit for its rejuvenation to healthy competition from the screening of films from across the border. There is no doubt that in the last decade we have produced better, smarter and more entertaining films, some of which have won acclaim internationally. It is also questionable whether the ban will temper down our fondness for entertainment originating from across our eastern border or even render it inaccessible. The cost of this cultural war in India is more pernicious: it has led to a loss of balance, tolerance and rationality. Political vilification of Pakistan has inspired censure of all things Pakistani, even those hitherto adored. The eventual fatality will be cross-border cultural referencing that helps foster a sense of commonality with the Pakistani people, and in many ways operates as an essential buffer against war.

The Article First Appeared In The Express Tribune

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