Are the days of Indian pluralism over? What a reminder of the Zia-era Pakistan!
The Shiv Sena aggression and misbehaviour against Sudheendra Kulkarni in a bid to stop Pakistan’s former foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri’s book launch in Mumbai is possibly an author’s wish come true. Now, many people in Pakistan and around the world may end up reading the book, not on the merit of its argument, but the attention such behaviour has brought to it.
But then right-wing intolerance is increasingly becoming as much of a feature of India as the investment opportunities it offers. The general targeting of minorities, the Ghar Wapsi slogan and other instances of similar behaviour have become progressively more noticeable. In the past couple of years, several concerts and other cultural events of Pakistani artists were cancelled due to pressure from the militant right wing in India.
Hence, it is not surprising that renowned Pakistani feminist and poetess Fahmida Riaz wondered whether to laugh or cry at seeing this new India, which had “turned out like us” — not just intolerant, but to such a degree that it has started looking like that Pakistan which India would not like to be. The singer Abhijeet Bhattacharya can call the great Ghulam Ali “dengue” or applaud the cancellation of his concert as an essential sign of much-desired patriotism, but isn’t this exactly what Pakistan was historically blamed for — denying its own people the great shared history and culture of the subcontinent?
It was during the Zia years that Riaz had sought refuge from the growing tide of religious right in her own country by going to India. Indeed, the three decades — the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s — were when India was a point of comparison for many in Pakistan. Jokes would often get shared about greater ability of people to speak and say things across the border. One particular joke referred to a meeting of an Indian and a Pakistani dog at the border. While the Indian complained about lack of food, the latter’s gripe was about not being able to bark. We in Pakistan were considered the bad ones who had denied ourselves the rich history of the subcontinent and wanted to become part of a Middle Eastern identity. People wrote about how textbooks skipped many significant chapters of history. Of course, the state-sponsored Bhattacharya-type intellectuals and thinkers in Pakistan believed that we could live without our shared history.
But to quote Riaz’s lament: “So it turned out you were just like us/Where were you hiding all this time, buddy?/That stupidity, that ignorance we wallowed in for a century/Look, it arrived at your shores too!”
This is about the new India that may be financially exciting but increasingly claustrophobic for many of its citizens. Although the process of encouraging the right wing started under the Congress, it seems to have certainly blossomed ten folds under the present Modi-led BJP government. While in Pakistan we laughed at the concept held by those who imagined Pakistan to be at the centre of a Muslim empire, one gets equally amused at the idea of the Indian leadership eager to slaughter its pluralism and vivacity. Many in Pakistan have written endlessly about the risk of a single communal identity. If India goes down that route, the costs to the country will be astronomical.
People have begun to ask if the days of Indian pluralism are over. Irrespective of the quality of democracy, many cherished uninterrupted political rule and secular principle of the largest country of South Asia. This is not to say that communal violence didn’t happen in the country, but such events were often interpreted to be the result of economic disparities. However, it now seems that a lot of this is about to change. Now, intellectuals get killed or badly hounded for opposing the government, people slaughtered for what they eat and believe in, and events cancelled to endorse the state’s toughness. What a reminder of the Zia-era Pakistan!
Some would argue that building such an aura of toughness is strategic. But then is a strong India necessarily an ideologically singular country where everyone has to adopt one sociocultural and political belief, or get eliminated? Wasn’t such forced singularity the reason why Pakistan was made fun of?
As far as cancelling events of Pakistani artists and writers is concerned, will that really impress Islamabad? Pakistan is far from being in the same boat as apartheid South Africa, so one wonders if the approach is really all that strategic. It is, at best, a tactical one as one accused Musharraf’s Kargil operation to be. It was always the civil society, the artists, writers and intellectuals in general who were keen to explore the other side. Now they may learn they cannot. New Delhi may discover that stopping this crowd that used to return and tell interesting stories of their visit is not a gain, but a strategic loss.
How would blocking writers and artists teach the Pakistani establishment a lesson, since these people do not have the political clout to influence policies at home. In any case, the volume of business or societal interaction is limited, which means that the volume is too low for the cost of denying access to become pinching for Islamabad. Ghulam Ali and many other classical singers, in particular, enjoy their visits to India and the fact that there is a larger audience for their kind of art. But accessing a market is not reason enough to rebel against the state. Pakistan is, in certain ways, far more consolidated today than in the 1970s or the 1980s. Perhaps, many in Pakistan ought to thank the right wing across the border for contributing tremendously to Pakistan’s growing cohesion. There is an increasing silence in Pakistan’s civil society regarding India because the scenes from the other side are equally disheartening. Also, in 67 years people have settled down with their state.
India’s changing attitude with critical segments of its own population or in the region may not necessarily bring the Lashkar-e-Taiba and its ilk to its knees, but it will certainly escalate social costs for it. Pakistani society was always used to bearing high economic and social costs, but now the cost for Indian society may be on the rise too.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 15th, 2015.
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