Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) has given Pakistani actors and artistes working in Bollywood a 48-hour notice to leave India.
The “or else” part of the threat has been left unspecified. MNS’s local rival for the Marathi manoos vote, the Shiv Sena, has backed this call, made after the Uri attack by Pakistan-backed terrorists. Among the actors who are seeking to make it big in Bollywood are Fawad Khan (star in the to-be-released Ae Dil Hai Mushkil), and Mahira Khan in Shah Rukh Khan’s Raees.
Earlier, singers like Ghulam Ali were similarly targeted.
These threats have been roundly condemned by most thinking people, but one must not dismiss the underlying arguments just because they sound belligerent or even incoherent.
Important questions are being raised. We should not dismiss them just because they are couched in thuggish language.
After all, Narendra Modi is today being pilloried by the opposition for not being consistent on Pakistan, where he is trying to create bonhomie one day, and talking tough the next day. The subtext of the national mood is “stop being wishy-washy and do something to deal with this rogue neighbour.”
The real arguments underpinning the MNS variety of macho behaviour are these: why should we allow Pakistani nationals (actors, cricketers, etc) to come here and make money when they don’t give us reciprocal rights? Why should they be allowed to gain from our deeper market for entertainment when their nation is effectively hostile to us and effectively at war with us? Why should it be business-as-usual on our side, and war-war from theirs?
Also, should we pretend that everything is hunky-dory between us when it is not?
Then there is the other argument: Pakistani actors and singers are not coming here because they love us, but because they love our money. So their coming has an economic dimension. It is not all about deepening the bonds of friendship, or Aman ki Aasha.
At a time when the country is considering imposing costs on Pakistan for its sponsorship of terror, including by withdrawing most-favoured-nation (MFN) status and re-examining the Indus Water Treaty, it would look odd if the commercial aspect of Bollywood’s Pakistani connection is ignored.
Economic sanctions cannot be imposed on the rest of Pakistan and then benefits showered on a few chosen by Bollywood’s producers. Today, even the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), normally as rapacious as Bollywood in seeking big bucks, never mind the national mood, is not talking of going ahead with any Pakistan series.
On the other hand, there is this counter-point: we are at war with the Pakistani Deep State, its army, the ISI, and its India-focused terrorist organisations like Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Muhammed, and Hizbul Mujahideen, among others. We are not at war with its civil society.
By going after soft targets like actors and ghazal singers, we may be forcing all of Pakistan to band together behind the army’s agenda of eternal hatred towards India.
India’s strategic interest lies in creating and enhancing a deep divide between Pakistani civil society and the Deep State. If we continue doing this, over time the Pakistani army will lose its legitimacy with the people. That is a development to be profoundly desired, but it won’t happen if we do not use our leverage with civil society and actors.
No true strategy can be short-term in nature. And in order to drive a wedge between the Pakistani Deep State and its civil society leaders and actors and what-have-you, you need a more nuanced strategy implemented over a decade or more.
The first thing to understand is that we must be selective on who we give lucrative cricket or Bollywood contracts to. We need to know that the people benefiting from Bollywood or BCCI are truly part of civil society and opposed to the Deep State. It may not be easy to find this out, but some vetting is needed. We could also demand an overt statement that the actor will promote good ties between Hindus and Muslims in Pakistan, and also oppose jihadi terrorism in India, both in word and deed.
Breach of this understanding can mean deportation and confiscation of incomes made here. The Maharashtra government must work with Bollywood to figure out how this can be done. If Pakistan’s actors refuse to sign such statements, we can assume that they are only interested in the money, never mind if their state is plotting harm in India.
Second, these actors must also be asked to lobby for more formal releases of Indian films and art in Pakistan.
Third, this cannot be tom-tommed, but our intelligence agencies should, in fact, use these actors to infiltrate Pakistani society and the Deep State, and do our bidding covertly in exchange for lucrative deals.
Even while we strengthen ourselves militarily and develop covert action capabilities to impose costs on Pakistan, ultimately we cannot win this war without turning the Pakistani people against their own Deep State that is keeping them perpetually in a state of tension and enmity towards India.
Bollywood and BCCI should be partners in furthering our agenda in Pakistan. Time to use them well.