For someone who is so completely tone-deaf to the national discourse and insensitive to the mood of the moment, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh‘s first public articulation on Tuesday of his thoughts on the current border stand-off between India and Pakistan must count, by the timeline of his typical responsiveness, as particularly rapid.
It would be impossible, Singh conceded, almost a week after the tension along the Line of Control escalated, to conduct “business as usual” with Pakistan so long as the “barbaric act” of the beheading of an Indian soldier remained unpunished. It was the surest sign that the manifest outrage of an entire nation over the Pakistani Army’s beastly beheading of an Indian soldier had finally permeated the “palace walls” and compelled its inmate to poke his nose into the cold Delhi winter air – and wonder what the fuss was about.
Simultaneously on Tuesday, the Indian government suspended the inauguration of the visa-on-arrival facility for Pakistani visitors, ostensibly for “technical reasons”, but more probably because it would have made for bad political optics for India to be conducting “business as usual” at this particularly incendiary moment in bilateral relations.
Also on Tuesday, the Indian Hockey Federation decided to send back nine Pakistani players who were to have taken part in the Hockey India League tournament; although the proximate reason cited for this decision was the security concern arising from the Shiv Sena’s call for a boycott of the players, it perhaps more realistically reflected the wisdom of prudence in this time of political volatility – and of not wanting to be seen as being excessively accommodating of Pakistani sensitivities rather more than Indian sentiments.
Copious liberal tears are already being shed over the fact that sporting and cultural ties between the two countries are being held hostage to cussed politics. The usual suspects are already out shaking their pom-poms for, if anything, greater people-to-people interaction between the two countries as an antidote for the shrill tone of the discourse at the political level. But such entreaties, while not without intrinsic merit, appear particularly ill-timed at a moment like this, and only offers curious insights into the parallel universe that diehard peaceniks inhabit.
Writing in the Indian Express (here), for instance, Mani Shankar Aiyar derides what he calls the ” hostility industry” in India – which he says is made up of ” retired generals, superannuated ambassadors, and – the most dangerous of the breed – demobbed short service officers turned diplomats” for vitiating the tense atmosphere with their “favourite prejudices” and their “shrill tub-thumping.”
Citing a “huge mindset change” under way in Pakistan, Aiyar claims that a critical mass of Pakistanis have been sold on the imperative for peace with India, particularly since Pakistan’s own descent into the hell world of jihadi violence in recent years has shown up the utter folly of the radicalisation of that country’s polity over a generation and more of Army-ISI-backed cultivation of terrorists as their proxy arm.
Appearing on a CNN-IBN talk show late on Tuesday, film-maker Mahesh Bhatt and Pakistani pop singer Salman Ahmed (of Junoon fame) advanced much the same theme, arguing in favour of greater cultural interaction between India and Pakistan – particularly in moments of diplomatic strain.
Bhatt, who has in the past made syrupy, soppy films that romanticise an imagined India-Pakistani love-fest, wrapped himself (and Salman Ahmed) in the cloak of peace martyrs who were buffeted along by hostile winds. “Salman and I have to come to terms with a bit of truth: that when the winds of hate blow, all talk of restraint and love… is looked upon as acts of treason, and you are branded as not a patriot.” There was a time, he added, when people like him “were deluded” into thinking that artists like him were the engines of bilateral relations. “It took us a while to realise that we are merely gliders: we glide where the winds are blowing.”
Salman Ahmed, whose band’s songs also have a niche market among those who pine for India-Pakistan bonhomie that fails to acknowledge the political reality, waxed lyrical on the same show, claiming that whereas Pakistanis like him were offering their heart to Indians, the Indian side was demanding the return of the severed head of the soldier.
But the trouble with such unrealistic romanticisation of what is after all very complex subcontinental history is that it fundamentally addresses the wrong constituency – in India. Far too often, advocates of this line are preaching to the choir. By and large, Pakistani players and artists are welcome in India – more so than Indians are welcome in Pakistan; the current quibble only relates to the timing of such visits, given the tension along the border and the particularly brutal nature of the beheading, about which Pakistan continues to be in denial. The constituency that these artists and peacenik activists really need to address is back in Pakistan, among the jihadists and their political and Army backers who are fundamentally opposed to any normalisation of relations with India.
Indicatively, there are influential elements within the Pakistani Army, who are shaping the perspectives on threat perceptions vis-a-vis India, who see even the syrupy movies of the sorts that Mahesh Bhatt makes as a propagandist tool on behalf of India intended to subvert the Pakistani identity by promoting the idea of Grand Passion between Hindus and Muslims.
Writing in The Hindu (here), Praveen Swami points to the prevailing mindset among the Pakistani Army as reflected in the Green Book – compilations of essays by senior Pakistani Army officers, published in an official capacity by the Army. They offer a compelling insight into the official Army outlook on the Mahesh Bhatt brand of films.
Swami writes: ”From the very first essay in the current Green Book, it becomes clear that the Pakistani officer corps’ maniacal suspicion of India hasn’t stilled.” A Pakistani Brigadier, for instance, claims that the Indian exernal intelligence agency RAW funds televisions channels to promote “psychological war” with Pakistan. More bizarrely, he sees even Bollywood films that promote Hindu-Muslim unity and friendship as part of this “psychological war” operation. Swami quotes from the Brigadier’s essay: “The most subtle form (of this psychological war) is found in movies where Muslim and Hindu friendship is screened within the backdrop of melodrama. Indian soaps and movies are readily welcomed in most households in Pakistan.” The Brigadier further claims that such films and soaps are intended to undermine the Two Nation theory on which basis Pakistan was founded.
In other words, in the perception of Pakistani Army officers, films like Veer-Zara and Border are examples of Indian propagandist efforts, hand in hand with Bollywood, to undermine the very identity of Pakistan and the basis for its founding as an independent country.
Rather than deal with bigotry and needless suspicion at its very roots – in the minds of the jihadists and their Army backers – the peacenik brigade of Aiyar, Bhatt and Salman Ahmed (and others) has taken to lecturing the rather more accommodating Indian audience who only make the nuanced point that perhaps at this particular moment of justifiable national outrage, there may be eminent good sense in not rolling out the red carpet to Pakistani cultural artists and sportsperson – if only to signal to the official Pakistani establishment that our protestations about the border atrocity are earnest.