In India's rambunctious multi-party democracy, larger points often fall victim to political cross fires. The existential need for political parties to fish in troubled waters often results in India giving confusing signals and diluting the message that it needs to send to enemies during times of crises.
Take Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar, for instance. Whatever be the Left front's domestic compulsions, accusing the Union government of a "big brotherly attitude" towards neighbouring countries, when 18 Indian jawans have been killed in a terrorist ambush from Pakistan-backed operatives, smacks of silliness at best and cynical opportunism at worst.
Or Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), that figured out that this was the right time to come out of political obscurity by giving Pakistani actors in India a 48-hour deadline to leave the country.
"We demand that Pakistani artistes who have made Mumbai their home should quit the city and the state of Maharashtra within the next 48 hours. If they don't, MNS will beat them up and pack them off to Pakistan," MNS functionary Amey Khopkar said.
The problem with MNS' rabble-rousing approach is that it deflects from the real issue — whether bilateral relationship at any level is possible with an enemy nation engaged in a relentless one-sided war against us — and seeks to catch voters by the kilo, by resorting to cheap jingoism. The outrage that MNS' position will cause in Indian mainstream media risks taking away from the larger question we needs to ask ourselves right now. And it's is simple.
Isn't it time to stop all cultural exchange with an enemy nation that hates us and seeks to repeatedly harm us?
Since we can't punish Pakistan militarily for fear of triggering a nuclear war (an unequal fear), also hold ourselves accountable to a higher moral standard by not tampering with a water treaty that has long been disadvantageous to us, surely the least we could do is pose some sort of economic sanctions on the rogue state by leveraging our soft power and larger market?
The question takes as axiomatic the position that we are at war with Pakistan. When it comes to this neighbouring state, however, hard-nosed decisions based on India's strategic interests have always been held hostage to mushy and crucially, unreciprocated sentimentality. We may not see Pakistan as an enemy, but their entire existence depends on anti-India hatred. It is what binds that failed rogue nation, which columnist R Jagannathan rightly calls the original Islamic State.
Indians cannot escape the geopolitical reality of being the neighbours of an unstable banana republic that uses terrorism as a tool to get even with an aspiring Asian power that is demographically bigger, economically stronger, politically more stable, is better equipped in conventional military prowess and in its pluralistic, secular nature remains antithetical to everything that Pakistan stands for.
But we reserve the right to protect our interests.
Can we realistically hope to maintain a peaceful and friendly relationship with such a country, even at the level of civil society? Narendra Modi, like so many Indian prime ministers before him, sought to hit the 'reset' button in the Indo-Pakistan relationship soon after assuming office. Burnt fingers and a shattered image later, he would have well understood the futility of it.
It is time, as strategic thinker and Professor of Centre for Policy Research Brahma Chellaney writes in Livemint, to debate "whether India is making Pakistan bear costs for scripting cross-border terrorism… India has a range of options in the military, economic and diplomatic realms to start imposing increasing costs on Pakistan in a calibrated and gradually escalating manner".
We must explore all options of punishing Pakistan where cost-benefit analyses throw net gains in our favour. Stopping all forms of cultural exchanges and giving Pakistani artistes access to a larger Indian market are areas we need to look at. We need to challenge the long-held notion that cultural exchange with Pakistan must continue. To what end? How has it helped us? A commonly held belief is that people-to-people connect helps in normalising relationships. It is time to give this myth a burial.
Mohammed Wajihuddin writes in The Times of India in the wake of MNS threat against Pakistan actors: "Cross-cultural ties in the film industry go back to the 1940s and 50s; there has been a long line of actors, writers, musicians going back to the days of Noor Jehan and Saadat Hasan Manto who have transcended borders and enjoyed a following in both countries."
He is correct. But the right question to ask is that if cross-cultural exchanges are beneficial to both nations, why have ties not been normalised? Why have we been forced to fight four wars against Pakistan? Why have our civilians fallen prey to bullets fired by Pakistan-nurtured terrorists?
And let's remember that as on battlefield, Pakistan also fights an asymmetric cultural war. Bollywood movies are regularly banned in the country. Last year, as reported in The Indian Express, a Pakistani court banned the release of Bollywood movie Phantom in the country on a plea filed by Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai and head of Jaish-e-Mohammad, the outfit that has been blamed by India for Uri attacks.
More recently, Bollywood comedy flick Happy Bhag Jayegi, which was shot in Pakistan, was slapped with a ban. According to a report in Hindustan Times, film-maker Aanand L Rai said: "Initially, I was told that the film is clean. Later, we were informed that a ministry in Pakistan had objected to the film."
The fate of Indian TV serials is worse. All Indian channels airing through DTH services have been banned by Pakistan's regulatory authority.
Pakistan newspaper Dawn quotes Absar Alam, chairman of Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), as saying that the regulatory body "will write letters to the Federal Board of Revenue, the State Bank and agencies, including the Federal Investigation Agency, for curbing the sale of Indian DTH decoders in the country."
“Around three million Indian DTH decoders are being sold in the country. We not only want this sale stopped but will also ask the relevant agencies to trace the money trail to determine the mode of payments made to Indian dealers selling these decoders to Pakistanis,” he said, according to the report.
In contrast, we have Indian artists extending their long arm of friendships and rallying behind their Pakistan brethren.
I got Atif in this concert for the sole purpose of showing how 2 artistes, especially from 2 conflicting countries, shud put up a great show
— Sonu Nigam (@sonunigam) September 20, 2016
Not only is this generosity never reciprocated, it is cynically used by the enemy state to whip up sympathy at the civil society level which is then subverted by Pakistan's Deep State. And licking our wounds, we perennially remain trapped within our guilt trip.
It is also time to take a look at the seminar and cocktail circuit — part of the cultural exchange network — that has more often than not ended up acting as a propaganda tool for Pakistan. Roaming the world in silk ties, partaking of fine wines at plush venues, these eclectic set of elitists who claim to represent the rights of people and shape public opinion have been cynically used by the enemy state, often without their knowledge.
In 2011, as this article in BBC reports, Ghulam Nabi Fai, a Kashmiri-born American citizen, pleaded guilty to secretly receiving millions of dollars from Pakistan's spy agency in violation of US federal laws.
"As a paid operative of ISI (Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency), he did the bidding of his handlers in Pakistan while he met with US elected officials, funded high-profile conferences, and promoted the Kashmiri cause to decision-makers in Washington," US Attorney Neil MacBride was quoted, as saying by BBC.
According to a 2011 report in The Indian Express, part of the funds that FAI received from ISI went into organising "international conferences" on Kashmir.
According to The Indian Express, "prominent among those who have attended his conferences are Dileep Padgaonkar, who is now one of the three interlocutors for J&K appointed by the Centre, former Delhi High Court Chief Justice Rajinder Sachar, former editor Kuldip Nayar and activist Gautam Navlakha."
Most of the prominent personalities who attended Fai's events claimed they had no idea about his covert association with the ISI, according to the report.
This, we must understand, is also part of Pakistan's proxy war. Its Deep State throws around money to influence public opinion, manipulates our citizens and all that we do is clamour for an open border and more "cultural exchange".
Even US or France, champions of western egalitarianism and freedom of expression, have at various times imposed sanctions against countries or forces that they considered inimical to their ideals and existence. Let's get real.