The brusque, motivated and communal threat to Pakistani cultural artiste Ghulam Ali in Mumbai headed by the Shiv Sena, with the BJP state government standing by, raises questions about the autonomy of culture and the importance of people-to-people interactions between Pakistani and Indian civil society. The Pakistan state has historically committed crimes against India from 26/11 to cross-border shelling and continuing infiltration of terrorists. But the dominant force in the Pakistan state has been the military, which even hanged Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Pakistani civil society is not a uniform agglomeration but includes secular and peace-loving people, who want to strengthen ties with India, whose democracy many admire.
Is music, theatre, dance and cinema solely country based? Is Sufi music purely an Indian or Pakistani cultural tradition? Or are ghazals anti-anybody? Aren't there Kathak dancers in Pakistan, though very few? Don't we share an enduring passion for cricket? Don't many Indians admire Imran Khan and the swashbuckling Shahid Afridi? Before cricket overshadowed hockey, the Pakistan-India matches were a sports lover's dream. Till 1947 we were one people with pluralist cultures and backgrounds. Politics led to the Partition, not a rejection of cultural diversity in principle. History is history. Some may want to rewrite it, but its impact cannot be erased, though it is increasingly misrepresented.
Why does this matter? Because it enables a more accurate appreciation of what we are and our neighbours are. The importance of people-to-people dialogue and contacts is not only that it exposes ultra-nationalist stereotypes, but it also helps build bridges of peace. But is this possible without an opening up including a more accommodating visa regime? But astute leaders know that building bridges is not done just by state to state dialogue and negotiations. There is little enough now between India and Pakistan, since the former's benchmark for dialogue is the cessation of cross-border terrorism. But this heightens the need for people-to-people dialogue and interactions so that communications don't break down completely.
This is also very important for us. Cultural exchanges with Pakistan are important for us not to demonise Pakistan but to recognise that the civil society there has many strands and currents, with a not insignificant number wanting not only peace and friendship but more interaction with Indian counterparts. That is why the invitation to Ghulam Ali is important. That is also why the Shiv Sena must remember that it has welcomed Pakistani cricketers in the past, like many Indians including great Indian cricketers. We must not only continue this interaction, but strengthen and enrich it. We must invite and allow non-reporting visas not only for cultural artistes but also academics, other professionals including journalists, authors, and others to enrich our own contributions in these fields, as well as correcting misleading stereotypes that our prevalent about our own country.
Is this a pipe dream? No, it has happened in substantial measure in the past. But culture is not politics. A political abuse of culture is against our greatly pluralist and multi-cultural past and present. We must recognise this, build a secular, multicultural future for our country and our children.