India and Pakistan must redefine their shared patriotism

It's not about a film like 'Phantom' that sets out to eliminate terrorists. It is about giving justice to all victims of terrorism.

 |  Tarar Square  |   Long-form |   05-10-2015
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The hullabaloo in Pakistan surrounding the Indian film Phantom, expected as it was, is bewildering and over-the-top to put it in politically correct lexicon. Jubilant after the mind-blowing response to his much-admired and loved Bajrangi Bhaijaan - aimed at propogating the message of peace and friendship between the hostile neighbours Pakistan and India - Kabir Khan's Phantom met with censure in Pakistan before it even reached the Pakistan Censor Board. On the complaint of Hafiz Saeed, the head of the highly-controversial, banned organisation Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), the Lahore High Court banned the screening of the film, citing it as a "security threat" to the life of the complainant.

The banning of a film chronicling a controversial issue would not have engendered much of a reaction in Pakistan or India, as this is not the first instance a film has been banned in either of the two countries. Nevertheless, to many, the fact that the ban is in implementation on the complaint of an alleged mastermind of terror is a matter of great concern, raising questions about Pakistan's dedication to the cause of elimination of terror.

In Pakistan, the outrage is an outpouring of patriotism, couched in myriad shades of sublimity, shrillness, jingoism, nobility, ugliness, rationality and absurdity.

In the backdrop of the juxtaposition of mistrust and failed initiatives, the shadow of bloodied history, and the ongoing tension at the Line of Control (LoC), Bajrangi Bhaijaan was heralded as the pied piper of peace, bringing together India and Pakistan on a fantastical, but humane level. Notwithstanding the growing disenchantment between the countries, the fact that Bajrangi Bhaijaan became the second biggest grosser in the history of Indian film industry is an endorsement by Pakistanis and Indians: humanity is beyond barbed wires, patrolled borders, rigid ideology, restraints of faith and policies of governments.

Also read: Why Pakistan is right in banning Phantom

Phantom despite being on a subject that is of tremendous interest to Indians has failed to garner a huge response in India, with most blaming it on the lacklustre performance by the protagonist Saif Ali Khan, and the insipid female lead, the gorgeous Katrina Kaif. The story is all over the place, as even the esteemed Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) dubs the film "dangerous", and against their "no-guns policy". Martin Sloot, general director, MSF India, has stated that the organisation in the film "has aspects that are confusingly similar to the MSF, whilst others are entirely incorrect". The legal action taken by the MSF against the film is against the wrong depiction of their organisation, informally confirmed by one of the actors of Phantom, who is reported to have said "the character in the film worked for the MSF." So much for vigilante justice blurring the line between the real and the fictional!

Phantom, on both sides of the border, has become a shrill but rallying cry for misplaced patriotism, hyper-nationalism, and hyperbolic warmongering. While most Pakistanis accept the need to unite to fight the demon of terror, there is a smoldering aggression when it comes to the India narrative of "Pakistan is bad". Despite the insistence of Kabir that Phantom "… is not an anti-Pakistan movie… only anti-terrorism and… against the masterminds of 26/11 attack," the verdict is almost unanimous in Pakistan: Phantom presents Pakistan in an awful light, as per the popular sentiment on social, print and electronic media. Ergo, no ifs and buts about its rejection. So much for freedom of expression.

How a film that has done average business in India after the record-breaking box office returns of Bajrangi Bhaijaan managed to become the litmus test for the love and devotion to the homeland is not merely ludicrous but also worrisome. It also brings into sharp focus the need for evaluation of certain factors that are instrumental in making this film a depiction of the uncomfortable status quo between Pakistan and India.

Also read: Six things we can learn from Bajrangi Bhaijaan

The banning of films in Pakistan and India is not a new phenomenon, despite being a regressive act of curbing freedom of speech in the largest democracy of the world as well as in Pakistan, which is in the throes of strengthening its democracy, having faced almost three decades of military rule. What is common between the Ek Tha Tiger (another Kabir film), Sriram Raghavan's Agent Vinod, (also starring Saif Ali khan), Vishal Bhardwaj's Haider and Neeraj Pandey's Baby? The films were banned in Pakistan for their ostensibly anti-Pakistan message, and blaming Pakistan's ISI as the planner of mayhem in Kashmir and various terrorist activities in India. In India, Pakistani filmmaker Bilal Lashari's Waar was banned for perpetuating the accusation of RAW's endorsement of terror activities in Pakistan. While films come and go, the narratives of suspicion and mistrust, bordering on xenophobia and paranoia, remain - contextualising the various, very complex Pakistan-India diplomatic impasses.

The hoopla around Phantom highlights many uncomfortable truths, none of which is doing any service to the cause the Pakistani government, institutions and the nation are committed to: elimination of terror. There is still a blatant, and in some quarters, ambivalent categorisation of "good" and "bad" terrorists. While I harbour no desire to see a leather-clad, gun-toting, mono-expression'ed (from what I've seen from the trailer) Saif vowing to enter Pakistan to kill his targets, his rather simplistic "Ghus ke maarenge" - inspiring more anger than the entire film, yet unseen by most Pakistanis, makes peace-seekers like me rather uneasy. There is blatant anger regarding the film and the protagonist - it is manifold, manifesting a subliminal lack of the endorsement that ALL acts of terrorism are bad and punishable, notwithstanding the faith and nationality of perpetrators and victims. Without spelling it out, the classification is distinct: there are good and bad terrorists. The those-who-harm-us-are-not-our-enemy narrative is held high, while forgetting the banned status of the JuD since 2008, the ban put in place by the Pakistan government, and not the USA or the UN.

Phantom, interestingly, from a regular commercial Indian flick has turned into the proverbial punching bag for the hyper-nationalists, the jingoistic brigade, the sabre-rattling media, and the warmongering politicians. Amidst the blame game, Pakistan is the conventional bad boy, India the exasperated, big, sturdy, surly neighbour, and the accusations fly faster than a honeybee about to be swatted, while the dialogue screeches to a halt before even the exchange of hellos. The cancellation of National Security Adviser (NSA) talk on August 23, 2015 in New Delhi is the reiteration of an unwillingness to make adjustments keeping in view the changing regional and international geopolitical dynamics.

The allegations of Pakistan's involvement in terror incidents in Gurdaspur and Udhampur, the arrest of two terror suspects allegedly from Pakistan, our government's insistence to meet the leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference in Delhi, and the inclusion of the Kashmir issue in all bilateral talks overshadow the Indian narrative vis-à-vis Pakistan. And as per Pakistan, India's rigidity regarding the disputed land of Kashmir in the light of the UNSC Resolution 47 and 49, and the 1972 Simla Agreement is merely a sign of India acting as the "big bully." As per the Pakistani NSA Sartaj Aziz, there is enough evidence of the RAW's support of terrorism in Pakistan for India to get off its lofty posturing of moral indignation and sanctimonious victimhood.

Also read: Six reasons why Sushma Swaraj's UN speech did India proud

The ceasefire violations at the LoC are relentless, and the casualties are not merely Pakistani and Indian military personnel, but unarmed women, children and men from both sides. The August 28 killing of 11 Pakistanis along the LoC and the Working Boundary in Sialkot's Charwah, Harpal, Chaprar and Sucheetgarh sectors, and three Indians along the border in RS Pura and Arnia sectors of Jammu district is another horrific manifestation of a bad situation worsening faster than the Changbaishan volcano. New tombstones are added to overflowing graveyards, and in the din of political warmongering, and guns of soldiers obeying the commands of war-weary generals, the prayers to Allah and Bhagwan become inaudible on the two sides of the border, divided by politicians blinded by partisan interests and complex agendas of hegemony.

Phantom comes at the time of red lines being drawn, of tacit threats being issued via television cameras, nuclear arsenal being counted as a reassurance of deterrence. While millions struggle to earn enough money to barely survive, the political narrative of Pakistan and India, inextricably connected in geographical parameters, is contextualised by pressures of domestic policies, electoral manifestos, shrill baying-of-blood by sections of media, and the shortsighted agendas of stilted diplomacy.

I do not endorse a war, or any act of vigilante justice couched in terms of freedom fight, revenge for real and perceived injustices, or a covet operation denigrating the sovereignty of my country. However, I wish to see all acts of terror to be taken notice of, investigated, perpetrators penalised and jailed without any hope of parole. There is no ambiguity in my mind that all convicted perpetrators of terrorism must be punished, without any prefix of "ours" and "their" enemy. No, I do not endorse Saif Ali Khan entering my country to avenge the tragedy of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, but there is no ambivalence in my mind that the masterminds behind the Mumbai attacks must be brought to justice. My endorsement for peace is to devise a bilateral system of cooperation on terror, intelligence sharing, shared legal expertise for trials of terror suspects, and signing of a treaty of extradition of convicted terrorists. My repudiation of terror as a weapon to achieve an ostensibly noble goal, as a revenge tool, as an instrument of exploitation, or as an exercise to maintain hegemony is categorical: no taking of innocent life is pardonable.

Also read: Why Pakistan will always threaten India with a nuclear attack

Pakistan has lost more than 60,000 civilians, security and armed personnel to terrorism, the number that is staggering in its effect on the heart and soul of Pakistan. As government, armed forces, and people unite to eliminate terror in all its forms, there is no escaping the unpalatable truths. Classification of killers of innocent people into the "good" and "bad", "ours" and "yours" is a mere exercise to compartmentalise terror. In the words of Tariq Khosa, the former DG FIA Pakistan, "Are we as a nation prepared to muster the courage to face uncomfortable truths and combat the demons of militancy that haunt our land? That is the question!"

It is not about one alleged terrorist, or one banned organisation. It is not about a forgettable Indian film that sets out to eliminate terrorists. It is about giving justice to ALL victims of terrorism. Remembering the pain of the families of the victims of the Peshawar massacre of 2014, we need to look ask ourselves how the pain of the victims of the Mumbai attacks of November 26, 2008 is any less significant. This is for our conscience, our souls. No film has the answer to the question that nudges us to look within.

Patriotism is not the banning of a film. It is to be the best of you for your country. Patriotism is not sloganeering, hashtags, incitement against compatriots who oppose your ideas, or hatred for other countries. Patriotism is being true to your country by giving it your best. It is not about demanding bans on freedom of expression in a free democracy. Patriotism is the assurance of free speech not being used as a tool to propagate hatred and violence. Patriotism is not categorisation of acts of terror into the excusable and unforgivable. Patriotism is the promise of not creating killing machines for domestic hegemony, or to wreak havoc outside the homeland. Patriotism is being true to the basic principle of humanity, beautifully and categorically enunciated in the Holy Quran: "Whoever kills a person [unjustly]… it is as though he has killed all mankind. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved all mankind." (5:32)

Also read: Pakistan has lost the plot fighting terrorism


Mehr Tarar Mehr Tarar @mehrtarar

A former op-ed editor of Daily Times, Pakistan, and a freelance columnist.

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