Culture wars, criminal coercion and craven capitulation

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, for once,powerful Bollywood producers who make films around characters who display extraordinary courage and heroism in reel life were to show just a little spine in real life and not succumb before any and every two-bit hoodlum who threatens violence and vandalism to further some political, religious, or social agenda? Alas, the tendency to take the path of least resistance and kowtow to threats has become something of a norm in art and literature. This, in turn, emboldens the vandals to keep expanding and extending their strong-arm tactics against whatever catches their fancy. While it is easy to blame the state for not stepping in forcefully to shut down these self-appointed censors, a lot of the blame must also be borne by powerful people who are just not willing to stand up for their rights.

The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) was well within its democratic rights to protest, even build a political campaign, against the casting of Pakistani stars in Bollywood films. The problem isn’t so much with the strident stand that the MNS had taken against Pakistanis working in Bollywood as it is with the methods adopted to force the issue. If the MNS stuck to picketing cinema halls it would be a perfectly legitimate way to make their point and they might even have won widespread support for the stand they had taken. An even more effective measure would have been to build a mass opinion against casting Pakistanis, including a public boycott of any film or music album, in which Pakistanis figure. This would have been a legal, democratic and legitimate form of protest. But threatening violence and vandalism is pure and simple criminal behaviour, and as such unacceptable. Of course, given how easily these people have been getting away with their bullying — a clear failure of the states to enforce its writ, which was further compounded by the Chief Minister ill-advisedly brokering a bizarre deal between a film producer and those threatening him — coupled with the craven capitulation of those being targeted, it is hardly surprising that the trend of using street power to hold people, industry and governments hostage is becoming the new normal in India.

The issue of Pakistani actors and singers working in Indian film and music industry has come into focus as a result of the worsening of relations – more aptly described as a virtual breakdown in engagement at all levels – between India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the Uri terror attacks. Even as the government of India toughened its stand against Pakistan and started adopting a multi-pronged approach to isolate and sanction Pakistan, a TV channel announced that it was going to stop airing all Pakistani soaps. Soon a media debate started on whether Pakistani actors and singers should condemn the terror attacks. One thing led to another, including a crackdown in Pakistan on TV channels carrying Indian content, and it wasn’t long that some fringe political parties jumped on to the bandwagon and started calling for a ban on movies starring Pakistani actors.

The film industry was caught blindsided because it had engaged Pakistani stars at a time when there was no such clamour. Neither had they broken any law by hiring Pakistani actors, nor had they gone against any government policy, much less violated any official ban. If anything, at the official level the policy isn’t to either sever or even majorly curtail people-to-people (P2P) relations and cultural ties with Pakistan. Had it not been so, the government could have easily revoked or denied visas to Pakistani actors and singers. It could put in place legal and administrative restrictions which would make it virtually impossible for any producer to hire a Pakistani.

There is a sense in government circles that banning cultural ties (even if this is in the realm of pop culture) or restricting P2P relations will prove counterproductive. Not only will it lead to an ossification in society’s outlook and worldview making it more inward looking and self-obsessed, it will also rob the film industry of the vitality that makes it such a potent weapon in India’s soft-power projection. While there is merit in this argument, there is also a flip side to it in terms of policy consistency and coherence. Apart from the whole issue of whether the same argument that is made in favour of P2P and cultural ties cannot be extended to the field of sporting ties, there is also need to reconcile this argument with the reality that sports, culture and P2P cannot be entirely divorced from the political state of relations between two countries. In fact, anyone who makes the airy-fairy point of not mixing sports and culture with politics is living in cloud cuckoo land.

Sports, culture and P2P have always been a political issue and as such are a part of the menu of options available before the government of India in its efforts to punish Pakistan. If used in a carefully calibrated and pre-meditated manner, these non-kinetic options can work in conjunction with other political and diplomatic instruments to both isolate and sanction and thereby punish Pakistan, and if the Pakistanis improve their behaviour and change their attitude towards India, then to reach out and make a friendly gesture to Pakistan.

There are many commonalities in the pop culture of India and Pakistan, something that can be smartly exploited by the Indian state. The simple fact of the matter is that no matter how big a star is in Pakistan, unless he is recognised in India, he/she will remain a two-bit star. India is in many ways the final frontier for pop artists in the subcontinent, quite similar to what the US is for the Western world. In the case of sports, there are major leverages that India can use against Pakistan. By refusing to play Pakistan at the bilateral level, India delivers not just a very strong political message but also hurts the Pakistan cricket economy. Keeping Pakistani cricketers out of IPL is again unexceptionable because it shows the Pakistanis their place in the pecking order, and even better, reaffirms the pariah status of that country as far as India is concerned. The recent actions to keep the Pakistanis out of the Kabaddi World Cup, refusing to send Indian shuttlers to Pakistan, ousting Pakistanis from the hockey league etc. fit in well with the policy of isolating Pakistan.

To an extent, the policy of isolating Pakistan is in conflict with the policy of promoting P2P relations. But asides of the fact that India will find it difficult to convince the rest of the world to isolate and sanction Pakistan while we hold candle marches, mushairas, trade exhibitions etc. with them, there is a need to review the usefulness of the P2P policy in terms of its effectiveness in either changing Pakistan’s hostile and inimical attitude towards India or even in terms of building a robust, vocal and influential constituency of peace in that country. An audit of the P2P policy will throw up very little that will commend a continuation of this policy. Of course, there are sensible Pakistanis who point to the mistakes their country has been making in its relations with India. But such sensible people existed even when the P2P policy wasn’t an article of faith for Indian policy makers. Since sensible voices in Pakistan are nothing more than a fringe group which doesn’t control anything, and don’t influence any policy, what is the point in pursuing this desultory track? All this is not to advocate severing of all ties, rather it is to argue for a more selective and more restrictive P2P policy.

Clearly, if culture (and here one includes sports and P2P) is an integral part of the soft-power projection of a state, then culture wars are also an integral part of a state’s policy against an adversary. It is untenable to have a laissez faire approach to cultural exchanges even as there is unremitting export of terrorism and unrelenting hostile propaganda from the other side. To say that artistes or cricketers from Pakistan only spread message of love and peace is pure drivel and self-serving hogwash. Most of these people come for money and not to spread love and peace, because if it was the latter then they would have spoken up against terrorist attacks in India. So while there is a good case for restricting cultural, sporting and P2P ties, there is absolutely no case to be made for fringe groups taking law in their own hands, browbeating and bullying people into compliance with their version of lumpen nationalism while the state behaves like a bystander.

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