How Cultural Exchanges Fell Victim To Indo-Pak Tensions
In his customary ferocity, a wide-eyed Hassan Nisar roared, “A banana is secular! It does not have any faith”. Known for his reactionary temper, Nisar was one of the early supporters of the Khan-led PTI. He has since retracted his support and wholly admitted to not knowing better — something many mere journalists can not fathom saying.
His point about the banana still stands. Following the escalation of tensions between the warring neighbours, after the BJP government scrapped the special status accorded to Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370, Pakistan instated a blanket trade ban on all commercial activity with India. A classical case of two quarrelling parties partaking in requisite brinkmanship, it still begs the question whether such a ban is sustainable or even realistic in a hyper-globalised economy, which has seen this quality multiply manifold with the advent of the Covid-induced recession.
Pakistan and India have not played a bilateral cricket series in almost a decade. From Gen. Zia-ul-Haq and former PM Gillani’s ‘cricket diplomacy’ to long drawn out battles over non-binding MoUs, the cricketing relationship shows no signs of improving. Cotton and sugar trade is also having a debilitating impact on the prices of commodities and the logistical and legal gymnastics required to bring large projects to fruition (some of which inevitably involve services from across the border) are frustrating for all industries but one in particular has suffered in unique ways: art.
As it stands Pakistan is almost completely devoid of a publishing industry, an adequate music scene, a burgeoning film infrastructure or a well oiled entertainment agency machinery. The across-the-board shuttering down of trade means that Pakistani artistes, both homegrown and expats, must sit idly waiting for the smallest gasp of opportunity to squeeze through a music video, book deal or a photoshoot.
It is no secret that Pakistani authors have long jumped across the border to get their books published. Name any Pakistani author of repute and they will have had a deal with either one of the India offices of the Big 5 (Penguin Random House, Bloomsbury, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster and Hachette). Sadly, due to low English readership and rampant piracy even these legally sourced books seldom see the light of day. To add to these existing woes, the absence of any healthy publishing industry in Pakistan makes it that much harder for aspiring writers to have their work reach a wider audience. Faiqa Mansab of the “This House of Clay And Water” fame keeps a more optimistic outlook, citing our nation’s resilience and adaptability as reasons.
“I think Pakistanis have responded in the only way they know how in coming up with their own publishing houses. Folio Books, Zuka Books, and others have been active since the ban and have published Pakistani writers,”she remarks.
With her own novel set for a relaunch in Pakistan under the ambit of Liberty Books, she does however still have concerns about the quality of work that these nascent publishing houses will churn out. A young industry means that quality controls are not as stringent, and with many self-publishing options available to aspirants, the checks and balances on what work is put out is perhaps not as vigilant as it should be.
A travel writer of some renown, Haroon Khalid has a less positive perspective.
“Pakistan is a huge market for Pakistani writers. It is unfortunate that books of Pakistani writers circulate the world but cannot be accessed in Pakistan. Even when they are found in Pakistan it is usually as pirated copies or illegal downloads. Everyone suffers because of that – the writer, the reader, the government,” he says.
By choking trade routes the governments on both sides are ensuring that the surest path to peace and prosperity for the region is blockaded. A shared and rich cultural history which was dispersed after 1947 needs to sing in unison once more. Music is one art form that has bound the entire region together. From the gharanas of lore to the more recent MNC-induced musical studios, India and Pakistan have had artists going back and forth, performing and featuring in films, music videos and photoshoots as recently as Raees with Mahira Khan and Saba Qamar’s Hindi Medium. In a much subtler manner, rap artists such as Talha Anjum and Talhah Yunus (Young Stunners) have collaborated with Haryanvi rapper Kr$na from India. The slick video has racked up 12 million views on YouTube and can easily be called the Desi hip-hop track of the year. Moreover, the cinema industry that had already taken a hit from dwindling customers due to Covid has had a hard time packing halls given the dearth of homegrown and Indian material to showcase.
The situation in Delhi does not help either. The controversy over Padmavat, Reliance IMG’s pullout from the PSL and furore over cross-border cultural exchanges make it exceedingly hard for creatives to satiate their itch to reach a global audience. The fact that even Shahrukh Khan, perhaps the most recognisable film actor in the world, had to kneel at the Shiv Sena’s altar after performing alongside Mahira Khan in Raees shows just how impenetrable this issue is.
For a region with a shared history to block off all manner of interaction is a recipe for further conflict. Post-WW2/Cold War, Europe and the Americas had a much deeper animosity which only came undone when nations were given economic incentives. The surest ‘trickle down effect’ can be seen across international borders as the world pivots from hard power to soft power. One hopes that the corridors of power in both New Delhi and Islamabad will see the light before it is too late for any rapprochement.
Zarnaab Adil is a graduate of the Wagner School at NYU. He is an author and a political risk consultant based in Brooklyn, NYC.