Banning cross-border cultural collaboration only strengthens extremists

Banning cross-border cultural collaboration only strengthens extremists
Srinagar, 2008: College students at the Junoon concert

In today’s interconnected world, whether it’s appreciating music and film or fighting polio, we increasingly share our joys and sorrows

 By Salman Ahmad

By Salman Ahmad

The latest casualty of the ongoing confrontation between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan appears to be arts and cultural cooperation, with larger implications for people-to-people relations between the two countries. We must not let that happen.

Let’s all hit the pause button for a moment and remember what we have in common. Pakistani music, poetry, television and literature have acted as a bridge between generations, across cultures and nations: our nations. From Madam Nur Jehan to Abida Parveen, from Mehdi Hasan to Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, from Nazia Hasan to Junoon and the present generation, artists have provided a mosaic of cultural spaces that reveal the true face, hopes and common humanity of South Asia.

But amid the ongoing tension, here’s what cross-border collaboration is up against: the extremist organization Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) has threatened Pakistani artists working in India. Hyper-nationalists in India have labeled Indian actors Salman Khan and Om Puri as “traitors” for arguing to keep the arts and culture separate from politics. The Indian Motion Picture Producers Association has said they will not hire Pakistani artists until things calm down, and the Mumbai Academy of the Moving Images dropped the screening of the classic film Jaga Hua Sawera (1959), a joint Indo-Pak production from an upcoming film festival.

The Srinagar peace concert, 2001

The Srinagar peace concert, 2001

The Pakistani Motion Picture Association in a retaliatory move has withdrawn all Indian content from Pakistani cinemas, while the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has banned all Indian content from Pakistani television and radio channels effective Oct. 21, 2016.

When taking these extreme measures we forget that culture humanizes what politics demonizes. Banning artists, writers, actors and poets spells victory to the extremists who don’t want people-to-people contact, who only want to create fear.

Just think of what we can achieve together.   It was only a few weeks ago that Om Puri was in Pakistan promoting his film “Actor-in-law”, which is doing record business in the country. Pakistanis have traditionally embraced Indian artists – and it’s not a one-way street. Indian music companies, film producers and event organizers invite Pakistani artists because it makes good business sense to do so.

I can speak from personal experience. Junoon’s music video for “Ghoom Tana” features my good Indian friends Shubha Mudgal, Naseeruddin Shah and Nandita Das. We shot the video in Patiala, where my mother was born and from where she subsequently fled during Partition.

Junoon is the first and only Pakistani rock band to perform in Srinagar, in May 2008. Performing at the edge of the Daal lake for thousands of Kashmiri college students and South Asian leaders is one of the best memories of my life. It revealed the possibility of peace and harmony in our subcontinent too often rocked with violence and border tensions.

Despite the trauma of Partition and the current tensions, there still remains great love, friendship and a deep spiritual harmony between Indians and Pakistanis. I know this from my own experience, and so does Om Puri. It’s this feeling we must protect even as our governments and extremist groups jump to react to any provocation, often to hide their own failings.

Driving a wedge between Pakistan and India won’t just imperil collaboration between artists. It also threatens to disrupt our common cause of improving public health. In July, as a physician, I attended a tabletop exercise in Maldives for building a disease surveillance network in South Asia. Public health experts from seven South Asian countries attended the event. Indian and Pakistani public health experts alike are focused on mobilizing a disease surveillance network. That’s something that would require better communication between the two countries. Not cutting it off.

I have lectured and performed at Indian universities, and the overwhelming message I heard from students is: more people-to-people contact, not less. In democratic nations, diverse views like these students’ are welcomed, not muzzled. It should be the same on both sides of the border – and there should be much more of it.

In the 21st century, we live in an interconnected world. Whether it’s appreciating music and film or fighting polio, we increasingly share our joys and sorrows. We have three armies, three cricket teams, two jingoistic medias and two nuclear-armed states. And it seems as if the only people who want to work together are business leaders, artists and doctors.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s expand the circle of light.

When Junoon played with Indian Ocean in Delhi in February 2016 at the UNESCO concert, an Indian mother brought her teenage daughter to the show, whom she had named “Sayonee” after our hit song. When I met them after the show, Sayonee told me she is learning to play the guitar and the solo in the song that inspired her name.

That is the power of music across generations and barbed-wire borders. Let’s take a deep breath and remember that our peoples are soulmates after all.

We need to decide what kind of future we want to give them. Live in perpetual tension with the danger of a nuclear war, or resolve issues through dialogue and move on towards peace and prosperity.

The silver lining to the current imbroglio is that it may catalyse the silent majority to say “enough is enough” to the hatred and the divisions, pushing for the peace we all want to see in the world.

The writer is founding member of music group Junoon, professor of Sufi music at Queens College, New York, and a Polio Goodwill Ambassador.

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