Rejoice! Our government has effectively responded to India’s (re)annexation of occupied Kashmir. We have stopped trade, suspended Samjhota Express and Dosti Bus Service (and Thar Express too), and have unleashed Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi on the international community. Our Parliament has unanimously passed a devastating resolution on the issue, and all political parties have announced their plans to support the Kashmir cause, from their own separate platforms. Notwithstanding the repeated references to the threat of a nuclear conflict, many of us are probably still reeling from the after-effects of overeating on Eid-al-Azha and recovering from the post-Independence Day hangover.
But if I may dare to ask, who are we fooling? The world, ourselves or the Kashmiris? Where was the outrage when unprecedented atrocities were earlier perpetrated on Kashmiri civilians, women and children? Where was the diplomatic blitzkrieg when the “Butcher of Gujarat” was elected with a mandate to remove article 370 and clause 35? Some of our leaders were hosting Modi at Prime Ministerial weddings and others were openly hoping for his victory. And who will lose out from the steps that we have now taken? Who travels in the horrible Samjhota Express compartments? Who crosses the border riding the Dosti Bus? And the less said about the Thar Express, the better.
The sufferers will be Sindhi Hindus traveling to see relatives, pilgrims to Sufi shrines in Ajmer or Delhi, the seriously ill children with no resources to travel to London for life-saving treatment that we lack in Pakistan and the porters on either side of the border.
I am a bona fide Kashmiri and some of my closest friends were, and are, Indians. As a member of Ajoka’s children theatre, I had the opportunity to meet “live” Indian kids for Ajoka’s collaborative production of their play “Border Border”.
We were the three musketeers. Rohit, a Hindu; Jatinder, a Sikh; and I, a Kashmiri-Pakistani would be the pranksters of the Ajoka troupe whenever we would visit India, or vice versa. We would stay at each other’s homes and explore the streets of Lahore and Amritsar together. It was one of the closest bonds I had formed at that time.
When my Pakistani friends learned about my Indian exploits, they were amazed. “What are Indians like? Do they really hate us?” I had not seen hate-filled news shows on TV or jingoistic newspaper headlines. And there was no all-engulfing social media to fill me with suspicion, fear or venom for the species living on the other side of border. I found Delhi very much like Lahore, with both “old” and “new” parts, brimming with culture and over-the-top expressive people, very much like our own. Chandigarh was pretty much an across-the-border version of Islamabad – maybe because both were designed by the same architect. Bombay, or Mumbai as it is now called, was a stark copy of Karachi: an industrial city, complete with tall, concrete high-rises, mafias and floods after the slightest rain.
Many times I crossed the border during times of extremely heightened tensions. I would be wary of letting the common Indian on the street know where I came from. Once I was at a dhaba (local restaurant), and a typical Punjabi argument started over some inane issue with the people sitting at the table next to us. In the middle of the conversation, as soon as they heard we were Pakistanis, they hugged us, forcibly paid for our food and insisted on driving us back to our accommodation!
In another time of great stress between the two countries, I visited New Delhi to perform Ajoka’s “Bulha”, about the life and times of the great Sufi poet Bulleh Shah. Right before the performance in Kerala, a group of 10-12 masked BJP activists blocked the hall entrance and demanded that we hand over a protest letter to the Government of Pakistan about its role in the Mumbai blasts. Reluctantly we received the letter but also (out of politeness) invited them to come and watch the play. We were a bit nervous to see the group leader sitting in the front row with his family. At the end of the play, the BJP leader came up on stage and shook everyone’s hands and congratulated us, remarking that he had not expected a Pakistani group to bring a message of peace. His mind, polluted by years of hate, was at least temporarily opened towards the “enemy”. There have been several such cases: BJP Culture Minister turning up for an Ajoka Festival in Delhi, sitting next to the Pakistan Ambassador. BJP Mayor of Chandigarh being the Chief Guest at Ajoka plays.
These were rare occasions but the person on the street was almost always full of hospitality and love for peace. In the markets and trains, people joined us in singing songs and dancing with us. This continued to happen after the Modi-fication of India took place.
The ideology of the Modi government is, without a doubt, despicable. “Hindutva” is a fascist belief system in the truest sense of the word, with many RSS leaders openly expressing support for Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s and ‘40s. At its core is the notion of Hindus having sole dominion over India, until “foreign invaders” took away that right, and which now must be snatched back. It is not dissimilar to most extremist groups in any part of the world. From White Supremacists to our own homegrown bigots in Pakistan, they have always been a minority.
In India, however, that minority is now in government – but with not more 38% of the electorate.
Hindutva is a relatively recent term. Many grandparents of today’s proponents of Hindutva would have been unaware of it. It is, in fact, less about what you actually believe in. It is more about who you believe yourself to be; a question of identity. Its leading men have hardly been spiritual or devout. V. D. Savarkar, who wrote its foundational text and K.B. Hedgewar, the founder of RSS, are both described as having been atheists or agnostics. In fact, the very word “Hindu” is a loan-word. It was only after colonization by the British that Hindutva as such started to emerge, with Savarkar and his comrades taking their cue from Mughal and then British rule. They saw that monotheistic religions did, indeed, make it easier to rule people, and thus starting work on a unifying process of re-branding – dealing not with the countless deities, but with a singular, shared identity which would come to define Hindutva. After Gandhi’s assassination this ideology went into disrepute.
Enter Narendra Modi. Making it a focal point of his election manifesto, he went on a branding overdrive. It was no longer a question of GDP, infrastructure development or individual beliefs. It was about identity, about non-Hindus “taking over”, mating with Hindu women to increase their numbers or taking jobs and lands from those who “deserve” it. The creation of this fascist fever, the fear of an impending “invader from within” and being swamped by non-Hindus proved to be the most potent weapons for gaining popularity. The wave began with the Babri Masjid-Ram Mandir dispute and became a tidal wave with the 2002 Gujarat massacre and the 2009 Mumbai attacks.
One imagines Modi has read Mein Kampf page by page! Even though he has recently won a thumping electoral victory, only about one-third of the electorate voted for him. Even the 38% who voted for him could have different reasons for their unfortunate choice – such as disinformation, media bias, divided opposition, lackluster Congress leadership, promise of jobs, local ethnic factors and manipulation by big business. Article 370 was just fine print in the manifesto.
There are a great many Indians protesting against their government’s recent actions, both within and outside the Parliament. These would include the Congress, the Communist Party, the Chief Minister of Punjab Captain Amrinder Singh, non-BJP state governments and civil society. Even the Kashmiri Pandits have rejected Modi’s move. The courts have ordered registration of a case for “acting against the State” against writer-activist Arundhati Roy. Significant human rights violations are being reported. Obviously Indian Muslims, Sikhs and Christians are suspicious of such majoritarianism. Journalists are being threatened, electronic media controlled by big business has become a government mouthpiece and any hint of dissent is labeled as “anti-state”.
But people are telling the truth, even though today’s equivalents of Goebbels and the Gestapo are after them. Sound familiar?
While disapproving of the Modi government from the bottom of our hearts, we in Pakistan also need to leave some space open for the actual people who have little to do with their government’s actions. These are people with the same trials and tribulations as ours, the same joys and the same hopes. We should not be swayed by the language of powerful people on either side.
Governments will always fight one another. They will do it for power, money, influence – but never for the people. Whenever I feel seeds of hate swelling up inside me after watching a news show, I remember the all-nighters I had at Rohit’s home and the delicious food Jatinder’s Mom would cook for me. I remember Pawa Saab, the great theatre-lover, a refugee from Montgomery/Sahiwal, who named his grandson after me, after actually taking our permission. I remember all those instances of love I have experienced in an otherwise animosity-filled region, and I realize that the games governments play will always go on. The Indian government may well forever remain an enemy of ours, perhaps even justifiably so, but we should always remember that New Delhi will never represent India’s 966 million Hindus, 172 million Muslims, 27 million Christians and 20 million Sikhs.
India is too big to be brushed with one colour. Just as the actions of Hitler did not define the German people, Modi’s authoritarianism and its atrocities in Kashmir should not be pinned on all Indians. Let us despise the Indian government, not Indians. Let us hold in disdain Hidutva, not the Hindus.