Our theatre company Motley has for the last five years been travelling to Pakistan to pay homage to arguably the greatest 20th century Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz at the annual Faiz celebration in Lahore. We have moved around there without security, bathed in that city’s golden autumn sunshine, soaking in its “Hawa ka Noor” as Ismat Chughtai called it and have always experienced only affection and regard, and, of course, fabulous food. This year the somewhat sullied atmosphere of relations made me hesitate but the acute belief that people-to-people contact must continue decided the matter. So Motley has just returned from performing in Lahore and visiting the temple of Lav, the son of Shri Ram, after whom Lahore is named.
Crossing the Wagah border along with our team were a couple of hundred Sikh travellers from Canada and Britain, all going to pray at Nankana Sahib on Guru Nanak Jayanti. The next day a few thousand Sikh pilgrims from India were due to arrive. I also met several Indian businessmen Lahore-bound on work. It was astounding to encounter so many Indians going to Pakistan all at once. Being Muslim and an ‘anti-national’, I had no trouble with visas for myself and my entire team, (in which, incidentally, there was not a single Muslim) but I could not help wonder at the extent of anti-nationalism brewing these days that so many Indians should land up simultaneously in the enemy country.
At a family gathering in Lahore, we heard Beena Jawad, a Kathak exponent/teacher, and her three daughters (all Muslim) deliver a magical rendition of a Sindhi bhajan celebrating Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh, and we heard tales of Guru Nanak’s first disciple, Bhai Mardana — a Muslim, whose descendant (also Muslim) Bhai Chand sings the most enchanting Gurbani I have ever heard. We were strangely moved to hear about the Gurudwara Panja Sahab in Hasan-Abdal, which has Sikh priests and Muslim sevaks. Both the temple of Lav and Panja Sahab are active places of worship still.
I am, however, talking of the exceptions there rather than the norm. Lest it seem that I keep rose-coloured glasses on my nose regarding Pakistan, the fact is that the country makes no claim to be secular. Though the intolerance there undoubtedly runs deeper than in our country, just as feudalism does, most sensitive persons there are painfully aware of the deep divisions; the marginalisation of Christians, the persecution of Hindus, Ahmediyas and Shias, and the unrest among the Baluch. But their pains were not mine I suppose and while there, the whole cacophonous debate of ‘Intolerant vs Tolerant’ raging at home began to seem very far away. It was amusing to hear about a section of Right-wing mullahs disrupting Valentine’s Day celebrations in Lahore and I wondered what the Shiv Sena would have to say to that. They would probably approve, as they did of Ghulam Ali when he announced he would not perform in India again; “He understood our reasoning”, they said. Dare I say that the Sena endorses the reasoning of the Muslim Right-wing lumpen as well?
To paraphrase what Kamal Haasan said earlier; intolerance in our country is nothing new. There was the butchery of the Sikhs in 1984 and other atavistic acts in the name of religion aplenty in the past; irreplaceable documents destroyed, priceless works of art vandalised, activists killed, artists threatened and the mostly Congress governments of the time always took the ostrich approach. There was Kissa Kursi Ka, and other instances of banning in the past: Satanic Verses and Jesus Christ Superstar to name but two. Performances were disrupted (Habib Tanvir’s play Ponga Pandit in Bhopal and a farce called Shakespeare ki Ramleela at Prithvi, both some years ago) by Right wingers threatening violence and no one did anything about it. North-Easterners, Biharis, Bangladeshis alike have been targeted and brutalised, MF Husain had to flee for his life and the government of the day couldn’t offer enough reassurance for him to return.
So what’s happening now is not new; what is shocking is the hysterical counter-reaction to the statements of unease being made by some of the finest minds in the country, who are not a slogan-shouting mob but reasonable people, people whom past governments have thought fit to honour.
It is possible to detect a paranoid strain to the accusation that some of the country’s most-respected artists, litterateurs and scientists are just ‘rabid BJP haters’, they are politically motivated and have been paid to protest. A minister who should know better calls striking film students ‘Naxalites’ when they object to the appointment, as FTII chairman, of a person who would probably flunk the student entrance exam. The most ominous perspective on the debate, even if one ignores the loony fringe, is offered by the reactions of some senior leaders of the ruling party to moderate statements and pleas for understanding.
It is also worth pondering whether the heat generated by Shah Rukh Khan’s or Aamir Khan’s statements was the result of genuine outrage by offended parties or a bid to grab headlines or was fanned for heightened TRPs by TV channels. The reportage was visibly slanted, their intentions were questioned when in fact neither of them said a word about unease because of being Muslim; they spoke as citizens of the country. The reason for the scary and infuriating abuse they have been subjected to is not difficult to understand but when will it become apparent that the Hindu-Muslim problem is not what the intolerance debate is about? In any case there aren’t that many Muslims returning their awards, are there? And why should it be considered seditious for a Muslim to express dissatisfaction with the state of his own country? When people start killing each other over a Muslim king 200 years dead, there is something seriously amiss and it must be addressed.
Surely the ruling party realises that the choice before it is between building a modern India and taking us back to the dark ages. It should be an easy choice to make.
(Naseeruddin Shah is an actor. The views expressed are personal)