(The writer was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Comments are welcome at email@example.com
For certain political parties and media organisations in India, persisting in hate propaganda against Pakistan has almost become their raison d'etre. I experienced it when I went to attend a reception to mark Pakistan's National Day on March 23 at the invitation of Mr Abdul Basit, the country's High Commissioner in India.
"Don't you think only traitors go to attend a party hosted by an enemy country like Pakistan?" a reporter of a TV channel, one of many at the entrance to the High Commission's splendid building in New Delhi's diplomatic enclave, asked me. I was taken aback by the venomousness of the question. I responded firmly by saying that I am a proud Indian and I regard it my patriotic duty to serve the cause of establishing peaceful, normal and good-neighbourly relations with Pakistan.
These hate-mongers in the media also tried to create trouble for Gen (retd) VK Singh. How, they asked, could a minister in Narendra Modi's government attend the Pakistan Day function and "party with the enemy"? Singh later did well to clarify that his expression of "disgust" - a word he had used in a tweet after the manufactured controversy broke out - was indeed directed at sections of the media that "misinterpreted" his presence at the Pakistan high commission.
The latest target of the hate-Pakistan brigade is Naseeruddin Shah, one of the finest and most cerebral actors of Indian cinema. He has been attacked for speaking the blunt truth - "Indians are being brainwashed into believing that Pakistan is an enemy country without being aware of the historical background." Shah visited Pakistan recently to promote his book And then one day: A Memoir at the Lahore Literary Festival, and also to conduct a theatre workshop at the Karachi Arts Council. He expressed his disappointment at the animosity between India and Pakistan. "What can we possibly gain from this form of ragging that we practice against Pakistan? It is a bully's way of asserting himself. They are our next door neighbours," he said. Making a valid distinction between artists and politicians, he exhorted: "Politicians will change colours whenever it suits them. But artists from both countries must look beyond the political animosity."
The attack on Shah came, unsurprisingly, from the Shiv Sena's mouthpiece Saamana. "The answer to Shah's question on why is there so much hatred for Pakistan can be given by those who lost their near and dear ones during the 26/11 attacks. Pakistan continues to engage in bloodshed. Not only 26/11, the attack on Parliament and terrorist attacks before that too were masterminded from Pakistan," Saamana's editorial said. It added, for good measure, that Pakistan's "intentions became known when its ambassador invited separatists for dinner to celebrate Pakistan Day in the national capital."
Sharpening its jibe against the Bollywood veteran, the Shiv Sena commented: "What Naseeruddin Shah earned after years of hard work, he lost in an instant. We wonder if someone from Lahore has done black magic on him. He was never like this."
The Shiv Sena is using the right facts to make a wrong argument. No sane Indian will either overlook, much less condone, the numerous acts of terrorism that have been executed in our country but masterminded from Pakistan. The barbarians behind these terror attacks have been non-state actors belonging to extremist organisations, which have sometimes received state backing. The successive Pakistani governments' dangerous dalliance with religiously-inspired terrorism as a matter of state policy is incontrovertible.
But isn't it equally incontrovertible that Pakistan itself has become a victim of religious extremism and terrorism? It must take blindness and prejudice of an extraordinary kind to not notice that the number of Pakistanis - indeed, Pakistani Muslims - killed in terror attacks in recent years far exceeds that of Indians. Both military and political leaders in Pakistan have recently begun echoing a truth that many intellectuals in that country had been boldly voicing for many years - namely, that the main threat to Pakistan's security and unity comes from the "enemy within".
The Indian government, Indian political parties like the Shiv Sena, and the Indian media and intelligentsia should recognise this important new development taking place in Pakistan. If we do so, and if we are serious about our own repeated proclamations about our uncompromising fight against terrorism, we should begin viewing the people and the government of Pakistan not as our enemies but as our allies in this fight.
However, for the ruling establishment in India (which the Shiv Sena is part of), to begin viewing Pakistan as an ally in the joint struggle against terrorism, it will have to counter the forces of religious bigotry in its own supportive ranks. For many votaries of Hindutva, hatred for Muslims and hatred for Pakistan are two sides of the same badge of patriotism. Which is why they cannot - nor do they wish to - make a distinction between the peace-loving people of Pakistan, a growing number of whom desire better relations with India, and those small terror groups that are wreaking havoc in Pakistan and India.
The longer we Indians continue to paint Pakistan as our enemy, the more grist it will provide to those in Pakistan who view India as their enemy - and vice versa. And the sooner we shed this "enemy" approach towards each other, the more quickly we will realise, as Shah has rightly remarked, that "there are more similarities than the differences between Pakistan and India."
The two most powerful and reliable ways of making holes in the ignorance, prejudice and mistrust through which Indians view Pakistan, and Pakistanis view India, are people-to-people contact and cultural-artistic contact. The governments of India and Pakistan mouth homilies on the need for people-to-people contact, but do little to lift the excruciating restrictions on issuing visas.
However, there is also something else that must change. The two governments must remove restrictions in the way of mutual contact and collaboration in cinema, theatre and other arts and cultural activities. For example, why shouldn't Indian audiences be able to watch Pakistani films in our cinema halls, and Pakistani TV channels in our homes?
Shah's thoughts in this regard are very perceptive. Making a mention of the special affection and warmth that Pakistanis reserve for Indian visitors, he said, "There is a great deal of curiosity and admiration in Pakistan for what India has achieved. They love me unconditionally in Pakistan. They are nuts about our stars like Salman and Shah Rukh. But I also sense a reverent affection in Pakistan for actors like Om Puri and Farooq Sheikh. I feel very special in Pakistan."
It is indeed time for right-thinking artists, filmmakers, media persons, intellectuals, religious leaders and politicians in both countries (and in Pakistan, one should also include the category of military men) to intensify their efforts to defeat the rhetoric of India being Pakistan's enemy, and Pakistan being India's enemy. It is time for us to help the new generation in the two countries to grow in a new environment in which, as Shah says, this rhetoric will have died "a deserving death".
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