Using people’s soft power to win hard battles
By the sheer force of their collective population numbers – one in 10 persons on the planet lives here – and the sizes of their conventional and nuclear arsenals, India and Pakistan make for an interesting if odd couple. That they have almost never gotten along well despite being neighbours, has made sure they cannot be ignored by the world at large.
That things could change any time soon is hard to bet on, given their current bitter relations. In the last few weeks alone, both have roughed up staff at each other’s diplomatic offices and the war of words between their foreign offices and even top functionaries, including prime ministers tweeting at each other, makes it difficult to be an optimist.
This is at the state and government levels. Official Pakistani rhetoric on all things India is prickly at best but at the social level – among the people – the realm of art generates softer emotions. Nothing has demonstrated this more than the spontaneous outpouring of popular grief and sadness in Pakistan at the deaths of a string of Hollywood stars this year– from Rishi Kapoor to Irfan Khan to Sushant Singh.
These three Indian thespians represent three different generations that also, curiously, mirror the three generations since modern-day India and Pakistan were birthed from the bloody end to the British Raj around the middle of the twentieth century.
It is remarkable that not just civil society, but ordinary people raised on official educational curricula that demonises the other, found profound ways to share sentiments of both grief and joy, rejecting the tense official political climate that moulds their otherwise angry mood swings.
Curiously, this popular anger has subsided each time some of the greatest Bollywood stars of yesteryear and contemporary times died unexpected deaths this year. The popular sentiment in Pakistan at the passing away of Rishi, Irfan and Sushant has been grief and nostalgia. Similar popular grief and condolences came from India at the death a few years ago of Pakistani crooners Noor Jehan and Mehdi Hassan and thespian Mohammed Ali.
All this, paradoxically, in the middle of regular official posturing for their domestic audiences about India’s election as non-permanent member of the UN Security Council without Pakistan voting against it, doubtlessly on the back of unannounced backdoor mutual consent for strategic considerations.
Pakistan, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, quietly admitted, faces chances of similar elevation to the Security Council three years down the line unopposed by India.
And yet the relationship between Pakistan and India has grown sourer at the strident soundbites against each other adopted by the governments of Imran Khan and Narendra Modi for two years.
It has affected the general mood of the public which has grown dark in parallel. The annexation of New Delhi-administered Kashmir within the Indian union in 2019 has driven Pakistani officialdom to relentless rage with strong public support.
But curiously, this popular anger has subsided each time some of the greatest Bollywood stars of yesteryear and contemporary times died unexpected deaths this year. The popular sentiment in Pakistan at the passing away of Rishi, Irfan and Sushant has been grief and nostalgia. Similar popular grief and condolences came from India at the death a few years ago of Pakistani crooners Noor Jehan and Mehdi Hassan and thespian Mohammed Ali.
And it has not just been sorrow. Joy has also been shared collectively across each other’s borders. The joint Nobel peace prize for Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai, arguably one of the most recognizable humans on the planet, and her Indian counterpart Kailash Satyarthi, brought the countries together in a rare moment of shared joy to their countries’ 1.5 billion people.
Until he became Prime Minister and a voice of the state’s political narratives, Imran Khan was always popular in India. The marriage of former Pakistan captain Shoaib Malik and India’s best tennis player Sania Mirza have as many, if not more, fans than cynics of unions of love.
All this social amity, even if not always sustainable, stands in contrast to the everyday political reality of prickliness on both sides of the India-Pakistan border. Pakistanis may not always agree on what is happening in India and Kashmir but that does not diminish their ability to relate to the heroes and villains in Bollywood films who represent a broader South Asian ethos and human condition.
Clearly, art has the power to bring to the fore the basic humanity that exists everywhere, but which gets clouded in political narratives, especially so in India and Pakistan. Should art be given a chance where politics is failing the people of these two giant South Asian neighbours?
Why not? There needs to be a lowering of retrograde and combative official political rhetoric from both countries. People and their artists should be given a chance to open the door for a middle ground where commonalities dictate popular imagination rather than imagined future threats.
This can only benefit 1.5 billion people of the region and many others beyond. Remaining wedded to the model of the Koreas as the world’s worst neighbours is unsustainable. In the long run the only sustainable win is a win for both.
*Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.