Despite Animosity, Shared Cultural Heritage Holds India and Pakistan Together

Opposing cultural interaction between the two countries simply reinforces the two-nation theory. Yet, this will not be able to do much damage to the historical flow of cultural currency between ordinary people on both sides.

Credit: Reuters

India and Pakistan’s shared cultural heritage has remained largely intact despite political tensions. Credit: Reuters

Jingoistic communalism masquerading as nationalism is unaware of the fact that by opposing cultural interaction between India and Pakistan, and calling for a ban on Pakistani artistes working on Indian films, it is reinforcing the divisive two-nation theory that led to the vivisection of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. However, the fact remains that such politically opportunistic campaigns are incapable of tearing the common cultural heritage of the two countries asunder because a millennium-old relationship is too strong for that. After the formation of Pakistan, similar attempts were made in that country too but they failed to succeed beyond a point. And whatever limited success they got, it proved to be irrevocably harmful. A case in point is classical music, the glorious tradition of which lies in tatters in Pakistan.

The strong bonds are there for everyone to see. When I visited Lahore in the first week of March 2004, I went to a big music shop located in Anarkali. As I entered it, I felt as if I was standing in a music shop in Delhi. Cassettes and CDs of Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammad Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosle, Manna Dey and other Indian artists were prominently displayed as were the music CDs of the latest Hindi films. Those days were full of optimism and enthusiasm for better India-Pakistan relations as cricket matches were to be resumed between the two countries after the historic agreement signed between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and President Pervez Musharraf on January 6, 2004, on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit in Islamabad. When the matches took place, Pakistani spectators enthusiastically appreciated the performances of the Indian cricketers and even rejoiced in their victory.

However, such bonhomie has always proved short-lived. Pakistani scholar-diplomat Husain Haqqani, who represented his country in the US as ambassador, notes in his latest book, India vs Pakistan: “India-Pakistan talks get derailed, often only to be resumed with much fanfare until the next round of terrorist attacks, accusations, and cancellation or postponement of talks.” This unending vicious circle continues as we have recently seen in the wake of the Uri attacks.

Yet, we must not forget that although Muhammad Ali Jinnah did not rest until he had created the separate nation of Pakistan as a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims, he did envisage a relationship between India and Pakistan modelled on the one between the US and Canada. He, in fact, was hopeful of returning to his Mumbai home after retirement as governor-general of Pakistan. Perhaps not many would remember that until the 1965 war, there were no visa requirements for citizens of the two countries to travel back and forth. A well-defined visa regime came into effect only after a full 18 years of their existence as two separate nations.

How many would believe today if told that the first Pakistani high commissioner to India was Mohammad Ismail, a Muslim from Uttar Pradesh who had not migrated to Pakistan and had no intention of doing so in near or distant future? A controversy was bound to arise over his appointment as he considered himself an Indian. Eventually, Pakistan had to cancel it. I am citing this example to illustrate a simple point that despite the horrendous violence that accompanied the Partition, the emotional, cultural and legal boundaries between the two nascent nations were blurred, and remained so for quite some time. UP-born Chaudhary Khaliq-uz-Zaman was the leader of the opposition in the constituent assembly of India for some time before he decided to settle down in Karachi and become president of the Pakistan Muslim League. Jogendra Nath Mandal, a Bengali leader of the scheduled castes, became Pakistan’s law minister but decided to return to India after a few years.

After Partition, the Communist Party of India ordered Sajjad Zaheer, one of the founders of the progressive writers’ movement and some other Muslim members to go to Pakistan and build the party there. Zaheer was arrested in 1951 along with poet Faiz Ahmed ‘Faiz’ in the Rawalpindi conspiracy and was convicted for sedition. However, in 1954, he was deported to India.

Pakistan had not formalised its citizenship laws until 1951 and for four years after Partition, Muslims from India were able to freely travel back and forth. Passports to enable travel between the two countries were issued from 1952 and people could enter the other country only by making an entry in a register. During my weeklong stay in Lahore in March 2004, I witnessed the huge expectation that people had regarding the normalisation of relations between the two countries so that they could re-connect with Amritsar on a daily basis. They were sure that it would benefit both the cities and their economies. I heard many stories about how people went across to Amritsar daily for weeks together to watch Mughal-e-Azam. They came back the same evening.

Much to the dismay and personal anguish of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, his close friend and famous Urdu poet Josh Malihabadi decided to migrate to Pakistan in 1958. That he led an utterly miserable life there is another matter. In contrast, legendary Hindustani classical vocalist and representative of the Patiala gayaki Bade Ghulam Ali Khan went over to Pakistan but had the good sense to return soon as classical music was being wilfully neglected there by religious bigots who considered it alien to Islam. They even tried to change the names of the ragas like Durga, Ramkali, Bhairav, Shankara and Kedar because of their association with Hindu gods and goddesses but the attempt could achieve very limited, short-lived success and ultimately failed. Roshanara Begum, Pakistan’s topmost classical singer, had migrated there from India. She never followed the diktats issued by the Islamic zealots and stuck to the traditional names. At the All-Pakistan Music Conference held in Lahore in 1960, she ruefully spoke about the bad days on which classical music had fallen in her country.

For many years after Partition, Indian and Pakistani films and publications were freely marketed in the other country. Poets and musicians regularly visited both countries, as did sportsmen, academics and journalists. Trade too took place with certain restrictions. The strained relations between the two governments did not affect people-to-people interaction too much.

I heard Faiz when he came to JNU in the late 1970s and recited his poetry to us. After Ghalib, he happens to be the most popular and loved Urdu poet in India. The second Pakistani artiste whom I heard was classical vocalist Salamat Ali Khan who, along with his elder brother Nazakat Ali Khan, had become a sensation at the young age of 11 when he performed at the prestigious Swami Harivallabh Music Festival at Jalandhar in the early 1940s. He had come to Delhi in 1983 to take part in the annual Shankarlal Music Festival. A simple man, he was staying in the large dormitory of the Vishwa Yuvak Kendra in Chanakyapuri and welcomed me very warmly when I landed up there unannounced in the morning after his concert the previous evening. While we were talking, renowned sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan too dropped in to pay his respects to the senior artiste.

During my Pakistan visit, I met famous singer Iqbal Bano and top fiction writer Intezar Husain who was a regular visitor to India. Just a few years ago, I heard him at a seminar on Manto at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi. Mehdi Hasan, Ghulam Ali, Abida Parveen, Reshma, Nayyara Noor and a large number of other singers continue to remain very popular in India. In Pakistan, despite official restrictions, Indian films and film stars are immensely popular.

The two-nation theory has not been able to do irreparable damage to the shared cultural heritage of the peoples of India and Pakistan, which by and large remains intact. Enmity between the two nation states can have a bearing on this shared cultural hertiage to a limited extent but is unable to overpower it. The sooner politicians like Raj Thackeray understand this, the better.

Kuldeep Kumar is a senior journalist who writes on politics and culture.