THE day before Tehelka’s London summit ‘India-Pakistan: designing a new future’ one of the organisers told me that Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s federal information minister, had pulled out of the conference, and I calculated that the female representation of the speakers had just dipped by 20 per cent.
Of the four remaining women speakers there were Naiza Khan and myself on the Art and Cinema panel, Mehbooba Mufti speaking about Kashmir, and Robin Raphel discussing relations between South Asia and the West.
As panel after panel of suited men took their place on the podium Tarun Tejpal, the editor-in-chief of Tehelka, joked that he was the only man in the Tehelka team, and the women who had been in charge of the organising — and who were moderating the panels — clearly just wanted to be surrounded by men. But the sadder reality was that the conference reflected how largely male-dominated the political worlds of India and Pakistan are, notwithstanding the few highly visible exceptions.
At the start of the conference, I confess to thinking that the only panel which had more than one female speaker — the art and cinema panel — was going to be little more than lightweight distraction from the heavy-hitters of political life. What were Hasan Zaidi, Mohammad Hanif, Naiza Khan, Karan Johar, Prasoon Joshi and I doing in the middle of discussions and lectures by Jaswant Singh, Gen Asad Durrani, Mushahid Hussein, Sartaj Aziz, Farooq Abdullah, et al., not to mention the mission statements sent by Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari?
We certainly couldn’t add to anyone’s understanding of the political ins and outs of India-Pakistan relations — but worse, it soon became apparent, that even those fields of creativity and entertainment we consider our domain were being hijacked. How could we artists and writers and film-makers trump anecdotes about Shaikh Abdullah feeling neglected by Quaid-i-Azam, or of the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan meeting for discussions on a bench surrounded by lotus flowers? How could we, creators of fiction, come up with more fantastic stories than that of the ISI as a bringer of peace, or of the RSS as an organisation with respect for Muslims?
But as the conference wore on it quickly became obvious that the culture panel, as well as the youth panel (which stretched the meaning of ‘youth’ to include those in late middle-age) could at least bring something refreshing to the table — a movement away from ‘already stated positions’ and a willingness to discuss, rather than score points against each other. The ‘scoring points’ generally took the form of someone from India mentioning the phrase ‘cross-border terrorism’ and someone from Pakistan scrambling into defensive posture — it was somewhat depressing, though occasionally also amusing, to see how initial statements of respect for the other and a desire for peace could give way at the slightest provocation to this attacking-defensive paradigm.
And so it was a relief of a strange sort to come to the culture panel at which Tehelka’s co-founder, the ever-intelligent and articulate Shoma Chaudhury, dispensed with all the insincerity and started straight off with the assertion that for most Indians, herself included, Pakistan is a largely scary and alien Other — though she went on to talk of the ‘shocks of recognition’ that accompany the moments when the alienness falls away to reveal a neighbour in many ways familiar.
She pinpointed her first shock of recognition as accompanying her reading of Mothsmoke — and described how, despite this shock of recognition, the interview she later conducted with Mohsin Hamid was an antagonistic one, because she brought her own continuing prejudices to the interview and Mohsin responded with angry defensiveness.
In many ways, the introduction was the most honest moment of the conference, encapsulating within it so much that is problematic in India-Pakistan relations — the misconceptions and prejudice that lead to defensiveness and hostility. But it also carried with it hope — those attitudes can change, the prejudicial questions can give way to a far more nuanced understanding and a desire to build bridges.
On both sides, Indian and Pakistani, there seemed little to counter the view that India’s view of Pakistan is desperately partial and one-sided, while the same is not so of Pakistan’s view of India. ‘Ask any Indian to name three terrorist groups based out of Pakistan and they’ll do it; ask them to name three artists or writers from Pakistan and you’ll get a blank look’ as someone summed it up.
Fifi Haroon, asking a question from the floor, suggested that the flow of movies, books, etc., from India into Pakistan is far greater than the flow in the opposite direction, and so there’s a question of ‘access’ that emerges. True enough, but we can’t complain that Indians don’t watch Pakistani films when we in Pakistan would much rather watch Bollywood ourselves. That Pakistani films such as ‘Khuda kay Liye’ and ‘Ramchand Pakistan’ are now finding their way into India is at least a move in the right direction. As far as English-language novels are concerned, a number of Pakistani writers are finding publishers in India where none are forthcoming in Pakistan.
None of this is to imply that art and cinema alone can bring peace. But if the political propaganda between the two countries continues to ease up it allows a greater space for writers and artists to convey across the border those ‘shocks of recognition’ which turn enemies into neighbours and makes it harder for the politicians to sell the idea of the Demon Next Door.
In the end, though, it may be the economic imperative that drives most efficiently through all the prejudices and misconceptions. ‘India needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs India,’ one of the speakers said. Why? Because Pakistan stands in the path of India’s access to the mineral and gas rich Central Asian states. Perhaps the real peace pipe will turn out to be a peace pipeline.
The writer is a novelist and author of Kartography and Broken Verses
Source: Daily Dawn, 2/7/2008