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Indians and Pakistanis Strength Cultural Ties

Cultural exchanges grow, with official sanction, despite threat of war

IT'S the sort of concert audience Pakistani singer Iqbal Bano draws at home. Inside the crowded auditorium, enthusiastic fans sway to Mrs. Bano's lilting ghazals or love poems in Urdu, Pakistan's major language. Outside, in the evening heat, hundreds more sit raptly on the grass and pavement and listen over loudspeakers.

But this isn't Pakistan. It's India. ``There is no difference as far as people are concerned. We have the same culture and come from the same background,'' says the diva. ``Countries might divide, but not the hearts.''

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For more than four decades, culture has been a battleground and a bond between India and Pakistan. Officially, the governments have enforced a policy of cultural isolation. At the root is the bitter partition of the subcontinent in l947 and political animosities that have drawn the rivals into three wars and in recent months threatened a fourth.

The cultural divide served political purposes in both countries. Pakistan, carved out of British India as a Muslim homeland, denied its subcontinent roots, and struggled to find a new identity in an Islamic revival.

Predominantly Hindu but secular India discouraged people-to- people contact to challenge Pakistan's right to be separate. Indian officials also objected to links with the Pakistan government because it has been dominated by the military for much of Pakistan's history.

For years, travel was restricted to only about 7,000 religious pilgrims and members of divided families who had to check regularly with the police in every city. Visitors from the other country were often shunned for fear of raising government suspicions.

Cricket matches, the national sport in both countries, often turned into angry political confrontations. Indian magazines, books, and cassette tapes were restricted in Pakistan, and Pakistani publications were barred in India.

Often only three journalists were allowed to work in each country. Indian and Pakistani academics had to meet outside the region. Even the festival of India, a cultural extravaganza that toured the world in the 1980s, was turned down by Pakistan.

``We took the festival of India everywhere. But we couldn't break through the political barriers and visit Pakistan,'' recalls Pupil Jayakar, a former Indian government advisor who organized the cultural show.

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``We're like a separated couple who is so familiar but just can't live together,'' says a Pakistani diplomat.

Informally, though, many artists, performers and academics have resisted political pressures and pursued links in their common cultural heritage.

These ties have deepened as Indians and Pakistanis living in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere met and interacted outside the subcontinent's restricted climate, observers say. They have grown as television, radio, and videos cut through political barriers.

Many Pakistanis and Indians tune into programs televised across the border. Music cassettes and pirated videos of Pakistani dramas and Indian films are the rage in both countries.

Pakistani cricket player Imran Khan is deluged with fan mail from Indian women and is featured prominently in Indian advertisements. Indian actresses, dangerously suggestive by Islamic standards, are big hits in Pakistan.

A steady flow of religious pilgrims and families divided by partition travel between the two countries. Journalists regularly exchange visits, and artists sponsor exhibits of their counterparts across the border.

``I have always felt a great fraternity and affinity among Pakistani friends,'' says Habib Tanvir, an Indian playwright who writes in Urdu. ``It's like two lost brothers meeting.''

Recognizing this growing openness, Indian and Pakistani officials began in recent years to be less restrictive. After the 1988 election of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto revived democracy in Pakistan, the two governments eased travel restrictions and gave visiting journalists more freedom.

Last year, Pakistan and India signed an agreement to launch their first official cultural exchange. The program covered art, music, dance, education, archeology, and media and called for the exchange of more journalists, books, and magazines.

But no sooner was the program off the ground than it was cut short by the uprising by Muslim separatists which exploded in disputed Kashmir. Suddenly, the new friendliness and curiosity reverted to old tensions and suspicions, and Ms. Bhutto and Indian Prime Minister V.P. Singh, once pledged to improving relations, began talking of war.

Amid a flurry of efforts to defuse the Kashmir standoff, artists and intellectuals in the two countries again have turned to their longstanding links. In recent months, delegations of journalists, scholars, former government officials and artists have traveled to India and Pakistan calling for moderation.

Despite common roots, many observers question if India and Pakistan can ever sustain strong cultural relations. The two cultures have grown apart and become polarized by the increasingly tense religious divide between Hinduism and Islam.

Some observers suggest that, without the nostalgia, a new healthier relationship will emerge with a young generation of Indians and Pakistanis who lack both the old cultural expectations and the bitterness of partition.

Others say the fading awareness of a common culture is dangerous. ``For years, we have kept this common background alive,'' says an Indian official. ``What will happen when that check is gone?''

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