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Friendship of India-Pakistan by Saira Wasim – Gouache on wasli (2001)

Syed Abid Hossain (India), Selina Hossain (Bangladesh), Raza Rumi (Pakistan), and Ajeet Caur (India) at SAARC writers festival 2009, Agra

Enthusiastic Indian spectators make life difficult for a Pakistani policeman

Nandita Das and Hasan Zaidi at the Kara Film Fesitval, Karachi

Amitabh Bachchan with Neville Tuli, founder and chairman of Osian’s Connoisseurs of Art Pvt Ltd, at the annual Jaipur literary festival (2009)

Following their popular leaders, Mahatma Gandhi – who was killed by a Hindu fanatic due to his overtures to muslims – and Mohammed Ali Jinnah – who is on record as having planned to go on vacation to India and perhaps retire there as well – the people have yearned for peace and friendship

When the cricket visas were issued after a hiatus of decades in 2005, the exceptional warmth in Lahore astounded visitors from India. In so many ways, formal identities were challenged and shifted around in those days, as thousands thronged the streets and the cricket stadiums of Lahore

Reclaiming shared cultures could resist the clamping of boundaries and challenge the mutually destructive paths that Indian and Pakistani states have imposed upon us as our destinies

1947 was not just about India’s Independence, it was an initiator of identities imposed from ‘above’. The new postcolonial states ventured to redefine their status through a mix of jingoism, the rewriting of history and the whipping up of the nation-state mantra – essentially Western in concept and practice. The journey of South Asian people therefore, has been fraught with wars, hysteria and state diktat articulating itself through prejudiced educational curricula and state-sponsored historical half-truths.

The shadows of hostility and war have refused to leave South Asia. For sixty years, the spectre of Partition and the Bangladeshi war of liberation continue to fill the public imagination with fear, skepticism and futile xenophobia. What is surprising is that the official worldview has been continuously contested and challenged by the people. A case in point is that, notwithstanding the misgivings and memories of violence during Partition, the people of India and of Pakistan have been warm and friendly to each other. Transnationalism has been articulated by people-to-people contact initiatives, and more importantly, by popular culture that has been shared for centuries, and continues to contain common strands even today.

The bureaucracies have undoubtedly resisted: twisting the arms of peace efforts by imposing visa regimes, building real and imagined iron curtains, and unleashing vicious propaganda now vociferously disseminated by the corporate media. In line with their popular leaders Mahatma Gandhi – who was killed by a Hindu fanatic due to his overtures to Muslims and Pakistan – and Mohammed Ali Jinnah – who is on record as having planned to go on vacation to India and perhaps retire there as well – the people have yearned for peace and friendship.

The relations between India and Pakistan have been aptly described as “a minefield of mutual recriminations, communal antagonisms, and military confrontations.” The policy priorities of each country also display tendencies to counter each other, or to be xenophobic in relation to ‘the other’. Public policy choices have inadequately responded to people’s aspirations and the paramount importance of establishing peace in the region.

It might not be useful to assess the perceptual direction of either government here. Postcolonial states operate in a security-obsessed frame, and focus more on the use of violence rather than on the compact they need to draw with the citizenry. This is where cultural interaction and cross-border initiatives assume immense importance. When the cricket visas were issued after a hiatus of decades in 2005, the exceptional warmth in Lahore astounded visitors from India. In so many ways, formal identities were challenged and shifted around in those days, as thousands thronged the streets and the cricket stadiums of Lahore. Track II diplomacy in the past has also been a favourite among the liberal intelligentsia of the two countries. However, cynicism in view of the failure of that mode of informal diplomacy has also been a part of public discourse.

The interaction of the two countries’ populations has been limited since the past six decades. Today, a miniscule number of families have relatives across the border. Despite aggressive posturing from their inception, India and Pakistan could not stop families from travelling to and fro, meeting relatives, friends and other associates. Wars in 1965 and 1971 exacerbated the divide between Indians and Pakistanis, and such ties were not restored even in the 1980s, when small skirmishes in adverse regions (Siachen, for instance) and tactical posturing (especially Operation Brass Tacks of 2002) were launched.

Prior to the 1965 war, Indian cinema was a major cultural force; since the banning of Indian films,television and later video technologies filled the gap. In Pakistan, General Zia’s oppressive rendition of Islam spelt doom for Pakistan’s previously vibrant and socially representative cinematic industry. While some actors and actresses were outbound for India in search of better opportunity, cultural ties with India were put on the backburner and the only relationship that was promoted was of a competitive kind, mostly in sports such as cricket.

Such interactions served the designs of both governments well, especially for the winning team in cases where the stakes of pride and perception remain high. Indeed, if cricket and the rivalry with India were not hyped-up as the only regional interaction with India, Pakistani cricketers would not have to face a storm of smelly vegetables on their arrival from a defeat handed down by Indian teams.

Thus, the experiment of SAARC and its twenty-something years of existence has been limited and has been held hostage to chauvinism. Politics and history continue to dominate discussions on how culture can transcend national boundaries and mutual hostilities. As a spin-off of official inter-governmental agreements, the SAARC processes have unleashed a large number of unofficial interactions and contacts among various sets of people and institutions, including NGOs, professionals, academics, the media and civil society.

Amid the shifting sands of our globalised life, it is evident that cultural cooperation across imagined and real borders is imminently possible. Cultural exchange, therefore, is not only a lived reality but also an endless, ever-expanding possibility shaping new spaces of resistance against officialdom. It is almost a parallel reality of composite and truncated ‘talks’ that are neither routine nor result-oriented.


Perhaps the greatest metaphor for Foundation of South Asian Writers and Literature FOSWAL is its moving spirit, the eminent Indian writer Ajeet Caur, who was once a Lahoreite, and left her beloved city in the aftermath of Partition. There is no question that she is an Indian, a Punjabi woman and a creative writer, all layers of multifaceted identities. However, her single-minded pursuit of setting up a South Asian forum and focus on India and Pakistan undermines the compartmentalized nation-state mentality too familiar to us.

The FOSWAL arranged the first ever India-Pakistan writer’s conference in 1987. In fact, most of the participants of Track-II diplomacy recognized FOSWAL as an important component of the dialogue process. Culture has become an important component of the overall potential for any dialogue in South Asia; such is the power of cultural identity, and the specific dynamic supporting regional cohesion that exists in South Asia today. Over time, FOSWAL has created a sizable fraternity of writers, poets, scholars, diplomats, academics and intellectuals through its multifaceted initiatives. It has consistently advocated the ideals of SAARC, particularly in the areas of literature, art and culture as per its mandate. In doing so, FOSWAL has contributed significantly to the overarching objective of peace and prosperity in South Asia, as well as the development of a common and cohesive regional identity. Would it really be that difficult to connect the dots between cultural interaction, agreement and assimilation, and then broad-based recognition and acceptance thereon? Suffice it to say, progressive culture may indeed serve as a prerequisite to the achievement of a collective identity.

My own association with FOSWAL has brought me closer to a nuanced reality of literary exchange. Attending the SAARC Writer’s Festival earlier this year in Agra was reassuring. The festival’s theme related to the role of writers and literature against terrorism. The backdrop was the Mumbai carnage of November 2008 that accentuated hostilities and the traditional blame-game between the partitioned neighbours.

Cultural expression in the form of festivals and ‘breaking boundaries’ is forceful enough to raise questions about the legitimacy of a particular identity. The history of ‘cultural commonalities’ is pervasive and transcends officially sanctioned borders. Otherwise, why would a Tamil poem make sense to a Punjabi, and a Bengali short story connect with the reality of another distant South Asian location? It is sad to see that conflictual, power-obsessed politics of South Asian nation states undermine the cultural heritage of the South Asian region.

FOSWAL, by facilitating discourse on truncated identities and splintered communities, reminds us that we are continuously shaping a South Asian identity , howsoever daunting the task may be.


Identity formation is a multifarious and complex – sometimes convoluted – process. For instance, what is the resultant identity arrangement between, let’s say, a Pakistani Muslim, an Indian Hindu, an Indian Muslim, and a Pakistani Hindu from Karachi? Cultural exchanges, products and commerce around it – have the transitive effect of shaping a broader and transnational reality of existence. Increasingly, globalisation and regional interaction have swelled into the enhanced exchange of ideas, of people, of resources, and have ultimately generated a more common and shared perception of the world. For instance, the widespread use of the Internet and mobile telephones has diversified the range of information, entertainment and knowledge of South Asians.

The KaraFilm Festival is the epitome of modern cinematic revival in Pakistan. But categorizing and simplifying KaraFilm just like that – like words that can be bound by meaning – is constrictive and ultimately redundant. Hasan Zaidi, the director of the festival, has rightfully asserted that “Kara is significant because in a society where … we were told to shun filmmaking as a profession, and where the state abdicated its role in promoting cinema, Kara stood up and made a difference.” As Kara has proved, even in a society as closed and as confused as Pakistan, cultural activity has a niche, and a huge one at that.

The essence of KaraFilm points to the emergence of Karachi as a modern South Asian cosmopolitan and cultural centre amidst the quickly-developing economies and polities of the region. Kara is stepping beyond ‘traditional’ self-constructed boundaries, reducing these constructs of fear, jingoism and xenophobia that are so easily constructed from the flimsiest of materials. It is promoting an environment of amity that deepens cultural development and heals the wounds that hurt to this day.


The Jaipur Writers’ Festival – celebrating its third year in January 2009 – is a seminal South Asian literary congregation. It symbolizes the need for South Asian culture to be collectively celebrated while dialoguing with the global literati.

Hosted at the Diggi Palace Hotel in the pink city of Jaipur in January every year, the festival is a vibrant celebration of national and international writers, encompassing a range of activities including film, music and theatre. The festival programme includes readings, talks, literary lunches, debates, performance, and a multitude of other interactive forums where both prominent and budding personalities of South Asian culture develop and stoke a unique ‘melting pot’ of an exciting new regional identity.

Nothing can be more revealing of the vanguard element that the Jaipur Literature Festival has provided to the quest for a South Asian identity than the fact that in 2007, at the first celebration of this cultural festival, notable authors like Salman Rushdie and Kiran Desai were in attendance. The quality and cast only got better in 2008; Ian McEwan, Christopher Hampton, Manil Suri, Aparna Sen and Kamila Shamsie were part of the world-class cultural ensemble at this festival. The Bollywood superstar actor/director Aamir Khan and Pakistan’s Fatima Bhutto were also part of the programme, signifying the important strides made in acknowledging the cornerstones of South Asia’s young and modern identity.

At Jaipur in 2009, new Pakistani writing was well represented along with other world writers. The festival explores multiple genres such as travel writing, fiction, history, and even children’s literature. The theme of writing that transcends borders emerges repeatedly at the event.


It would be naïve to state that the nuclear armed states with roving fundamentalists of Hindu and Muslim variety could be tamed and put on an alternative trajectory by cross-border exchanges. Having said that, amicably negotiated cultural exchanges demonstrate how peace can be secured even when there are acrimonies embedded in our collective experiences.

Cultural exchange reveals how a tentative South Asian identity is in the proverbial ‘pipeline’, and it is in the process of formulation. There is a long journey ahead amid hatreds which are not uncommon either. But then, rediscovering and reclaiming shared cultures could resist the clamping of boundaries and challenge the mutually destructive paths that Indian and Pakistani states have imposed as our destinies. There is no alternative to fostering institutions that let writers, thinkers, artists and musicians accelerate educational interaction and cultural production beyond the bounds of nation states.

A longer, referenced version of this piece appeared as Negotiating with identities: unpacking cross-border cultural exchanges in South Asian Journal (July 2009 Issue no. 25).

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