The Shrinking Space for Cultural Diplomacy between India and Pakistan

In a world where power is no longer determined solely by military might, cultural diplomacy leverages a country’s identity, values, and traditions to “strengthen relationships, enhance socio-cultural cooperation, promote national interests, and beyond.”

Despite being intrinsically linked through a common history and culture, India-Pakistan tensions are at an all-time high. In February 2019, the two sides exchanged air strikes in the aftermath of an attack on an Indian army convoy in Indian-administered Kashmir, which was claimed by Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Muhammad. India’s August 2019 move to withdraw Article 370 from Jammu & Kashmir, which struck down the disputed territory’s semi-autonomous status, has further disrupted the peace between the two countries.

Neither India nor Pakistan can afford nuclear war and historically, the use of conventional force and coercion has only deteriorated relations in the long term. Both sides stand to benefit, in turn, from recognizing cultural synergies and enhancing people-to-people ties and cooperation. Amidst the bleak narratives of mistrust, hostility, and political altercations between the two countries, it becomes easy to forget the rich history of shared culture and experiences that binds them together and can help build trust and understanding. Indian and Pakistani leaderships have moved the needle on this despite recent tensions—the Kartarpur Corridor, a 2.5-mile stretch that enables Indian pilgrims to access a holy Sikh shrine in Pakistan, is a case in point. Not just the governments, the citizens of both countries have also sought to build bridges—last month saw the release of a film featuring a collaboration between artists from India and Pakistan. But in an era of divisive nationalist sentiments on both sides, can cultural diplomacy survive?

When Cultural Diplomacy Flourished

Amidst the bleak narratives of mistrust, hostility, and political altercations between the two countries, it becomes easy to forget the rich history of shared culture and experiences that binds them together and can help build trust and understanding.

Cultural diplomacy can highlight and build upon modern-day India and Pakistan’s collective historical experiences, including the colonial period, and longstanding cultural ties to promote a more peaceful inter-state relationship.  The hastily-drawn Radcliffe line partitioning united India and carving out the new state of Pakistan arbitrarily separated communities and families that had harmoniously co-existed side-by-side for years prior. Indian and Pakistani leaders recognized this and attempted to leverage these historical ties at the governmental level. In 1974, only a few years after the Indo-Pak war of 1971, the two sides signed a Protocol on Visits to Religious Shrines, to facilitate citizens of each country to travel to shrines and holy sites in the other country. In 1988, they signed the Cultural Cooperation Agreement, which seeks to “promote linkages in the field of art, culture…mass media and sports,” following it up with an Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Cultural Cooperation in 2012.

Exchanges have also taken place more organically at the individual level, without any form of governmental intervention. Citizens on either side of the border have undertaken initiatives encouraging collaborations. Aman Ki Asha, jointly initiated by the Pakistani Jang group and the Indian Times of India group, and combining the Urdu word for peace (aman) with the Hindi word for hope (asha), translating to “Hope for Peace,” has brought business communities of Pakistan and India closer by holding economic conferences where corporate leaders from across the border could meet to discuss enhancing bilateral trade. Aaghaz-e-Dosti—a voluntary friendship initiative run through the joint collaboration of Mission Bhartiyam of India and Hum Sab Aik Hain of Pakistan—has attempted to counter narratives of a homogenized “enemy” that dominate discourse surrounding India-Pakistan conflict through peace education, discussions, letter and greeting card exchange programs, and virtual campaigns.

The mutual intelligibility of Hindi and Urdu has bolstered the immense popularity of inter-country collaborations in the arts, which can easily be accessed online and in turn receive a wide audience in both countries. For instance, the show “Coke Studio Pakistan” has received more praise and accolades in India than its Indian variant and has resulted in various collaborations between Indian and Pakistani singers and musicians. Such collaborations nurture a spirit of inclusion and beautifully capture the spirit of cultural diplomacy.

The Scapegoating of the Film Industry: A Setback

Cinema and television have perhaps been the most enduring organic cultural bridge connecting India and Pakistan. The most prominent of these bridges is India’s Mumbai-based Hindi-language film industry, Bollywood, which is considered the largest in the world. Due in part to shared historical ties, a shared familiarity with Islamicate cultural worlds, as well as the aforementioned intelligibility of Hindi in Pakistan, Bollywood is immensely popular with Pakistani audiences and also hugely lucrative for the Pakistani film industry, which depends on showing Indian films—which have the budgets, narratives, and star power befitting their dominance in international cinema—to stay afloat.

Cultural exchange through cinema has intermittently taken place between India and Pakistan, with sustained engagement reaching new heights in the mid-2010s. Following from the popularity of pirated and streamed Pakistani television shows, called serials in India, new Indian television channel Zindagi began to broadcast syndicated Pakistani serials in 2014. The popularity of these serials in India helped to broaden the image of Pakistan in the imagination of Indian audiences, escaping the strictures of extremist, Islamophobic, and anti-Pakistan rhetoric often propagated in national discourse. At the film industry level, this phenomenon also helped pave the way for those actors to work in Bollywood as leads and co-leads of celebrated industry productions.

But this period of positive engagement and industrial support of cultural exchange was not meant to last. Following the Uri attack in Indian-administered Kashmir in September 2016, which killed 19 Indian troops, India attributed the attacks to elements within Pakistan, which stirred up anti-Pakistan sentiment across the country. This spilled into the film industry, with the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), a nationalist Hindu right political party threatening violence against Fawad Khan, the most popular of the Pakistani actors working in India, should he not leave the country. The MNS and other right-wing political parties also targeted the film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which starred Khan in a cameo role, protesting and threatening violence should it be released. As a result of mounting public and political pressure, the director of the film publicly pledged to never again work with Pakistani actors—an oath that, along with alleged edits to the film itself, ensured his film’s peaceful release. The post-Uri agitation has shadowed the Indian film industry ever since, with Pakistani actors and their work in India, as well as the broadcasting of Pakistani serials on Indian channels, suffering from bans enforced by industry and government bodies.

The post-Uri agitation has shadowed the Indian film industry ever since, with Pakistani actors and their work in India, as well as the broadcasting of Pakistani serials on Indian channels, suffering from bans enforced by industry and government bodies.

This speaks to the history of Indian and Pakistani governments using access to Bollywood as a pressure valve amidst turbulence at the political level. Following the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war, Pakistan imposed a 40-year ban on Indian cinema that sent the industry into decline and caused several theatres across Pakistan to shut down or be converted into shopping malls or wedding halls. Most recently, Pakistan imposed a blanket ban on all cultural exchanges with India, including banning Indian content from Pakistani screens after the Indian decision to withdraw Article 370. The All India Cine Workers Association swiftly responded by demanding an indefinite ban on Pakistani artists, diplomats and bilateral relations with Pakistan and its people. This reifies the trend where artists have faced the brunt of political tensions between India and Pakistan.

Though these tit-for-tat bans are more symbolic, and ultimately ineffective in the digital age, and Bollywood is likely to remain a powerful bridge of connection despite current India-Pakistan tensions, it does reveal the shrinking space for cultural exchange between the two countries in the current political environment.

Will Current Divisive Politics Impact Cultural Diplomacy?

Although cultural diplomacy is no panacea for tensions between India and Pakistan, it can provide the foundation for constructive inter-state dialogue. During peacetime, it can serve as a confidence building measure, by providing the opportunity for individuals on either side to learn more about each other, help alleviate misperceptions, and build trust. Amidst periods of high tension and conflict, it can reduce risks by keeping varied lines of communication open.

However, as a more fervent nationalism takes root in both India and Pakistan, a narrow, exclusive patriotism threatens to sever the cultural bridges between the two countries. Propaganda is likely to increase psychological barriers to cooperation and prolonged tensions or crises may solidify these positions. As the governments take increasingly hostile positions towards each other, cultural collaborations and interactions at the people-to-people level are much-needed to mobilize Indians and Pakistanis to collectively fight hate, rhetoric, and divisive politics, but doing so may become increasingly difficult. In such an environment, whether cultural diplomacy thrives or dies will be the true test of its efficacy as a reconciliation tool.

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Click here to read this article in Urdu.

Image 1: Aamir Qureshi via Getty Images

Image 2: Jonathan Torgovnik via Getty Images

Posted in , Bollywood, Cooperation, Culture, Foreign Policy, History, India, India-Pakistan Relations, Pakistan, Peace, Religion, Security

Rushali Saha

Rushali Saha

Rushali Saha is currently serving as a research associate at the Centre for Airpower Studies, New Delhi. She holds a masters degree in Politics with International Relations from Jadavpur University. She graduated summa cum laude from the same university with an undergraduate degree in political science from the same university in political science. Her research interests include the evolving geopolitics of South Asia and the Indo-Pacific region with a specific focus on Indo-China relations and Indian foreign policy.

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