Monday, October 31, 2016

Deep Divide

Growing up in India, the story of the nation's valiant struggle against the oppressive British was a constant reminder via schoolbooks, movies, comics and television. The portraits of Gandhi and Nehru adorned every office, dominating and making sure you never forgot the sacrifices made. Politicians dressed like freedom fighters channeled the past for votes and legitimacy. But what was brushed aside as a footnote, was the horrors of partition - a holocaust that claimed the lives of millions.

And so, in part because of these horrors, India and Pakistan remain enemies, amassing nuclear weapons and armies and living on the verge of mutual destruction. Every now and then there are glimpses of reconciliation, but they are fleeting. A terrorist attack on Indian soil orchestrated by groups within Pakistan, reignite tensions. When it subsides, disagreements over Kashmir flare up. The Pakistani establishment often blames the Indian intelligence services for the chaos in their country and India blames theirs. This cycle has been in motion for decades and there are no signs of it ending. 
When discussing the two nations, it is important to shed light on the trajectories they took since their formation. India evolved into a functioning democracy with a robust and diverse social fabric. The armed forces are under the firm control of the civilian government, which is elected every five years by a largely free and fair election. Pakistan on the other hand, has spent a large portion of its existence under military dictatorship. Today the army is a dominating force that sets the agenda, always waiting in the wings with a threat of a coup. The clerics, appeased and empowered in the 80s, have more power than before and practice it with relative impunity. Terrorism in the name of Islam is not only eating away Pakistan’s core, but is also being used as a proxy to spread chaos across the border. Many known convicted terrorists roam free in Pakistan under the protection of powerful entities. India's "public enemy" Dawood Ibrahim leads a life of luxury in Karachi. As a result Pakistan's civil society pays a heavy price as journalists and free thinkers are harassed or killed and minorities are oppressed and cleansed.
While Pakistan is in a state of free fall, lately India  seems to be becoming less tolerant in its diversity of opinion.
Two recent events seem to have hit a nerve in India, which have created a firestorm, where people's loyalties are being questioned based on their opinion. The gulf between the left and right has gotten wider and what is emerging is a disturbing and unhealthy form of nationalism that threatens India's democracy.
The killing of a young militant commander of the terrorist group Hizbul-Mujahedin, was seen as a major breakthrough for the Indian armed forces, who have policed the troubled region of Kashmir with an iron hand, for more than thirty years. When thousands spilled into the streets at Burhan Wani's funeral it was a shock to many. As his body was paraded through the streets, it was clear he was a hero to many and not just a slain terrorist. This soon led to clashes with the armed forces and scenes reminiscent of Palestinians throwing stones at the mighty Israeli army were all over television screens. The unrest in Kashmir prompted the Pakistani Prime Minister to praise the slain terrorist as a "young leader", irking India.
On a September morning, a few miles from the Pakistani border, in a town called Uri in Kashmir, an Indian army base was attacked by a band of terrorists. Several hours later, four militants and eighteen Indian soldiers were dead. India directly blamed Pakistan for this attack and launched "surgical strikes" against militant bases within Pakistani territory. Pakistan denied any involvement in the Uri attack, and said there was no evidence India could provide to prove otherwise, and said it was a revenge attack in response to the violence in Kashmir. They also said India had not carried out any strikes within their territory they could corroborate. The tension between the nations escalated further. The Indian armed forces were put on a war footing, villages along the border were evacuated and the media went into a state of frenzy. 
When the dead soldiers and their wailing family members were displayed on Indian television, emotions began to run high. Politicians and media pundits began to whip up patriotism and jingoism. The case to go to war was being made between talking points. Anyone who did not pay their overt respect to the dead soldiers and not take part in the patriotic fervor, were portrayed as traitors. Politicians openly used the death of the soldiers to further their agenda, and an open call was in place to ban anything and everything belonging to the enemy state.
The broadcast of all Indian television programs were suspended inside Pakistan. A prominent Bollywood film was threatened from being released because it had a Pakistani actor in its cast. A right wing political party called for a boycott and an association of theater owners refused to screen the film. So the director in an emotional public plea, apologized and vowed never to cast a Pakistani every again. The director was also asked to donate a large sum of money to an army welfare fund as reparations for his misdeed. A complaint was lodged against the organizers of the Mumbai Film Festival for screening a Pakistani film. There was a heightened aversion for everything Pakistani or Indian on either side of the border.
In the past the enmity between the countries, was tempered by civil engagement in the arts, sports and science. Acknowledging that Indians and Pakistanis are the same people sharing the same heritage only divided by history and politics.
My first interaction with a Pakistani happened when I moved to New York City in 1996. He was my taxi driver. We spoke the same language and could relate to each other on many levels. When in a sign of camaraderie he refused to accept payment from me, the brotherhood was even more evident. Over the years I have found friendship in many Pakistanis for obvious reasons. Late last year, I was approached by two Pakistani producers to direct a film about a remarkable man named, Abdus Salam. I was surprised how little I knew of this man, who was born in my country of birth in 1926. The more I found out, the more his life’s story intrigued me. I soon realized that as the first Muslim Nobel laureate, Abdus Salam was a national treasure whose life needed renewed attention, especially in the present times.
When I started work on the project with my Pakistani producers, I found many things in common with them. We unequivocally agreed how ludicrous, unnecessary, painful and demoralizing the divide between the nations is. It hinders so much that can be beneficial to both. We faced some of the inconvenience first hand while making this film. Even though I am a US citizen, I was not granted a visa by the Pakistani government to film there, for being of Indian origin. The Pakistani officials were annoyed that my producers could not find a native to direct the film. While filming in London we met many Pakistanis who were married to Indians and could not visit their families because of visa restrictions. The human toll the separation takes is significant and damaging enough in every sense of the word.
It is almost a year now since I started work on this film. While this is a biography of a Nobel scientist, it largely deals with an aspect of his life, when he was exiled from his own country for belonging to the Ahmadiyya community. The Ahmadiyyas, a sect within Islam, were declared non-Muslim by the dominant Sunni clerics, and the Pakistani constitution drafted an amendment to this effect in 1974. Since then they are treated as second-class citizens in their own country prompting many to leave. Abdus Salam was one of the most prominent of them. 
Many in Pakistani civil society are disturbed and deeply worried about the spread of extremism that is eating away at their social fabric. They are as much victims of terrorism as Indians are across the border. A recent film titled Among the Believers, made by an Indian and a Pakistani exposes the true nature of this cancer and therefore has been banned in Pakistan. My film exposes the heavy price people and nations pay when intolerance overruns humanity. When a man like Abdus Salam should be celebrated and his legacy used to encourage science and learning, he is vilified, maligned and discarded in his own country. 
At the moment, with the way things are, I am concerned if our film will be shown in either of the countries. Not because of the subject matter, but because of the origins of its makers. It is what it is.