By Patricia Lee Sharpe
India and Pakistan: imagine Siamese twins surgically separated into a pair of sovereign states with all the appropriate organs in (more or less) functioning order. And yet, decade after decade, reactionary religious leaders continue to fret over the severance arrangements. Take Kashmir. The unending tussle over Kashmir’s proper positioning suggests that the surgeons’ scalpels wobbled before the last cut. Result: the two countries are still conjoined at the head.
And IN the head, too, it seems. The brain surgeon doesn’t exist who can excise from either the shared gestational history that feeds in each a chronic identity crisis. In Pakistan the gnawing question is: are we Muslim enough? In India it’s the other way around: are we Hindu enough?
Mahatma Gandhi, a figure widely revered outside the subcontinent, was a locus of anxiety for both sides. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the deeply secular Father of Pakistan, considered Bapaji to be so profoundly Hindu that Muslims, he feared, would never be able to count on equal status in an undivided post-colonial India. He insisted on the need for a separate Muslim state. The subcontinent was partitioned. Pakistan came into being. Meanwhile, to powerful Hindu nationalist factions, precursors of the political party now controlling the government of India, Gandhi was a dangerous man. He was all too willing to tolerate non-Hindus. Worse, he wanted to reform Hinduism.
So Gandhi had to be assassinated—and was. Not by Muslims. By a Hindu.
Three generations and three Indo-Pak wars later, tolerant sensibilities are still contending with theocratically inclined compatriots. Muslims or Hindus, as the case may be, they won’t be satisfied until they impose, by violence if necessary, their own narrowly constructed versions of one faith or the other.
Observers have noted most frequently the intolerant, murderous excesses of religious extremists such as the Taliban in Pakistan, where high school syllabi have for decades featured salafist-inspired courses on “Islamia.” In addition, a power-seeking Army elite has often sought legitimacy by ingratiating itself with illiberal Muslim factions. The latest victim, institutionally, of radical religiosity in Pakistan is the prestigious National College of Arts in Lahore, where the curriculum revolves around architecture, design, musicology, sculpture and painting.
Like art students in the West, talented young Pakistani artists exploit every medium, experiment with every style, try on every sensibility, and the best of them produce extraordinary work. Far too infrequently, to my mind, they were invited to exhibit in Karachi, where I spent two years with the U.S. Information Service in the mid ‘90s. Some of them had begun to co-opt the revered miniature style to comment on modern life. Deft and delicate in execution while hilariously satirical in import, their delicious mastery of traditional technique diverted unimaginative would-be censors from their bold exposure of absurdity and hypocrisy. I’ve always regretted not collecting a generous sample of these paintings. Why didn’t I? Because I assumed an aesthetic clash with my folk art collection. By the time I decided I was wrong, I was in Calcutta, another world entirely—or so I thought, then, to India’s advantage.
Unfortunately that era of freedom through creative finesse at the National School of Art in Lahore may be over. Evidently, a member of a notorious, but politically protected terrorist organization known as the Lashkar-e-Taiba discovered in the School’s magazine an objectionable illustration, a modern miniature unflattering to the Muslim clergy, and the path of prudence or (political) wisdom suggested that it was time to fold this impressive periodical. Yes, the National School of Arts survives, though sadly crippled. No one has been charged with the capital offense of blasphemy. No one has been assassinated. But another door to free expression has been shut—and another batch of Pakistani artists will be seeking opportunities elsewhere.
The largely unfettered creative spirits of India have often relocated abroad, but for other reasons, mostly having to do with prestige and lucre, but that era too could be coming to an end. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist regime, religious tolerance and intellectual freedom are being attacked with little official pushback.
It’s not that isolated instances of censorship have not occurred in India over the years since Partition. Hounded and threatened for depicting Hindu goddesses in the near nude (obviously!), M.K. Hussain, India’s pre-eminent modern painter, was forced to take refuge in the U.A.E., where he died not long ago. Hindu nationalists have also threatened booksellers offering materials that dispute their narrowly constructed notion of what Hinduism is—or what sub-continental history was. Some cases in point: Somnatha: The Many Faces of a History by Indian historian Romila Thapar and, more recently, The Hindus: An Alternative History. The latter, by American Sanskritist Wendy Doniger, relies on fascinating, yet largely ignored material from Vedic and later Sanskrit works. It also draws on folklore and other non-canonical sources for insights into the development of the beliefs and practices that were eventually collated into the system called Hinduism.
Lest we forget, it was a Congress party government, not one run by Modi’s Bhartya Janata party, which banned the sale in India of Salmon Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, which by the way, I smuggled into Pakistan for a friend who was a professor of literature at a local university. The infamous fatwah against Rushdie’s life, of course, came from Iran. Having survived the death sentence, he is now a British subject.
But this past September something far worse than email threats and book-banning happened to a well-respected, award-winning Indian writer, one who had been critical of Hindu idolatry. M.M. Halburgi was mowed down in his own home. To date no one has been apprehended, and the case isn’t being pursued very vigorously. As if assassination for any reason weren’t beyond the pale, the reaction of the hindutva-minded Modi government took days to surface, and even then it wasn’t strongly condemnatory. It was, in fact, too little and too late to serve as a credible deterrent to copycat murders. Indian writers were also stunned when the Sahitya Academi, India’s Academy of Letters, emitted a tepid eulogy for M.M. Halburgi without simultaneously rededicating itself to unfettered intellectual freedom. As a result, many of India’s most important authors have publicly renounced the zealously competed for (and until now highly prized) awards they have received from the Academi over the years.
Within weeks of the Halburgi outrage Prime Minister Modi was, once again, all but encouraging Hindu zealotry. This time a Hindu mob in Bihar had beaten a Muslim man to death, accusing him of eating beef. The man’s son was luckier. He ended up in the hospital. Modi eventually got around to issuing a mild tut tut, after which he scolded his opponents for “politicizing” both murders, as if the blood-spilling hadn’t been political in the first place. One of his Cabinet ministers hd the nerve to call the lynching of the hapless Muslim “an accident.”
Clearly, the BJP’s retention of power in Delhi does not bode well for freedom of speech or religion in India. Thanks to the possibly terminal disintegration of the Congress party, however, there is no effective country-wide opposition to rabid Hindu nationalism, which gives rise to a terrible question: must India go the violent, mind-numbing way of its twin across the border? One can only hope that the upcoming elections for State Assemblies will strongly rebuke Modi and his BJP.
PS: Here’s a report from Bangladesh that surfaced too late to be incorporated: two publishers stabbed, one dead, the other still in the hospital. Their offense? Issuing the works of Avijit Roy, a writer best known for his criticism of religious extremism and himself a survivor of a machete attack.