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The Indian within

March 10, 2014

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AS India and Pakistan struggle to resolve their political differences presently, there is an India/Pakistan-related struggle going on inside me too.

My inner instincts tell me that a big part of my cultural heritage relates to India. However, Pakistani ideologues and even some close relatives tell me that it is unpatriotic to assert any cultural attachment with India due to Pakistan’s political differences with that country. Is it possible for a Pakistani to separate cultural and political issues and simultaneously maintain cultural affinity but political differences with India?

One must first analyse the extent of similarity between Indian and Pakistani cultures. Culture refers to societal ideas, customs and social behaviours and encapsulates the domains of art, dress, language, food, family structures, religious practices, festivals, traditions, values etc. There is admittedly enormous cultural diversity within both countries and sweeping comparisons between the two cultures are inappropriate.

However, it is also true that there is large similarity in the cultures of Pakistan’s eastern regions (Sindh, Punjab and Azad Kashmir) and India’s northern and western regions along most cultural aspects mentioned above, eg art and dress. While Pakistanis living in the country’s western regions obviously have more cultural linkages with Pakistan’s western neighbours (eg Afghanistan), Pakistan’s eastern regions host the bulk of the population. Thus, for the majority of Pakistanis, the large cultural overlap with India is undeniable.

Religion obviously is the main realm of exception to this cultural similarity and since it influences many traditions, there are differences too between Indian and Pakistani cultures. Additionally, over the last three decades, middle-class cultural values in the two countries have become more dissimilar.

Parts of the Pakistani middle class have unfortunately become more conservative, xenophobic and intolerant. Conversely, the Indian middle class has become more liberal and Westernised. This, positively, has meant greater tolerance for diversity but also, negatively, greater focus on materialism within Indian society in contrast to the high degree of frugality that Indian middle classes practiced traditionally.

The most visible manifestation of this increasing difference in values is in movies and the media. Indian movies are now increasingly exploring themes, eg in movies such as Bombay Talkies, which can barely be mentioned even in liberal Pakistani newspapers. On the negative side, it means that it is often difficult now to watch Indian movies with family.

However, despite these differences, the overall cultural similarities are undeniable. Other than Muslim-majority Bangladesh (which itself shares strong cultural patterns with India), there is no other country with which the majority of Pakistanis share such strong cultural similarities.

Despite religious differences, I and a lot of other expatriate Pakistanis that I know usually find it easier to relate with expatriate Indians due to the strong linguistic and cultural linkages than with Muslims or non-Muslims from Africa, the Middle East and Far East. Given these cultural similarities, it does not make sense to disown such a large part of one’s cultural legacy, especially one to which Muslims contributed so much over the centuries before Partition.

Trying to disown such a large part of one’s cultural legacy can only have negative repercussions for the individual and collective national psyche. One must have the self-confidence and a sense of balance to be able to assert cultural similarities with India without feeling ashamed, guilty or unpatriotic.

Thus, over the last few decades, India has arguably become the second largest exporter of culture (through the export of its movies, music, food, etc) in the world after the US. I must admit that whenever I see such Indian cultural artefacts being appreciated globally, in places as diverse as Addis Ababa, Vietnam and Israel, I cannot help feeling some sense of pride and personal connection too.

However, despite strongly voicing my cultural affinity with India, politically I condemn Indian atrocities in Kashmir, just as I condemn Pakistani atrocities in Balochistan and the former East Pakistan, even though my cultural affinity with Pakistan is obviously even stronger than that with India.

Nor is this trend to mix politics and culture restricted to Pakistani ideologues only. Indian hawks maintain similar views and their views influence broader society. Yet Indian movies portray Islam with respect and often on an equal footing with Hinduism. In contrast, it is rare to see Pakistani movies showing respect and positivity towards Hinduism.

However, when it comes to Pakistan, Indian movies are largely silent or portray Pakistan negatively even though Pakistan is probably the biggest market for them after India.

One can only hope that the strong cultural similarities between the two countries can help them overcome their political differences one day. For the moment, politics is trumping culture.

The writer is a political economist.

murtazaniaz@yahoo.com