New Delhi: In the run-up to India and Pakistan’s respective 74th Independence Day celebrations, artists,activists and writers got together on an online platform to discuss how coronavirus has impacted the need for regional solutions and if peaceniks can overcome right-wing politics on both sides of the border to change the status quo of no engagement.
The event was facilitated by Voicepk.net — “an open platform that is dedicated to broadcasting events related to human rights concerns within Pakistan and the rest of the world”.
Coordinating by journalists Mandira Nayar from India and Munizae Jahangir from Pakistan, the panel discussion featured personalities from both sides of the border — activist Dr Syeda Hameed and filmmaker Nandita Das from India, Pakistani painter Salima Hashmi and British-Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif.
On censorship, both official and from ‘custodians of culture’
Nandita Das, whose 2018 movie Manto — a biographical drama based on the legendary Partition-era writer Saadat Hasan Manto — was banned in Pakistan and faced audio cuts in India, said, “Now, censorship has acquired many forms. One is from the government, which is the censor board [itself supposed to be merely a certification board]. The other is from the self-proclaimed custodians of culture.”
But this was not her first tryst with censorship. Her directorial debut Firaaq (2008), based on the Gujarat riots of 2002, faced fierce resistance, as did her 1996 movie, Fire, a lesbian drama directed by Deepa Mehta. “Fire got a complete clean chit from the board but it was attacked by a right-wing group,” Das recalled.
“The third kind of censorship that is increasing over the years is unfortunately self-censorship,” she added.
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Author Mohammed Hanif, whose book A Case of Exploding Mangoes, a comic novel based on Zia ul-Haq’s death, was confiscated, concurred: “The government’s expectation from writers and creators is to just not create anything. When they confiscated my books, they asked ‘What was the need for you to talk about these things?’”
He added, “Now, before thinking of an idea, we think what kind of backlash we will face for it. Censorship was rampant 20 years ago also, it has only gotten worse now.”
Salima Hashmi, daughter of revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz drew on what Manto himself thought about censorship. “Manto was no stranger to censorship. He felt there were ways to negotiate censorship. You need to outsmart the censor. Artists, writers, performers learn ways of subterfuge which can take many forms,” she said.
On 31 July, the eve of Eid al-Adha, a Muslim man who was transporting buffalo meat to a market in Haryana’s Gurugram was lynched by cow vigilantes. Addressing this incident, activist Syeda Hameed said, “We saw footage of the man being beaten up, and a policeman was just standing there and not doing anything. Being a Muslim, I cannot say a lot of things, but others can.”
Saying censorship is embedded in Muslims solely because of their religious identity, Hameed spoke of how things have become difficult. “I don’t know what peaceniks can do, but the struggle continues on both sides of the border. The next generation will hopefully see a more peaceful South Asia.”
On the failure of the liberal movement, Das believed until the conversation remains marginalised, liberals remain guilty. “The young people are probably not as engaged because of such a strong right-wing narrative that has been going on. We are still speaking amongst ourselves.”
She added, “We need to counter a machinery, a system established by those shrill voices. We are not a collective, we need a strategy.”
While Munizae Jahangir disagreed with Das about the absence of this fight in the mainstream, Hanif commented that “the people who hope for peace and advocate it such as activists and speakers don’t have enough strength in their voice. We have failed to come up with a language that is powerful enough”.
On the role of youth and tech in the way forward
On what can be done going ahead and the role of technology, which has only increased in importance due to the coronavirus-induced lockdowns across the world, Hashmi put her faith in the youth’s curiosity and inventiveness. “The younger generation is far more competent in figuring out ways and means to do this. We will see a lot of joint projects due to this innate curiosity. This is the time to create mayhem in ways we still can,” she said.
Underscoring the need for conversing and coming together, Das said, “There needs to be collaboration. Projects such as Churails, directed in Pakistan and produced in India, are an example of artistic subterfuge.” Churails is a show now streaming on Zee5.
Hashmi invoked the poetry of her father, Faiz, whose Hum Dekhenge reverberated across India when protests against the CAA and NRC rocked the nation. But the painter spoke about the relevance of another one of his works — Tum kaho kya karna hai, ye ghao kaise bharna hai (You tell me what we should do, how we should heal this wound)
She noted, “We must keep asking ourselves this question and come up with the most creative ways for conversations like this to take place — especially amongst students because they are just so much more fearless.”
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