Actor Naseeruddin Shah was trolled and threatened last week for expressing a reasoned view that religious intolerance and growing mob violence posed a mortal threat to the secular state. Naseer’s is a mixed marriage like several other actors and ordinary folk. Like him, his Hindu wife and their children keep a low premium on religion. He says it is his nightmare that the children could be surrounded by a mob one day and asked to state their religion.
For worrying that a growing number of people in India cared more for cows than human beings, Naseer was told to go to Pakistan. But these days everybody who stands up to the majoritarian view is told to go to Pakistan, including occasionally Rahul Gandhi.
In a speech to celebrate 100 days of his party’s rule in Punjab, Prime Minister Imran Khan made a passing reference to Naseer’s discomfort with the current state of Indian democracy. For the record, Imran was speaking passionately about returning to Pakistan’s minority communities their stolen rights as equal citizens. That’s when he cited the example of the Indian actor’s angst over what was going wrong in his country.
In keeping with the theme, Imran also discussed a bitter chapter in Pakistan’s history — usually a taboo with politicians — when an entire community of Bengali Muslims was wronged to the point that they could take it no more and broke away to form a separate nation. The only glue to keep a people together was justice. Denied, it led to the creation of Bangladesh, he said.
It was a statesman-like stock-taking speech replete with promises to correct Pakistan’s gross departures from Jinnah’s inclusive vision for the new nation. Imran alluded also to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s politics of intolerance and hate, something Indian writers too see as mirroring a path that Pakistan took and now apparently seemed ready to discard.
All Indians and everyone else should applaud Imran’s promise of a truer democracy for Pakistan because in our era of religious revivalism and the hate it spawns we are parched for good news. A cheerful Sikh supporter was seen applauding this part of Imran’s speech.
However, India’s lurch to the far right is more complex than a Hindu-Muslim binary and this could be important for Prime Minister Imran Khan to realise. The fight for secularism has Hindu and other non-Muslim stakeholders than is commonly understood. Gauri Lankesh and other leading rationalist opponents of Hindutva were murdered by religious bigots for standing up to the right-wing challenge. The good news for Naseer and his secular quest is that the hateful trolls have little or no effect on the grounded fight against Hindutva. The Dalit politics of Jignesh Mewani and Mayawati offers hope of a dramatic turnaround for India’s troubled democracy next year.Lalu Yadav, Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav, Navjot Singh Sidhu, Rahul Gandhi, and the Marxists too, though they are confined to Kerala, would assure Imran Khan and Naseer alike that Indian democracy albeit on the back foot was up for a fight.
If Imran succeeds in recasting Pakistan as a thriving democracy it would certainly transform bilateral ties with India, and with other troubled neighbours too. He would perhaps then see that Naseer’s multicultural identity is a significant transition from the days of Jinnah, Gandhi and Nehru when religion was so overbearing a factor that it became the basis for a bloody division of a people.
Imran wants to retrieve Jinnah’s vision of Hindus and Muslims living as equals in harmony with other communities in an inclusive Pakistan. In other words, Jinnah proposed for Pakistan what he once thought was possible in a united India. Why he lost faith in the Congress’s ability to sustain a secular nation may not be different from questions being asked in India today, albeit with the advantage of hindsight.
In an interview with Caravan magazine published in April, Naseer had acknowledged a worry that Jinnah had also expressed, and which Imran was prompted to recall too.
“A polarisation out of a saffron inclination was always there,” Naseer told Rana Siddiqui Zaman in the interview. “We always knew about it—boo toh aati hi thi (the stench was present). But not so in the face as it is today.”
Why then did Naseer feel the need to publicly distance himself from Imran’s reference to his interview, virtually telling the Pakistan prime minister to mind his own business? What could be better than two countries competing to outdo each other to build inclusive societies?
There is a history to Indians and Pakistanis worrying for each other, as they should. There was a time when the entire Progressive Writers Movement in India joined comrades across the border fighting Gen Ayub Khan’s martial law in Pakistan. Fahmida Riaz held the view that it was only by joining each other’s battles that both people could overcome their respective adversities.
Sardar Jafri offered a similar view through several well-regarded poems, one of them quoted by Atal Behari Vajpayee in Lahore. Seen from this perspective there is nothing wrong in Imran Khan making the observation about Naseer, particularly so since he was primarily making a self-critical assessment of Pakistan’s own follies with denial of social justice and equality for all its people. Sardar Jafri was evidently less bothered about ultra nationalist trolls than people are today when he wrote:
“Zamin-i-Pak hamare jigar ka tukra hai
hamen aziz hai Dehli-o-Lucknow ki tarah
Tumhare lahje men meri nava ka lahja hai
Tumhara dil hai hasin meri aarzu ki tarah.
(Your land of the pure is one with my soul/ My love for you is shared equally with my doting for Delhi and Lucknow/ We share the rich inflections of our languages/ The burgeoning of your heart are the cascades of my dreams.)