A few days ago, I read with great disappointment a news report about members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) vandalizing an art gallery in Ahmedabad that had chosen to exhibit paintings by Pakistani artists. Why did they do this? Apparently, this was to protest the killing of Indian soldiers by Pakistani forces at the border in Kashmir. Ranchod Bharwad, General Secretary of the VHP, was quoted as saying, “On one hand Pakistani soldiers are killing our jawans and spewing venom against India. Why should we allow Pakistani artists to display and sell their art here?”
I did not understand the connection. Taking a moment to honour the memory of those who risked their lives to ensure the security of civilians, or praying for the well-being of loved ones grieving for them, makes sense. However, the vandalism in Ahmedabad is no way of showing respect or solidarity. Bharwad’s argument did not make sense to me. Firstly, neither the artists whose paintings were damaged and pulled off the walls nor the owner of the gallery where these works were exhibited had any role to play in the killing of those Indian soldiers. Secondly, the vandalizing of those paintings would not bring dead soldiers back to life, or offer strength to bereaved family and friends trying to rebuild their lives.
The act of vandalizing those paintings then seemed to be either an exercise in grabbing media attention to find a platform for hateful propaganda, or simply an irrational attempt at scoring points against the perceived enemy. It reminded me of all the partition and communal riot narratives I have read; wherein people of conflicting groups looked for all possible ways to hurt the ones on the other side, thus escalating the violence instead of stopping it. It is unfortunate that we have not yet learnt from the horrors of our history.
What stood out as the silver lining in that news report was a remark by Mansoor Rahi, one of the Pakistani artists whose works were on display at the art gallery. He was quoted as saying, “We are sad but this wouldn’t deter artists from either country who will continue to share our works.” The arts have a special role in peacebuilding, and this is the kind of protest that needs to be celebrated and supported – the kind of protest that responds to violence with a renewed commitment to nonviolence. Being vengeful hasn’t helped anyone, whether they are human beings in troubled relationships or countries in conflict. Let us invent creative forms of protest.
We have grown complacent pointing fingers at politicians, media representations and history textbooks for fuelling hatred between Indians and Pakistanis but now is the time to think what we in our individual capacities can do and how we can gradually find allies and grow stronger. Alternative sources of information are available to deepen our understanding. We only need to seek them. Pakistanis do not need to carry a placard saying ‘I am Pakistani and I am not a terrorist’. Our common sense should be enough to help us see that.
However, what the people of India need is to hear the voices of Pakistanis from different parts of Pakistan, in as many ways as possible – through newspapers, magazines, blogs, literature, music, films, theatre, television, paintings, radio shows, Facebook groups, Twitter interactions, Skype chats, festivals, exhibitions, seminars, conferences, exchange programmes, personal meetings, and more. We need to know what people there are thinking, writing, saying, dreaming about and struggling with. And when we do that, we will be struck by the depth and beauty of our shared humanity. Our government may not give us this; our mainstream media may not. But we can give this to ourselves, if we truly believe in creating a more peaceful world. Let this be our protest.