Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    South Asia
     Feb 23, 2007
Bollywood, saris and a bombed train
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - While the larger aim of the terror attack on the Delhi-Lahore Samjhauta Express last Sunday night might have been to undermine the ongoing India-Pakistan peace process, it was to snap the mass people-to-people contact that the train enabled that could have been the more immediate goal.

Pakistan-based jihadis, who Indian security officials say are the most likely to have carried out the attack in which nearly 70 people died, are said to be alarmed by the "corrupting influence" of Indian popular culture on Pakistani people. By targeting the

Samjhauta Express, those who masterminded the attack sent out a chilling message that they are determined to sever the growing links between the people of the two countries.

The Samjhauta Express, which connects Delhi with the Pakistani city of Lahore, was launched 30 years ago. Also called the "Friendship Train", it is often regarded as the barometer of the India-Pakistan relationship. It has been suspended twice - in the mid-1980s at the height of the Sikh separatist movement in the Indian border state of Punjab and in 2002, when India and Pakistan were on the brink of war after an attack by Pakistan-backed terrorists on India's parliament building.

In 2004, when India and Pakistan normalized relations, the Samjhauta Express was put back into service and it has been on track since, ferrying hundreds of thousands of people between the two countries.

What bother jihadis and religious fundamentalists about initiatives such as the cross-border train is that Indians and Pakistanis are meeting, exchanging views and getting to see and experience how people on the other side of the border live. Ordinary Pakistanis, long taught to believe that Muslims in India are not allowed to observe their religion, are surprised by the large number of mosques in India and the freedom that Muslims have to pray and celebrate their festivals.

Indian Muslims are going to Pakistan and finding that the streets of Karachi and Lahore are not paved with gold and that those who migrated to Pakistan in 1947 (the mohajirs) are second-class citizens there. They are realizing that their future is far brighter in India's booming economy than it would have been in Pakistan. People from Jammu and Kashmir who have gone across to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir have come back with tales about "the medieval lifestyles" of their kin across the Line of Control that separates it from Indian-administered Kashmir.

If over the past decade the India-Pakistan seminar circuit found that issues of common concern should bring their two countries together, today it is the masses traveling in the Samjhauta Express that are rediscovering a shared culture. And if in the past Pakistanis had to make do with videocassettes of popular Bollywood movies smuggled into Pakistan - there is a ban on Bollywood movies in Pakistan - today, they can see these movies when they come to India and take back compact discs for their families.

For jihadis, the various people-to-people initiatives - and especially the Samjhauta Express - are plots by "Hindu India" to wipe out Muslim culture and beliefs. "In their imagination," writes noted journalist Praveen Swami in The Hindu, the Samjhauta Express "is a Trojan horse, a vehicle for the destruction of the project of Pakistan."

Swami cites a recent issue of Ghazva, the Pakistan-based terror organization Lashkar-e-Toiba's in-house publication, to draw attention to growing jihadist concern regarding the impact of the peace process. "Up until now," the report in Ghazva says, "only India has enjoyed the benefits of the Islamabad Declaration. All Pakistan got from that agreement is an exchange of cultural troupes. And as if that wasn't enough, Indian politicians have taken the exchange of such cultural troupes a step forward by suggesting eradication of borders between India and Pakistan.

"On the other hand," Ghazva says, "our own rulers are trying to weaken our ideological borders, instead of strengthening them. Efforts are under way by the Pakistani government to remove facts and material from the curriculum which educates our youth about the designs of the Hindus, and exposes their real mindset about Muslims in general and Pakistan in particular."

And conservatives in Pakistan have a new problem to worry about. The sari, reviled by conservatives as "Indian and un-Islamic", is staging a comeback as high-fashion attire among Pakistani women three decades after it went out of vogue thanks to military dictator General Zia ul-Haq's attempts to Islamize the country.

Although the sari is worn by women in several South Asian countries, it is widely seen in Pakistan as Indian or Hindu attire. Many in Pakistan frown on women wearing saris as it is regarded to be far too revealing - the choli or blouse is cut short leaving the midriff bare - and figure-flattering. This together with successive Pakistani governments wanting to distance themselves from South Asia to feel a part of Muslim West Asia resulted in women opting for the salwar kameez over the sari.

While the sari is nowhere near unseating the salwar kameez as the most popular attire in Pakistan just yet, the very fact that it is making a comeback, even if only among the elite and for wear on formal occasions, is sure to draw the ire of the conservatives.

The growing popularity of the sari among Pakistan's fashion-conscious elite is being blamed on another bete noire of conservatives - Bollywood movies and television serials. "The Indian electronic media [have] played an important role in promoting the sari culture in Pakistan. Now Pakistani actresses on TV channels are being seen wearing saris, especially young women," reports The Nation, an English-language newspaper published from Lahore.

For decades, Pakistan's rulers and conservatives sought to keep out Indian popular culture; Bollywood and Indian television channels were banned. This was of course partly prompted by the need to protect Pakistan's entertainment industry from being wiped out by its more seductive and popular Indian counterpart. But also, it was part of the larger project of demonizing the enemy, as Bollywood's hugely popular movies would have severely subverted the government's anti-India propaganda. The India-Pakistan smuggling network did of course bring Bollywood to Pakistan anyway.

While the official ban on Bollywood remains in force, what is happening now, thanks to the closer people-to-people interaction, is subverting the jihadist project on a far greater scale.

Pakistani passengers on the Samjhauta Express are carrying home from India not only saris, bangles, CDs, beedis (cigarettes made of tobacco and wrapped in the tendu leaf), paan masala (betel leaves wrapped around spice and sometimes tobacco) and pressure cookers but also tales of life in India.

Of course, India too has been reluctant to open its doors to Pakistanis. Its response to initiatives that envisaged greater people-to-people contact was rather paranoid in the past. This was prompted in part by security concerns, but also this reluctance had to do with anxieties over how its poverty and problems would be perceived abroad. The economic upturn and the improvement of the security situation in Kashmir have made India more confident today about opening its doors to Pakistanis.

In previous years, it was only the well-to-do Pakistani who could afford flights to India that got to experience the seductive appeal of India's noisy democracy and its popular culture. The Samjhauta Express has changed that. Thousands of poor Pakistanis are now able to pour into India and sample it as well. It has made them hate their giant neighbor less.

That has worried the jihadis. And that is why the train became their target last week. But at least the train is still running - it resumed services on Wednesday.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Bombs spur India-Pakistan peace process (Feb 21, '07)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2007 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110