The Silent War on Secularism in India

These are troubling times for India.

The Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) led government within a year of its landslide victory in general (federal) elections has instituted a policy of interference in every aspect of India’s civil society. Such rampant and widespread tampering with secular and liberal institutions is the first step towards an authoritarian and dictatorial state, perhaps, even worse. Recent protests from writers and academics alike not to mention the rise in sectarian violence are early indicators of larger and ominous changes.

These changes began, as they usually do, disguised as routine administrative measures. A year ago, the appointment of FTII’s (Film and Television Institute of India) chairman caused considerable controversy. A well-respected institution with the likes of Om Puri, Nasseruddin Shah, and Shabana Azmi as alumni, the central (federal) government’s choice to appoint Gajendra Chauhan as its chairperson was not free of political intent. Chauhan, a BJP national convener for culture, has a body of work that includes B-grade and semi-pornographic films like “Jungle ka Beta” (The Son of the Jungle), “Vasna” (Desire), and the very fitting “Jungle Love”. Momentarily disregarding the impact of such films on a puritanical and orthodox Hindu culture, it begs to be asked if these gems of 70s Bollywood are sufficient to garner Mr. Chauhan a place as chairman of a renowned academic institution?

Shortly thereafter, economist Amartaya Sen wrote an open letter to the Government of India clearly stating the interference of PM Modi’s BJP in reassigning the chancellorship of Nalanda University, Bihar. That an academic institution was now at the beck and call of politicians, namely PM Modi and his saffron-wielding minions, has sadly set precedent in curtailing academic freedom, aftereffects of which will be seen far into the future. The constitutionally guarded right of an academic institution to function independently from fear of censure is now under threat.

Without heeding to protest or pressure, the government continues unabashed on its appointment spree. In due course, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Delhi and Bombay, and the National Book Trust quickly succumbed to the clutches of Modi sarkar. The alarming nature of these appointments can be summed up in the views of Lokesh Chandra, the newly selected head of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), who claims Modi is an avatar of God. Similarly, Y.S. Rao, the new head of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) praises the caste system (for an excellent critique on his appointment as President of the ICHR see the op-ed by seasoned Indian historian Romila Thapar).

Today, India’s academic institutions are under assault from conservative forces. It only begs to asked how far, then, are the judiciary, executive, military, and media from similar censure? In an Orwellian twist, a law tabled and passed by the Indian parliament pertaining to the appointment of judges was recently struck down by the Supreme Court. Is this not government interference in a collegial system of selecting and appointing judges? Does it not limit the independence of the judiciary?

Through these appointment PM Modi, his Hindu-nationalist BJP party, and its ideological mentors, the very sinister Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), intend more than a saffronizing of India. The BJP-RSS-VHP nexus is starting from the ground up, changing the entire discourse on India. The primary agenda of these bodies is to prove the validity of historical (and in many cases mythological) texts like the Mahabarata and Ramayana. Of course, once proven there would be no room for dissenters in a Hindu India. Needless to state that in this “new” and “reformed” vision there are no minorities. Christians, Muslims, gays, and women will be burnt in trains (India’s equivalent of the infamous gas chamber) if they are lucky enough not to be murdered by rampaging mobs.

Whatever happened to “Unity in Diversity”, PM Modi?

If that future seems rather dark and unlikely, think again. Only recently, an elderly Muslim man was beaten to death in Dadri on the suspicion of eating beef. The aftereffects of this incident led to further beatings of perpetrators suspected of transporting cows to slaughterhouses, of course, these “suspects” were all Muslim. Notwithstanding the number of Hindus who consciously choose to eat beef, I wonder, since when is eating a national choice? Is the diet of its citizens of such concern to the BJP sarkar? Talk about Big Brother!

Such is the widespread power of the ruling government and its lawless, irrational, and criminal policymakers that murders of leading writers and thinkers have gone unreported and unprosecuted. M.M. Kalburgi, a prominent researcher of ancient Kannada literature, was shot in his home on a Sunday morning. His crime was to question the validity of idol worship. To protest this rampant silencing of sane and rational voices, many of India’s most prominent writers have publicly returned India’s highest literary honour. Yet, the government seems unphased by this mutiny amongst its academics, artists, and writers.

I remember once thinking that India differs from Pakistan because of its lively debate, secular ethos, and multiple/diverse institutions each with the authority to function freely within its ambit, a stark difference from the Islamic Republic where the only institution that ostensibly functions is the military. India, today, is on the same path as its arch-nemesis. The very institutions that helped India flourish are today being quietly stifled and suffocated, replaced instead by a rhetoric of fundamentalist, religion-based, right-wing nationalism where minorities—of any kind might I add—are not welcome or wanted.

To use a popular culture reference, as Selena Kyle says to Bruce Wayne, “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne.” Indeed, the storm is brewing and it gains momentum with each passing day. The thing about storms, though, is that they engulf anything in their path leaving behind nothing but a trail of destruction. Modi and his government are one such storm, and sadly for the Indian polity they are the worst kind of storm. BJP’s vision of an ascendant India, an Akhand Bharat, is not only a danger to liberal voices in India but all across the subcontinent and even further.

Rab Rakha,



Lollywood and Beyond: A Neighbour’s Perspective

This post originally appeared here. I hope in time to come back to this theme with a longer and more nuanced article.


Asalaam walaikum, Namaste, aur Hello! Baday sareer ki drama aur filmon ki deewani awam ki taraf say dramapakistani.net kay saaray readers ko pyaar bhara salaam. My elders, or as many of us would have heard meray bozorg, always told me pleasantries are best expressed in one’s own language.

As with all things old, they were right. Incidentally, it was with “all things old” that my obsession with dramas began. I remember vividly to this day my first Pakistani drama, Aanghan Tedha, which I watched with Nani Ami in a sweltering 40-something degree Indian summer (that Indian is quite literal!).

Those were the days when vacations comprised of packing and visiting grandparents all summer long. Between “bahar maat jao kalay ho jao gay” and “yeh lo karela ka paani piyo sayhat kay liye accha hai” there wasn’t much left to do. Enter dramas and films.

Now, I grew up, as most of my generation did, with parents that had a strict aversion to films, Bollywood was bad enough let alone Lollywood, and truth be told how many parents wanted their children listening to Madam Noor Jehan bellowing “Maino note wakha mera mood banay” at the top of her lungs or Maula Jatt brandishing his gandasa?

Dramas, on the other hand, escaped that criticism, perhaps, because of their close relationship to the Urdu novel or maybe the perceived cleanliness of the industry; irrespective they simply became default entertainment.

As if maneuvering what to watch and what not to wasn’t hard enough, how to get your hands on Pakistani dramas in the middle of India’s hinterland was another battle. Since I was lucky enough to go back to Amritsar this posed to be a rather simple obstacle. Pirated tapes, yes, the VHS ones (those were the days!) would make their way across a rather protected Wagah border, as would Punjabi juttis, Lucknawi chikan, and Pakistani lawn.

And this exchange worked both ways, thus, reinforcing for me at a very early age that physical and political borders aside ours were very similar stories. At home, for instance, Urdu was and continues to be the vernacular, Punjabi was written in the Urdu script, or what is known as Shahmukhi, accents and dialects connect us to Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) and Gujranwala, and needless to state the countless friends and relatives that we continue to keep in touch with.

Recent forays by Ali Zafar and Fawad Khan in India along with the popularity of Alka Yagnik and Lata Mangeshkar in Pakistan are testament to this rich and wholesome two-way exchange. Thus, it should come as no surprise why someone growing up in India in the early 1990s can enjoy Pakistani television as much as the Pakistanis themselves.

Dhoop KinarayUraanTanhaiyaan, Badar Khalil, Anwar Maqsood, and Bushra Ansari, and now HumsafarZindagi Gulzar Hai, and Shehr-e-Zaat, all are interwoven in my television landscape, as much now as they were back then, because of the stories they tell. Stories, I believe, have no borders. Amrita Pritam’s Aaj Akhan Wari Shah Nu today happens to be more popular in Pakistan just as Allama Iqbal’s Taranah-e-Hind is India’s unofficial national song.

It is, after all, the power of stories whether they are televised, released in cinemascope, or sung in mushairas that move us, inspire us, or just simply give us a momentary escape from reality; sometimes a tad bit too escapist, if you ask me.

A good story, though, requires an equally good storyteller and that is the strength of our dramas. Would Aaghan Tedha be the same without Maqsood’s biting satire of an honest bureaucrat? Could Tanhiayan bring us to tears over and over again were it not for Haseena Moin’s flawless script? And would we ever have been glued to our television sets had it not been for the spine tingling suspense around Khirad and Ashar (Humsafar) or Kashaf and Zaroon (Zindagi Gulzar Hai)?

No matter how good a story might be or how accomplished the storyteller, nothing substantial can ever be achieved without a good cast. Our actors bring to life the passion and pain, the love and longing, and the pathos and suffering of some of Pakistani television’s most notable characters. Mahira Khan’s heartbreaking transformation from a wife to a single mother in Humsafar, Sameena Peerzada’s naseeyats and pyar as Ami in Zindagi Gulzar Hai, Badar Khalil’s emphatic and easily recognizable voice, and Bushara Ansari’s effortless mimicry have left an undeniable mark on our understanding of these characters and their stories.

It is with this experience of a stellar television industry that I come on board Drama Pakistani as a reviewer. I don’t promise to limit my reviews to dramas, the team does a good job of them, and thus, time and again, you’ll see me writing about Pakistani films (and someone’s got too!).

I confess I haven’t seen a lot of Pakistani films (not as many as Bollywood that’s for sure!) but from what I’ve seen – BolKhuda Ke LiyeWaarZibahkhana, and Zinda Bhaag – I can easily say that this journey will be anything but dull like those summer holidays, a decade or so ago, that first pushed me to the realm of Pakistani television.

I welcome you all to partake with me in the joys and sorrows, the ups and downs, and the happy and not-so-happy in the following reviews. I look forward to your opinions and comments and to read what you think of these stories. After all, it is stories that bring us together, that help us imagine beyond our horizons, and finally, sustain us.

Aapki bahut meherbani.