(First published on January 12th, 2019)
Former Indian army chief and now a junior cabinet minister VK Singh just made a prediction. Banning Indian content will not stop Pakistanis from watching Indian shows. The fact that someone with Mr Singh’s profile felt the need to make such a remark shows you India is its own worst enemy. This remark ostensibly came in reaction to an observation made by Pakistan’s chief justice in which he reacted to the absurdity of airing a hostile nation’s content without any compunction. Not only is such permission, a carte blanche to potential propagandists, but the real absurdity lies in offering a monetary advantage to an industry that is inextricably linked to India’s Pakistan-bashing news media. But more of that a bit later.
Had this statement come from a civilian politician, one could assume that he/she was bowing to the populist pressures. One inexplicable mystery of modern-day India, the behemoth that claims it has arrived in the 21st century leaving Pakistan behind as a prisoner of the 20th, that Pakistan-bashing still continues to sell when nothing else does. When the BJP feared a defeat in Gujarat, Modi’s home state, at the hands of Congress, Modi accused his opponent of conspiring to install a … wait for it… Muslim as the chief minister of the province who obviously would be a stooge of Pakistan and guess what? IT WORKED! The fact that Indian Muslims have served their motherland loyally if blindly, often laying their lives in its service, doesn’t matter. If they disagree with the BJP-RSS Hindutva agenda or the new wave of state-sponsored intolerance, they must be Pakistani stooges.
But a soldier, particularly a former army chief, is supposed to behave differently. The soldiers I have known in life, especially the ones who have risen high enough, always had an internalised discipline which ensured their guarded behaviour. But Gen Singh is not new to controversies. During his stay in office, he had embarrassed his force by petitioning to get a corner plot upon retirement. His statements and politics after retirement have already created a bad precedent for India’s democracy.
But you may ask what the big deal is. A junior politician just has made an observation about Indian content being watched by Pakistanis. Right? Wrong. There is a long history behind it. A long history that Indian English media keeps hiding from you. Indian politicians believe that the Indian film industry is not merely a cultural object but a political tool. Hindi newspapers usually are littered with statements where such politicians brag about the successful colonisation of Pakistani minds through Indian content. There are old statements ascribed even to Sonia Gandhi, the leading light of the Congress party, where she reportedly observed that Indian cinema had hollowed Pakistan out and its collapse was merely a matter of formality. In her defence, she was relatively new at the time and like Obama trying to placate the hard right. One can only hope that her outlook has evolved since then.
And Indian soft power hostility is not a myth. There was a visible effort by the Indian cricket board to monopolise the international cricket body with the help of two other nations in the recent past. It was in those days that international cricket totally stopped in Pakistan and the ICC was seen actively discouraging foreign teams from visiting Pakistan in the name of security. When the Sri Lankan team came under attack in Pakistan a decade ago, many believed that Indian intelligence agency had something to do with it. The nexus between Indian intel agencies and terrorists attacking Pakistan remains a subject of great discussion and debate here. But why attack cricket? Because among many other things cricket remains a nation builder in Pakistan. An India-Pakistan cricket match is a moment when even the most erstwhile critics of the Pakistani state among its citizens drop the pretense and cheer for their national team. And that is why India often refuses to play with Pakistan.
There is also something counterintuitive about VK Singh’s statement. Why would you draw attention to something that you think is working in your favour? Doesn’t it mean that it is a cause for concern? Here is a former army chief publicly hoping and predicting that the Pakistani people would defy their state and authorities to watch Indian content. This statement could be true a few years back when Pakistanis were not introduced to significantly better content from Turkey and other countries. Indian content is already being crowded out by the resurging Pakistani entertainment industry. Now such statements only help to build resistance against your own interest.
When a former army chief with political exposure acts recklessly, it should worry you because it symptomises a deeper malady. Somehow the filter that once regulated an Indian army chief’s statements is missing. The incumbent Indian chief has qualified that point already. The man who rose to his current office in contravention of the long-established seniority principle is accused of allowing saffronisation of military units at the hands of RSS-BJP elements, after lecturing Pakistan on the efficacy of secularism, is finally speaking out against the real threat to the Indian army: women and homosexuals.
My objection to Indian content is not even about national interest or need to fight Indian propaganda. I believe that the Indian entertainment industry has let itself go. Although it wasn’t great even during its best days, the flattening of Indian society in view of an extremist onslaught emboldened by the hold of RSS-BJP elements on the Indian state has exacerbated the process of decay. When freethinkers are marginalised, their place is taken by trolls. India’s loyal freethinkers, too loyal at times, are driven up the wall by extremists and meanwhile, Hindutva trolls continue to poison the content. Will you serve contaminated or poisoned food to your children? Then why should the Pakistani state allow this? Not convinced about this poison? Ask an Indian friend to publicly challenge the Indian claim about a surgical strike against Pakistan or to tweet a picture eating beef. See what happens then.
I have always argued that while the Pakistani entertainment industry learns to stand on its feet, the existing vacuum ought to be filled with Western content. There is a language barrier for sure but nothing that cannot be resolved through effective translation and dubbing. Unlike Indian stereotypic and formulaic content, there is an endless variety of Hollywood films and television shows out there. It can bring Pakistan closer to the international zeitgeist and open the mind to new and endless possibilities. But in the end, it is your own industry which needs to start delivering substantially. Indian content is too mediocre to allow in any case.