When Hrithik Roshan appeared onstage at Washington's MCI Centre on a pleasant May night, flames erupted on either side of the actor and the audience shrieked with abandon. Dressed in a shiny black ensemble, he jerked his shoulders around, swivelled his hips, and the crowd screamed for more. A significant portion of the screaming came from young Pakistani Americans who turned out in impressive numbers to watch Bollywood's latest star perform. Besides Hrithik, Aftab Shivdasani, Arjun Rampal, sisters Kareena and Karisma and Raageshwari were part of the Heartthrobs road show which has been performing in several cities across the US.
Dr Riaz Ahmed's family was in attendance when the Heartthrobs performed in Michigan. "Over 30 per cent of the audience were Pakistanis," Ahmed reveals. "With all the tension between Pakistan and India, this was a good way to bring the communities together." President emeritus and a founder of the Pakistani-American Congress, Ahmed says escalating tensions along the Indo-Pakistan border have not produced any "appreciable" change as yet in the relationship between the two expat communities living in the US.
It hasn't also because this superficial bonhomie is maintained through a careful steering away of conversation from things political. "Each side may have different opinions, and so it's only polite that Indians and Pakistanis do not discuss politics," admits Ahmed. Agrees Gaurang Desai, president of the Friends of India Society International, Northern California chapter, Fremont: "I have a couple of Pakistani friends but we very rarely talk politics."
It's this social etiquette of eschewing disagreement which has enabled Berkeley-based Dr Khwaja Ashraf, vice-president of the Pakistani-American Congress, to have many Indian friends and still "see eye-to-eye with each". They don't talk about Kashmir; they don't talk about cross-border terrorism, and they only mull in isolation over the consequences of the two nuclear countries going to war.
Yet these worries, perhaps also a suspicion, persist, springing to the surface should you directly address these contentious issues. Desai, for instance, discerns a growing feeling of frustration within the Indian expat community. "It's not born of a dislike of any individual," says he, "but people are uneasy about recent terrorist attacks in India and the Indian government's restraint in dealing with the culprits."
Florida-based Dr Piyush Agarwal, president, Association of Indians in America, thinks people's reactions to the tensions in the subcontinent are "directly proportional" to the level of their education. Says he: "People who are well-educated have a greater degree of understanding of the situation. They can recognise rhetoric, and realise that both countries can live in peace. And the people who are less educated tend to be fundamentalist in their thinking."
That an imaginary political boundary exists comes through in Ahmed's response to the steps that can be taken to normalise ties between the two countries. Ahmed insists India must demonstrate magnanimity in finding a solution to the Kashmir problem, that it has to be the starting point for resolving the Indo-Pak conflict—a stance typical of the Pakistan government. And the Indians too echo the sentiments prevailing back home in demanding, first, an end to cross-border terrorism. Says Agarwal: "Some believe Pakistan's survival depends on anti-Hindu rhetoric. Of course, people don't realise that India is also home to more Muslims than Pakistan."
Not only this, Desai's organisation will soon launch an awareness campaign for Indian-Americans, hoping to make them more outspoken. "We need to ensure that the US does not get in India's way when and if it takes action to thwart terrorist activity across the LoC.If we don't respond to Pakistan-sponsored terrorist activities, they may think they're invincible."
Such irreconcilable positions explain why Pakistanis and Indians avoid discussing politics: they know it is that what divides them in the US. Culture bridges the political gulf only in peace. It's a scaffolding that can come apart at an outbreak of hostilities—rallies and donations for war efforts and inevitable lobbying with the US government could just about see many Indians lose their Pakistani friends, and vice-versa.
In Britain, too, the communities keep out of one another's way. Call it the ghetto factor, a migration pattern or plain demography, Indian areas in Britain are usually quite separate from the Pakistani areas—and the separation is widening. Most of the estimated 6,00,000 Pakistanis in England live in the north, in areas like Bradford, Oldham and cities in Yorkshire and Lancashire. Indians—about 1.2 million—are mostly around London and the Midlands. Home Office figures show that Pakistani concentrations in "their" areas are getting larger. Within London, Pakistanis are gathered mostly in pockets like Tooting and Newham. Indians are spread out largely in the northwest.
"What many people do not realise is that this has deep implications for the younger generation," says Tirlok Singh Chawla from the Punjab Culture Society. The implications arise from Britain's catchment-system of education under which children are required to attend the state school in the area they live in. It means that a lot of Indian and Pakistani children simply go to separate schools, consequently limiting the contacts between them considerably.
But to the extent that there is some contact among the young, the passionate rhetoric from the subcontinent seems hardly to touch them. The young simply do not read newspapers much, and when they sit down before the TV, it's not news they sit down to watch. "But maybe this is because not much has happened, and it is mostly all talk," says Chawla. The young have friendship networks, but they are alive to the differences between Indian and Pakistani families. "If something develops, and we hope and pray it does not, things could change very rapidly," warns Chawla.
No wonder, the Home Office has a special cell to keep a watch over relations between Indian and Pakistani communities, and the cell has been working actively over recent days. The police have had to deal with eruptions of violence in Britain before over developments in India and Pakistan. More than a dozen temples were attacked across Britain in 1992 following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. A war on the subcontinent too could have ripples here.
On May 29, Indian and Pakistani community leaders met Home Secretary David Blunkett. In a statement issued after the meeting, the leaders said: "Everyone in the UK has a duty to ensure that current tensions between India and Pakistan do not upset the normal good community relations between British South Asian communities. We call upon all community leaders to take action to calm tensions and urge restraint in, and between, their communities whatever their links with India or Pakistan." The leaders met Foreign Secretary Jack Straw the day after.
Post-September 11, there is a marked distancing between Hindus and Sikhs on the one side and the Muslims on the other. The Sikhs launched a national campaign to tell people they were not the Taliban just because they wore turbans. Indian community leaders also launched a campaign against the use of the term "Asian" to club them with Pakistanis. (The Indian Muslims in Britain are relatively small.)
Last year the race rioting in north England, the worst in 20 years, again involved Pakistani youth, and Hindu and Sikh groups sought to distance themselves from the violence.Now new issues are looming on the horizon threatening to provoke new differences. It's still calm, but groups are watching one another with some unease.
A.K. Sen in Washington and Sanjay Suri in London
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