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A Scratched Record

Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s detention ignites Pakistan, reopens old wounds

A Scratched Record
FOTOCORP (From Outlook, February 28, 2011)
A Scratched Record

When news about the detention of singing sensation Rahat Fateh Ali Khan at New Delhi’s international airport trickled in, the people of Pakistan turned apoplectic in unison. In the collective expression of fury was forgotten the cause of his detention—he had been nabbed whisking away $1.2 lakh in gross violation of Indian laws. And those who dared to point to his transgression were countered with speculative questions the white-hot anger spawned. Couldn’t the Indians have planted the money on Rahat? Couldn’t the authorities have confiscated the money and allowed him to board the flight? From there, it was only a small leap of imagination to reach the damning conclusion: it was an Indian ploy to slight Pakistan, defame its famous singer, and discourage Pakistani artistes from taking assignments in India.

Rubbish theories, typically Pakistan, you are likely to mutter. For a second, though, imagine Islamabad detaining Amitabh Bachchan or Shahrukh Khan. Ordinary mortals who go into raptures at the sight of stars tend to believe their heroes are above thieving or breaking laws, even beyond the notions of good and evil. This is also true of Pakistan’s love for Rahat. He’s no ordinary singer; his rendition of Sufi songs often has his listeners sway in ecstacy, to slip into pure bliss. And it’s he who is popularly perceived to have inherited the legacy of the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, popularising a style of singing erroneously described as uniquely Pakistani. This is why interior minister Rehman Malik was quick to contact the Pakistani High Commission to intercede on Rahat’s behalf with the Indian authorities.

“When ghazal singer Jagjit Singh came to Pakistan, he took Rs 10 million with him the way Rahat tried to.”
Mian Yousaf Salahuddin, Music aficionado

Rahat may ultimately fly out of India, but his detention has brought to the surface the ineluctable bitterness that fresh attempts at India-Pakistan detente had sought to conceal. This particular incident especially rankles Pakistanis because India chose to treat harshly a singer whom it had so warmly embraced—recognising his prodigious talent, his admirable skills, and his mellifluous voice—despite his nationality.

Yet, ironically, Rahat’s popularity in India has fanned conspiracy theories. It is claimed his spectacular rise in Bollywood has prompted jealous competitors, in connivance with the authorities, to hatch a diabolic plan to accuse him of money-laundering and tax evasion. Veteran classical singer Ustad Badar-uz-Zaman told Outlook as much. “If some Indian artistes want him to fail, then they should do it through competition—and not by using such mean tactics.” But this conspiracy also has a political undertone, insists Zaman. “There are elements who want to sabotage a growing people-to-people contact between India and Pakistan since artistes have done more than politicians to weave together loose threads between the two peoples.”

Socialite and music aficionado Mian Yousaf Salahuddin says Indian singers too have spirited away money from Pakistan in hard cash. “When Indian ghazal singer Jagjit Singh came to Pakistan, he took Rs 10 million with him the way Rahat tried to,” he alleges. Salahuddin also alludes to cut-throat competition in the world of singers to explain Rahat’s plight. “More and more Pakistani singers are going to India seeking bigger markets. However, their popularity ignites jealousy in Indian singers, who resent the inroads of Pakistanis in the Indian film Industry,” Salahuddin told Outlook.

“When artistes like Rahat go to India to mint money, they must be prepared to lose respect and honour.”
Babar Awan, Federal Law Minister

It’s understandable why Pakistani artistes covet the Indian market. It provides a singer a following he or she can’t hope to command in Pakistan. And the greater the fan following, the fatter becomes his or her bank balance. A large fan following provides scope for public performance, which is becoming rarer in Pakistan because of the fear of Islamists, who consider music un-Islamic. Then, cutting an album in India has technological advantages. To top it, payment to artistes in cash means they don’t have to pay tax in India or Pakistan. As Indian singer Sonu Nigam once alleged, “It becomes their black money.”

But payment in cash isn’t confined to Pakistanis only, argue singers, who claim Indian taxmen have made it a habit of targeting Pakistani artistes to set an example. Says music composer M. Arshad, “First, they targeted Adnan Sami and now Ratat Fateh Ali Khan. Why?” Adds another composer Faisal Rafi, “They should first create a system through which Pakistanis can legally repatriate their earnings home.” The Indian system allows foreigners to repatriate their earnings in India after paying tax on it.

“What was Rahat thinking when he said he didn’t understand the rules? Why turn it into a Indo-Pak issue?”
Mustafa Qureshi, Film actor

This is why veteran Pakistani film actor Mustafa Qureshi refuses to believe in  Rahat’s innocence. As Qureshi told Outlook, “What was he thinking when he said that he was a school dropout and did not understand rules and regulations? He told his interrogators that he had carried foreign exchange earlier as well, but it was never detected. What kind of defense is it? Why turn it into an Indo-Pak issue? It has nothing to do with Rahat being a Pakistani on Indian soil.” Agrees theatreperson Suhail Ahmed, “Really, there can be no excuse for violating the law of another land—anyone who does so shouldn’t expect expect special treatment of any kind.”

Contrasting views on Rahat were expressed in the social media as well. Yet even those who are critical of Rahat believe Indians are generally prejudiced against Pakistani stars. In support of their conclusion, they cite several examples—the harassment of cricketer Shoaib Malik days before he was to marry tennis star Sania Mirza, the property tax singer Adnan Sami had to cough up, the humiliation of Ghulam Ali by Shiv Sainiks in Mumbai, and the decision of cricket bosses to keep out Pakistani players from the Indian Premier League.

The debate took a sharp jingoistic turn as federal law minister Babar Awan weighed in: “When artistes like Rahat Fateh Ali Khan go to India to mint money, instead of exploring their talent in Pakistan, they should be prepared to lose their respect and honour there.” For music lovers, though, Rahat will lose respect and honour only when he sings below par. Foreign exchange violations or tax evasions are not elements to judge music and its exponents by.

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