SHIV Sena stormtroopers swept away to the political sidelines in the last elections, rudely usurped newspaper frontspace once again last fortnight. The same Mumbai Sainiks who'd beamed happily as supremo Bal Thackeray took in the Nusrat Fateh Ali concert organised by his film producer friend Firoz Nadiadwala, cheered lustily as he released an album by the late qawwali maestro at a subsequent function, stood alongside Sena luminary Raj Thackeray as he waited among the audience to hear the same Pakistani musician sing at the prematurely aborted Filmfare Award Nite last year; tore into Mumbai's Juhu Centaur hotel to boorishly intimidate Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali into not performing for the gathered assemblage. "We shall not allow any Pakistani singer to perform in India because no Indian singer was welcomed in that country," thundered a Sainik from a snatched microphone even as Ali beat a retreat to the safety of his hotel room.
Not schizophrenia. Not patriotism. That rabble-rousing rhetoric was trademark Sena ploy to grab public attention, underline its nuisance value, assert its continued relevance on the political firmament. Observers on both sides of the border were quick to see through the Sena's effort to project political ploy as patriotic passion. "It's nothing but a political game," declared Arshad Mahmud, director, SMB, the Pakistani music company that is making a CD-ROM of Indian poet Javed Akhtar's poetry. "No one is opposed to Ghulam Ali's singing. All this is being done to gain political mileage by those who have been rejected by the people in recent elections." Mumbai-based classical vocalist Pandit Jasraj who recently performed to hugely receptive audiences in Pakistan is not taken in either by the Sena's political doublespeak, their claims of espousing a "just" cause. "If we are talking about justice then what about the Maharashtra government's announcement that they are not bound to take action against those indicted by the Sri Krishna Commission?"
Mayhem set in even as media commentators agonised over the Sena's hidden and stated motives. Pakistani squash player Jansher Khan citing "medical reasons" cancel-led a forthcoming visit to Mumbai while managers for Pakistani pop group Junoon struck Mumbai off their list of concert venues in the group's forthcoming all-India tour. Channel V spokesmen openly expressed despair. "These kinds of incidents will discourage artistes from performing in Mumbai. If we have to bring Pakistani artistes in the future we'll have to see how volatile the situation gets."
By week's end condemnations were pouring in. "Had this sort of thing happened in West Asia, it could have been dismissed. But here? Sad," said Mumbai-based pop singer Ila Arun. Chandigarh-based theatre director Neelam Mansingh was anguished: "Absolutely frightening. It's ridiculous to mix politics with culture." But even as luminaries like KaifiAzmi, Bhupen Khakar, Shatrughan Sinha (see interview), Alka Yagnik, Khush-want Singh among them, condemned the incident, another section of the artistic community chose to flow against the tide: express partial, even complete support. "Indian artistes have never been well received in Pakistan," said Mumbai-based music director Naushad. "Our performances are not shown on their television, not aired on their radio. After all, it is a two-way process." Mumbai-based actor Anupam Kher offered unequivocal support. "We're guilty of being nice. It's absurd to let Pakistanis perform in any part of the country when it's actively supporting terrorists in J&K. " Pakistani actor Mohammed Ali has a one-line rejoinder to this high-voltage rhetoric. "Artistes, irrespective of their religion/nationality, are beyond political divides and should be treated like that."
NOT in the art world alone. Furious debate raged in the political arena too. Even as Pakistani deputy high commissioner Khalid Khatak said, "this is a setback to the progress we were making", the Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami's Naib Ameer Ghafoor Ahmed seized the propaganda opportunity to tar all Indians with a communal brush. "I don't think the majority of Indian people don't think the same way. If this continues then people here might also react similarly." An unrepentant Uddhav Thackeray (see interview) added fuel to fire with his intemperate dosti/dushmani harangue.
The big question at the end of the fortnight was not whether Mumbai would remain a "dost" (friend) to Pakistan but whether it would remain a "dost" to its liberal spirit. Indeed to the rest of India. Valid question, especially in the light of the Sena's recent rampages including ransacking of "unfriendly" newspaper offices, its beating of a dissident lady journalist in the city, its supremo's labelling of dissidents as "dogs" and "donkeys" in the party newspaper. "This is not the laidback city we knew," says Khushwant Singh. "The Sena rules this Mumbai. It seems the government has abdicated power and let the lumpens take over. The city's ethos is definitely changing." Pavan Malhotra, HMV music company's Delhi-based representative, who is midwifing the entry of many Pakistani musicians into India, agrees. "The city's patience is being tested. Mumbai is less tolerant now." Khakar agrees: "Mumbai's changing for the worse." He sees larger ramifications. "The whole ethos of India is turning fundamentalist with support from the BJP establishment." He's not sure if the guilty will be prosecuted. "Vajpayee hasn't condemned this. I see no hope."
Luckily for the country, not all share his pessimism. Jansher Khan was quick to express his resolve to visit Mumbai, saying, "Nobody, not even the Sena can deprive Indian squash fans from watching their favourite players play." Junoon lead guitarist and lyricist Salman Ahmed is clear. "It's a shame. People from both countries want artistic exchange, politicians on both sides want to create a divide. This episode won't make us want to strike Mumbai off our list. Incidents like this should be overlooked," he says even as he cautiously expresses a wish to return to India. Art aficionados on both sides of the border, hapless victims of political-games-people-play can only have one response to that wish: "Insha Allah."