Indians and Pakistanis Strength Cultural Ties Cultural Exchanges Grow, with Official Sanction, despite Threat of War

Article excerpt

IT'S the sort of concert audience Pakistani singer Iqbal Bano draws at home.

Inside the crowded auditorium, enthusiastic fans sway to Mrs. Bano's lilting ghazals or love poems in Urdu, Pakistan's major language. Outside, in the evening heat, hundreds more sit raptly on the grass and pavement and listen over loudspeakers.

But this isn't Pakistan. It's India. "There is no difference as far as people are concerned. We have the same culture and come from the same background," says the diva. "Countries might divide, but not the hearts."

For more than four decades, culture has been a battleground and a bond between India and Pakistan. Officially, the governments have enforced a policy of cultural isolation. At the root is the bitter partition of the subcontinent in l947 and political animosities that have drawn the rivals into three wars and in recent months threatened a fourth.

The cultural divide served political purposes in both countries. Pakistan, carved out of British India as a Muslim homeland, denied its subcontinent roots, and struggled to find a new identity in an Islamic revival.

Predominantly Hindu but secular India discouraged people-to- people contact to challenge Pakistan's right to be separate. Indian officials also objected to links with the Pakistan government because it has been dominated by the military for much of Pakistan's history.

For years, travel was restricted to only about 7,000 religious pilgrims and members of divided families who had to check regularly with the police in every city. Visitors from the other country were often shunned for fear of raising government suspicions.

Cricket matches, the national sport in both countries, often turned into angry political confrontations. Indian magazines, books, and cassette tapes were restricted in Pakistan, and Pakistani publications were barred in India.

Often only three journalists were allowed to work in each country. Indian and Pakistani academics had to meet outside the region. Even the festival of India, a cultural extravaganza that toured the world in the 1980s, was turned down by Pakistan.

"We took the festival of India everywhere. But we couldn't break through the political barriers and visit Pakistan," recalls Pupil Jayakar, a former Indian government advisor who organized the cultural show.

"We're like a separated couple who is so familiar but just can't live together," says a Pakistani diplomat.

Informally, though, many artists, performers and academics have resisted political pressures and pursued links in their common cultural heritage.

These ties have deepened as Indians and Pakistanis living in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere met and interacted outside the subcontinent's restricted climate, observers say. …