Entertainers, intellectuals and liberals in Pakistan are being squeezed. They were already a threatened species, thanks to the policies of successive governments which have resulted in the rise of the religious right. But, the ill-conceived and ill-timed introduction by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the 15th Constitutional Amendment (CA 15) has triggered off fears that such people may actually become extinct — a worst-case scenario that is not as unlikely as it once seemed. After all, neighbouring Afghanistan too once harboured educated, liberal thinking individuals. Those who are left there now dare not reveal their true colours, others have Bed the country or been killed.
Opposition to the amendment has been projected by the government and the country´s right-wing forces as heresy. Religious zealots have gone as far as to urge their supporters to kill those who oppose it. One of them has even asked his followers to launch a crusade against journalists, whom he describes as kafir (infidels). “They are ridiculing the enforcement of Shariah. Kill them wherever you see them,” he told a Peshawar congregation in October.
But the atmosphere of repression and fear has done nothing to curb cultural expression, at least not yet. It seems that the more repression there is, the more people clutch at this straw. The rock band Junoon has never been as popular as it is now, after being ´banned´ by the government for its allegedly anti-Pakistan statements during a tour of India this summer (see page 37). Classical dancer Naheed Siddiqui, recognised as one of the world´s leading Kathak exponents, back in Lahore from her base in Birmingham, says she has never encountered as much interest in dance as there is now, when it seems that dance will again become as taboo as it was in Zia-ul Haq´s time, or even more so. The privately organised Music Conference in Lahore, an annual event held in the last week of October, drew record audiences. On the last night, there was not even standing room in the 3000-seat open air theatre and the performance went on well past 3.00 am. Record numbers of people and performers attended the Fourth International Puppet Festival (theme: Peace). As many as 38 troupes from 27 countries, including India, showed up and 150,000 tickets were sold.
Such festivals – dance, drama and music – take place against all odds. Most have to be privately organised, given the lack of government support and funding. In fact, events are actively hindered by officials uncertain about what the cultural policy is. Over the years cultural events have taken place under a lengthening shadow of religious militancy, bigotry and threats of violence.
The Puppet Festival has become a leading international biennial event since it was introduced by the Peerzada family in 1992. Arrangements for it were jolted by Sharif´s announcement in August that his government would “make the holy Qur´an and Sunnah (Islamic traditions) the supreme law of Pakistan”. At that time, the festival organisers were putting the final touches on the Fourth Puppet Festival. (Work on each festival starts two years before the event).
For the first time, the Peerzadas, who have been through three puppet and two dance and drama festivals since 1992, had to work at convincing participants to come, besides doubling security at the festival premises. Delegates from the USA and Sweden dropped out at the last minute, and the Pakistani government refused visas to 19 puppeteers from Iran, on the grounds that their security could not be guaranteed. Foreign delegates arrived apprehensively, their heads full of news reports about violence in Pakistan and warnings from their foreign offices.
And for the first time, a performance had to be taken off the programme, after audiences walked out of the first showing by a Kerala-based group presenting a folk technique in heavily accented English interspersed with Malayalam songs. Although some of those walking out complained that it was “boring”, the guards reported that a couple of men had objected to the temple-based theme of the play (the slaying of Mahishasura) and threatened to set the tent on fire if the play was repeated. Unwilling to take the risk, the organisers reluctantly pulled it out, with profuse apologies to their guests – who were understandably upset but not disheartened. They have promised to return again when things improve.
Despite this, most performers – including a Delhi-based Indian group which gave eight performances of its play on AIDS – encountered friendliness, openness and hospitality. The festival´s carnival atmosphere attracted a huge audience, with thousands of men, women and children crowding the ticket booths for the 20 performances that took place daily for 10 days, costing PKR 30 (a little over 50 US cents) per person.
Given the volatile socio-political situation in the region, the frequent law-and-order problems in Pakistan and finally, Sharif´s announcement of CA-15, the very fact that such a festival even took place is amazing. Pluralism and cultural activity must be allowed to flourish in Pakistan.
As the wise know, culture is the antithesis of anarchy, and that is clearly what Pakistan faces – unless the Sharif government does an immediate about-turn, and begins focussing on the economic mandate it was voted into office for. Such a change would save the country more surely than playing into the hands of religious extremists, who can never come to power except through the back door.