The cultural battlefield - Irfan Husain - Saturday, March 05, 2011

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WHAT does the interior minister of a country do when he cannot protect cabinet colleagues and provincial governors — leave alone ordinary citizens — from maddened killers?

Well, in Pakistan, he announces that henceforth, artists, students and journalists travelling abroad would need a No-Objection Certificate (NOC) from the government.

Rehman Malik’s decision to this effect last month has drawn understandable ire from Pakistan’s small but vocal cultural community. Perhaps Malik had been prompted into taking this ill-considered stance by the circumstances surrounding Rahat Fateh Ali’s arrest at New Delhi airport with $124,000 in his possession.

While this attempt to take out a large sum of foreign exchange from India in contravention of the country’s laws was an expensive embarrassment for this distinguished relative of an illustrious singer, this is hardly reason enough to clamp Draconian travel restrictions on the entire artistic community.

Considering that our artists have been far more effective ambassadors for Pakistan than the ones sent abroad by the Foreign Office, it is folly to seek to block the free movement of talented Pakistanis.

In Benazir Bhutto’s first stint in office, I was a joint secretary in the Ministry of Culture, and soon after joining, was horrified to discover that we were tasked with the odious job of issuing NOCs to artists. This led to mega stars like Mehdi Hasan having to beseech section officers with requests for an NOC to perform abroad. Needless to say, these junior pharaohs made the experience as humiliating as possible.

Luckily, the secretary of the ministry was Khwaja Shahid Hosain, an old friend and a highly civilised person, so it did not need much persuasion to get him to agree to put his weight behind a summary to the prime minister, recommending that this archaic requirement be done away with. Benazir Bhutto immediately agreed, so we had the satisfaction of bringing to an end a disgraceful and pointless restriction on free travel.

For Rehman Malik to seek to reintroduce a pernicious bureaucratic hurdle that Benazir Bhutto had removed should be a source of embarrassment to a man who once hailed her as his leader.

The truth is that he could no more protect her than he could Salman Taseer or Shahbaz Bhatti. But the key to success in Pakistani politics has always been a thick skin and the ability to blame your mistakes on others. Malik is blessed with ample quantities of both.

When we were preparing the summary to end the NOC raj at our ministry, our junior colleagues were clearly unhappy at having to give up their power to keep famous artists waiting to see them. But none of them could clearly explain what purpose the certificate served.

They spoke glibly about the need to know who was going where, and brought up breaches in contracts committed by certain artists. But when I asked why the government should be involved in what were basically artistic and commercial agreements, they were stumped.

In the same spirit, I would like to ask Rehman Malik how his ministry, notorious for its repeated failures in ensuring the security of the state, its officials and its citizens, can possibly monitor the movement and activities of our artists.

I would hazard the guess that most of the officials of the interior ministry are just as ignorant about culture as their minister. And even if some could distinguish a raga from a saga, how would this qualify them to issue an NOC to an artist intending to travel abroad?

For good measure, Malik has decided that the NOC requirement would henceforth cover students as well. The relevant authorities are well aware of the disastrous state of public educational institutions in Pakistan that has driven tens of thousands of students to seek a decent education abroad. To try to restrict travel for students who have secured admission in overseas universities is tantamount to dumbing down the nation even more.

In a press release issued by Madeeha Gauhar, Usman Peerzada and Samina Ahmed, Rehman Malik’s proposal has been condemned in no uncertain terms: “We find this announcement retrogressive, repressive, arbitrary and violative of fundamental rights protected by the constitution. …We would therefore defy it, as all void orders lacking legal basis should be dealt with….”

The three signatories of the press release are among a handful of performing artists who have been fighting to keep our cultural identity alive in the face of a severe and sustained assault from reactionary ideologues.

While the political class and the elites are largely indifferent, and the jihadis have been slaughtering those congregating at the shrines of tolerant Sufis and saints, the cultural landscape of Pakistani would be even bleaker than it is without the heroic rearguard action of our few creative activists. Virtually single-handedly, Sheema Kermani kept classic dancing alive in Pakistan, after the sad exile of Naheed Siddiqui.

To its everlasting shame, the PPP under Zardari has completely ignored culture. Under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Faiz Ahmed Faiz established the Pakistan National Council of the Arts, while NAFDEC, the film corporation, supported an active film club.

For all his failings, Bhutto was deeply interested in culture and supported the arts. His daughter, too, appreciated artists, sending the irrepressible Bashir Mirza to Australia as our cultural attaché, the first and only such appointment. For the PPP now to even think of reinstating the dreaded NOC for artists is a travesty that should be condemned and resisted.

It would seem that given the dangers Pakistan faces from religious extremism — as demonstrated by the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for minorities, and the Punjab governor, Salman Taseer — culture is a minor issue. Not so. Culture is one of the key battlefields where we fight the forces of darkness. This where the battle for the soul of Pakistan is being fought.

If our performing and visual artists as well as our writers cannot freely express themselves, then the battle is lost. Over time, reactionary forces have gained ground, and the space for creative expression has become ever more circumscribed.

We must support our artists if we are to have a country worth living in. We must all tell Rehman Malik exactly what he can do with his NOC.

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