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Coexistence and Conflict: Hindu Muslim Relations in India

Hindu-Muslim tension in India today. (thebigdurian/Flickr)

Hindu-Muslim tension in India today. (thebigdurian/Flickr)

VISHAKA DESAI

Are you cautiously optimistic?

SHABANA AZMI

I am an optimist by nature, but I think it is realistic to be optimistic. Because of the situation is very grim, but I know that this is the darkest time and we should be able to come out of it.

VISHAKA DESAI

Thank you. We have some microphones and what I will to is to recognize you first. Please make sure that it is a question, not a long comment, and please identify yourself. And only if you get the microphone, will you be able to speak.

QUESTION

I was wondering if you could comment on the whole issue of religious identity and Bollywood actors and actresses-their identity or non-identity with their religion?

SHABANA AZMI

The film industry in India, particularly in Bombay, has really been free from these kind of communal overtones. And it seems, thank God, that we don’t think of the actors as being Muslim or Hindu, and thus having separate identities. Mercifully that has been spared completely. And the Hindi film industry is really about getting the largest number of people in, so you cater to the lowest common denominator, and you do not deal with issues that frighten people away.

QUESTION

I wanted to know what you think about how the ongoing conflict in Kashmir affects the issue of communal violence, and also the increase in the vote for religious fundamentalists in the most recent elections in Pakistan. Do those two external issues affect what is taking place in India?

SHABANA AZMI

See it is very disturbing that for the first time you see an emergence of electoral gains with fundamentalist religious extremists, because all along we did find comfort in the fact that this did not happen. Then when it actually came to electoral politics-whether it was Pakistan or Bangladesh or India-it all goes badly for the nation. And we have to wake up to that and see a result of when fundamentalist forces come into mainstream politics and how that hurts the fabric of a nation.

What is happening in Kashmir is really extremely complicated. There has been a systematic attempt at communalizing the Kashmir issue and into making it into a Hindu/Muslim case. You have to go into the long history of Kashmir. We have to understand that these people have a right to live in their own homeland and we have to address that there is cross-border terrorism happening from Pakistan. Then there is a very strong movement in Kashmir itself where people want independence. There have been excesses of the state. It is such a complicated situation. But it all goes well-the recent elections in Kashmir where people have actually, at great risk to themselves, gone out and voted-so I think there is a step forward.

QUESTION

I wanted to ask you about the younger generation’s perception of India and Pakistan as being such completely different places, and the idea of Pakistan being “the Muslim country”?

SHABANA AZMI

See first we need to realize that this is the age not only of countries, but regions. And it is in our best interest that we have a strong South Asian region, and for that it is vital to resolve the conflict between India and Pakistan. And there are political problems, but politically it is being dealt with, not very successfully, but that is happening. But people in India and Pakistan have so much in common. We have a common language, culture and heritage. And it is extremely important that at a people to people level that dialogue must constantly ensue. And it is vital that people say to their governments, “we do not want to get involved in this politics of yours”; people must dictate to the governments; it is not governments dictating to people. It is not a monarchy; but within that it is particularly important for the younger generation to be able to come and see for themselves. A lot of my relatives are in Pakistan, and I can see over the years that they are seeing themselves as totally separate from anything that they know in India. And they do it with a kind of viciousness which really, really upsets. One of the things that you saw in Pakistan is that they love Hindi movies. And we love their television serials and their music. So we have so many things in common. We have to be able to have exchanges, particularly student exchanges between the two places, so that the young can see that the other country is not the ogre that it is being made out to be for political gain. I think then confidence building among the youth can happen.