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Hope and Healing Concert at Hindu November Fest

November 25, 2010

Pakistani ghazal singer Tina Sani performed at a concert titled ‘Hope and Healing’ during The Hindu Friday Review November Fest in Chennai.

Folklore sans frontiers

January 27, 2010

There is no alternative to peaceful coexistence within South Asia, says Raza Rumi

As we crossed the blood lined Waagah, after three hours of soul-destroying bureaucratic tangles and multiple forms filled in by the guardians of our borders, nothing changed. It was an eerie reminder of how the two Punjabs are but one. The roads were dusty and rural life remains as time-warped as ever. The street vendors were selling dirty, unhygienic food items wrapped in a thick cover of flies; and the money changers and CD-sellers attacked you with a frenzy that one is used to back home.

I was part of a delegation from Pakistan that was driving to Chandigarh to attend the SAARC folklore festival organized by Punjab’s legendary writer Ajeet Caur. This was a motley crew: ten Punjabis of various stripes, and five Sindhis who have travelled all the way from Bhit Shah to Lahore. We were greeted with garlands and the usual Punjabi warmth by our hosts at the border. This was my first trip to India via land or, as they say on visa forms, “on foot”. One could not escape the strange sensation of striding across a “hostile” frontier.

The road was still called the Grand Trunk Road and the traffic was a little more chaotic than that on the Pakistani side. The over-loaded road space reminded one of the simple fact that India’s population is out of control There is simply an explosion of humanity in all directions. As we drove towards Jullandar, our stop for lunch at a roadside restaurant called “haveli”, the driver bumped into a motorcyclist who was driving on the main highway thinking that he was still navigating the fields of his village. Thankfully, he was not hurt and the Sardarji had to only report the incident at a nearby police-post. My companions and I stood on the roadside waiting for the Sardariji to return. However, the general comment was that the lost side of the Punjab was more developed; and the images of women riding on motorcycles and scooters were simply astounding for first time visitors to India.

Six decades have passed since rivers of blood were unleashed by the tragic events of 1947, where an unnatural division of a territory was imposed by a cabal of self-obsessed politicians of all varieties and faiths, in cahoots with their imperial masters. Humans are resilient, after all, and the Punjabis have coped with this trauma rather well. On our side they have captured the entire country, held it to ransom and have not shied away from undermining other nationalities when need be. On the enemy side, they have turned into mega-entrepreneurs, flourishing businessmen across North Indian urban centres and a huge diaspora with lots of money in the Western capitals. But the tragedy refuses to go away. The most revered shrines of Sikhs are in Pakistan and the oldest Shiva temple is in our Punjab. The Muslims, of course, have left their saints and shrines in the Hindu kingdom, not to mention traces of a seven-century cohabitation with the Indian gods.

At sunset, we were closer to Chandigarh – city beautiful – a city that had to be built anew to refresh the memories of Lahore. A project that Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru was extremely proud of, Chandigarh became the first prototype, well-planned socialist experiment. It is a shame that five decades later, it is nothing like Lahore, as it still gropes to find an identity and it has turned into a testament of India’s deep-seated inequality across class lines. Having said that, it is a model city, with big boulevards, wide pavements, multiple educational institutions and mercifully, lots of green spaces.

We arrived at Himachal Bhavan, a government owned rest house of sorts built like a socialist castle. Very soon, we merged into the streams of visitors from other countries. The bauls, fakir followers of Lalon Shah in Bengal, the singers from Nepal, Kashmir and dancers from tribes of Bengal and Maharashtra constituted the delightful mosaic of South Asian folk universe carefully assembled by the legendary Ajeet Caur.

Thus a packed festival commenced in sleepy Chandigarh which, not unlike Islamabad, is a quiet city. The performers started the day with public performances in educational institutions and public auditoriums. Concurrently, a seminar took place for four days with scholars, writers and researchers presenting papers on South Asian folk art and cultures. The afternoons were spent on sightseeing and every evening folk performances were held at the Tagore Theatre in the city.

There was little room for a traveler of my kind to explore the city. But the wide variety of people who attended the seminars and performances provided ample opportunities to speak to the residents of the lost Punjab. Countless stories permeated our conversations, jokes and periods of serious discussions. A Sardarji from Gujranwala district narrated his memories of Lahore and native village. Such are the machinations of nostalgia that it becomes a reality; a shadow that hangs over the present, sometimes strong and at other times muted and subtle. But it is there, all the time. A family that migrated from Lahore had named their business in Chandigarh after the mohalla that they had to leave in the frenzy of 1947’s mayhem.

Surinder Caur, the popular singer from Indian Punjab had visited Lahore a decade ago and she nearly broke down when she identified her house in the Chauburji area. Her talented daughter Dolly Guleria is continuing the traditions and she sang with gusto at the festival. Dolly has a majestic voice and is well-versed in Sufi poetry from the Punjab. Her rendition of Baba Farid’s verses and pieces of Heer left the audience swooning.

Dolly also wants to visit Pakistan again as her maiden trip with her mother left an indelible impression on her.

Perhaps the most soulful performances at the festival were those by the Bauls of Bengal and the fakirs from Bhit Shah who retained the essence of original performative features unlike the pop-folk that is in vogue now. The malangs from Madhoo Lal Hussain’s shrine in Lahore were a hit for their direct connection with the audience. The trance-like state and losing themselves attracted the spectators as each one of them may have wanted at some stage of their life to have entered oblivion. The dhamalis, as these resident malangs are known, dance each Thursday to remember the tradition of devotion that Madhoo Lal had started in the seventeenth century to honour his patron, teacher Shah Hussain. The syncretic roots of our folklore are difficult to miss.

As I narrated in my paper on the myths of Indus river that, even today in parts of Sindh, there exists the practice of wrapping the holy Quran in colourful cloth and cradling it, the way Hindus have worshipped the birth of Lord Krishna.

Scholars from all over the region lamented how folklore traditions were threatened due to rampant commercialisation and the globalised mono-culture where manners and lifestyles are all inspired by the dominant West. During the festival, I loved the dancers of Sherdukpen tribe from Arunachal Pradesh who performed the traditional Yak Dance. These tribals are engaged in farming for their livelihoods, while dancing provides a balance of their interaction with Nature and daily rigours of their lives.

Other groups from India presented amazing performances showcasing the vibrant cultural kaleidoscope of India. The Yakshagaan from Karnataka, Laavni from Maharashtra, Hafiz Nagma from Kashmir, and Ustad Qadri Sardar Ali’s Qawwali group from Punjab displayed the way folk traditions continue in these difficult times.

The festival aside, it was the Punjabi environs that pleased me the most. Indian Punjab is now divided into governable units of Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and the Punjab. In addition, Chandigarh is a Union territory that also happens to be the headquarters for Punjab and Haryana states. Nehru’s land reform, industrialisation and the spread of education at all levels have made these states distinctly different from their mammoth counterpart: the Pakistani Punjab. A large middle class has transformed the cultural ethos and democratic traditions have ensured that citizen voice is given its due in governance on the Indian side.

Chandigarh, for instance, has an impressive literacy rate of nearly 82% and its per capita income is also the highest for the service sector flourishes here. Guess who can boast of a parha likha Punjab? On the other hand we have a small, populous strip of central Punjab that has the promise of prosperity; otherwise, southern Punjab is the poorest of regions in Pakistan. The barani north is also impoverished with limited citizen services and entitlements. With our indoctrinated India-hatred, we often tend to overlook these developments in our immediate neighbourhood. How come the infidels, those scheming banias and stumbling Sikhs achieve this? A question that must be addressed by us all.

On my last day in Chandigarh, I visited the Punjab University to meet an old acquaintance from the international public administration network. Mr and Mrs Ghuman live in a peaceful house within the university, grow their own vegetables, and are raising two sons who are acquiring state of the art education. I was offered baisan ki mithai, kachorees and barfi with lots of affection for Pakistan and the Punjabis. I did not feel as if I was in a hostile territory and the conversation and its tenor reminded me of my family on this side of the border. Ironically, the same day another former Professor of Chandigarh, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a son of Chakwal was trading allegations against Pakistan for spreading terrorism. Politics can deplete cultures and destroy common bonds. 1947 was this awful watershed when high politics dominated the lived and shared lives of the Punjabis.

Ajeet Caur-ji, who calls me her son, is a remarkable woman. She is relentless in her efforts in forging South Asian bonds and effecting literary and cultural exchanges. She has kept a flame ablaze in dark times. Let the light prevail. Ajeetji is not alone. The writers from all over South Asia are her family.

It will take years, perhaps decades, but the dream for a visa-less, peacefully coexistent countries of South Asia will be realized. We will wait, but not give up.
First published in The Friday Times

Raza Rumi blogs at and edits Pak Tea House and Lahornama e-zines

An undivided India? (video)

January 18, 2010

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more about "An undivided India?", posted with vodpod

Should India and Pakistan Resume Dialogue? (video)

January 18, 2010

This was aired in January 2010

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more about "An undivided India? – The Big Fight", posted with vodpod

Indo-Pak relations-62 Anniversary of Independence and Partition (video)

January 18, 2010

Indians and Pakistanis talk on the occasion of the 62nd anniversary of independence/partition. Starts witha family divided across the border.

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Burma VJ

May 20, 2009

BURMA VJ is a movie shot as part of the Democratic Voice of Burma’s mission to capture and highlight the brutality of the Junta and the bravery of the people willing to stand up against their oppressors making sure their voice is heard in spite of the various attempts to suppress any dissent or raised voice.


May 19, 2009

For a country that prides itself on winning independence through non violent means enabled by a man who valued the human dignity and life above else, India seems to have fallen a long way down in the past 60 odd years since independence. To boast of being the only long lasting democracy in the South Asian region is perhaps laudable but the fashioning of democracy as an institution that is independent of the people who make it possible and an institution whose primary concern becomes power itself is appalling . The lack of a strong Indian response be it regarding the Sri Lankan issue, or the Tibetan protests before the Olympics, or the Burmese protests last year or the Junta’s response to Cyclone Nargis or even its own disquieting human rights record only underline the complete disregard for the values and the principles that the nation and its democratic institutions were built upon. The silence of the government in face of the arrest of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on May 13th, even when western governments were quick to make their displeasure known is just further evidence of how low the government and its foreign policies have fallen. By not responding or showing a strong negative response to the detaining of a women who has for the last two decades fought on the principles that were made popular by the Mahatma, the Government of India has shown clearly where their interests lie.

The placement of economic interests and economic growth above all else does not come as a complete surprise. India, after all is just following in the footsteps of the west who have repeatedly turned a blind eye towards human rights issues in the Middle East, China, Latin America, Africa and in many other places if that blind eye meant an increase in their economic status, an move to the top of the developed nations list and the recognition of being on par with the first world. Globalization and global capitalism has shown to be two faced again and again. The human cost of it has been increasingly whitewashed with figures of people who have profited from it. The bigger hoax has been the UN Human Rights council which this year boasts a list of who’s who amongst the world’s worst Human rights offenders. For an institution which boasts its mission as being to strengthen, protect and promote human rights issues around the globe, the inclusion of United States, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Russia, Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, and India would be funny if it were not so depressing. The absolute lack of concern, the mind numbing indifference, and feigned ignorance of the status of the human rights situation in these countries and amongst the countries that relate to these countries is frightening. The double standards of the United States, the United kingdom and many of the Western developed countries when it comes to dealing with the nations that have poor or no standards of human rights just sets the tone for how an international organization that depends on the support and economic support of these countries will behave and how countries that aspire to become democratic and members of the free trade consortium will behave. None of the countries have a right to be appalled by Daw Suu Kyi’s detention until they show the same degree of concern for the minorities who suffer through the communist regime of China, or the degrading status of women, and minorities in the Middle East, or the status of immigrants in their own countries. Secretary’s Clinton’s show of friendship and her dismissal of human rights as an issue in her first visit to china show the priority of the Obama administration. Neither the US or the UK have any right to criticize the Burmese Junta until they can convince India and China to stop trading with Burma, supplying it with Military equipment and build roads and ties with the Junta in a never ending one-upmanship competition.

The new incoming Indian government needs to set its foreign policy priorities straight. It cannot stand up in the international stage and claim to be a voice for democracy and boast of its history of preserving human dignity until it takes concrete measures to stop the massacre along its borders. It cannot support the military junta in Burma while talking about non violence and value for human life, it cannot support the Sri Lankan government with arms and money while talking about complete rights for all minorities, it cannot maintain a cordial relationship with china while sheltering the Dalai Lama and talking about respect for all religions. Above all, it cannot claim to be a democratic, secular country with equal rights for all its people and act as a beacon for the downtrodden while ill treating the refugees who come to its shores. A system has to be put in place in coordination with the UNHCR to make sure the refugees who come are not left to die in under prepared camps or sold off into prostitution and trafficking. There has to be a concerted effort with the western nations to bring governments like the Burmese Junta or even the Sri Lankan government to task and to highlight the violations of minorities, tribes and other people in those countries. There has to be an awareness that the responsibilities of a rising power extend far beyond its shores and far beyond providing food, water and shelter to its people. It’s high time the western countries were made accountable too. There needs to be a better system to bring violators of human rights and justice to task than just closing one’s eyes, and there needs to be a better international system that is just and equal in bring countries to task not based on their relationship to the west but rather on their history of trying to suppress the human will to be free.