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Otherizing the self: Minorities and Indians in Pakistani media

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Introduction

South Asian affairs have a knack for turning India vs. Pakistan issues, and there would hardly be any sphere that is untouched by it. When it comes to media portrayals, one of the argument that crops up often is that Pakistani movies and TV series portray their minorities regularly and in a light it’d be unfair to call evil. This is an important argument to consider, especially as the (usually) leftist intellectuals who peddle this narrative claim that Bollywood portrays minorities in a negative light, or stereotypes them negatively. The same intellectuals argue that Pakistani TV series and movies are progressive (usually to compare with regressive Indian ones).

This article assesses the validity of the claim by analyzing Pakistani TV and movies, which, in my view, play a major role in “otherizing” the minorities in Pakistan as well as portraying India and Indians in a bad light. My focus is on the facts rather than how they are put, so I hope my readers will forgive my (more than) occasional bluntness.

Specific (dis)Honorable Mentions

Although it cannot be compared to the scale of Bollywood, Pakistan’s film and TV industry is enormous. Obviously, I do not claim to have watched each and every work out there. Readers may comment more examples as they desire.

Argument 1: Conversions for marriage. (Or more precisely: “Embrace Islam for the sake of your marriage.”)

Explanation: A lot of TV series have done this – two star-crossed lovers who belong to different faiths, their religious differences and conservative families being the most clichéd plotline. It is a genuine issue to tackle through fiction, and TV series are an effective way to put the message across. However, the resolution in these makes a mess of the message.

Ruswa, Meri Adhuri Mohabbat, Khuda Aur Mohabbat (the last one was also syndicated overseas as Love and God) – three of the most popular series to depict minorities – end with the non-Muslim converting to Islam for the sake of their marriage.

Even series that do not center on this theme make passing references to it. E.g. A typical dialogue: “Why cannot I marry her? The boy belongs to a cultured household, nor is he a follower of a different religion.”

I do not really blame Pakistan or even the writers, directors and producers for this. It is the Islamic doctrine that has been fed to them as gospel truth, and humanistic values lost in-between.

وَالْمُحْصَنَاتُ مِنَ الَّذِينَ أُوتُوا الْكِتَابَ مِنْ قَبْلِكُمْ إِذَا آتَيْتُمُوهُنَّ أُجُورَهُنَّ مُحْصِنِينَ غَيْرَ مُسَافِحِينَ وَلَا مُتَّخِذِي أَخْدَانٍ ۗ وَمَنْ يَكْفُرْ بِالْإِيمَانِ فَقَدْ حَبِطَ عَمَلُهُ وَهُوَ فِي الْآخِرَةِ مِنَ الْخَاسِرِينَ
 (And [lawful to you] in wedlock are chaste and free women from among the believers and from among the People of the Book [Jews & Christians], provided you give them their dowries and desire chastity, neither committing fornication nor taking them as secret concubines. Anyone who denies faith [through dishonorable acts] will be one of the losers in the Hereafter [for] all his good deeds will be in vain.) (Al-Ma’ida 5)
Conclusion: Marriage of a Muslim man to a woman of a Semitic tradition (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) is permissible.

وَلَا تَنْكِحُوا الْمُشْرِكَاتِ حَتَّىٰ يُؤْمِنَّ ۚ وَلَأَمَةٌ مُؤْمِنَةٌ خَيْرٌ مِنْ مُشْرِكَةٍ وَلَوْ أَعْجَبَتْكُمْ ۗ وَلَا تُنْكِحُوا الْمُشْرِكِينَ حَتَّىٰ يُؤْمِنُوا ۚ وَلَعَبْدٌ مُؤْمِنٌ خَيْرٌ مِنْ مُشْرِكٍ وَلَوْ أَعْجَبَكُمْ ۗ أُولَٰئِكَ يَدْعُونَ إِلَى النَّارِ ۖ وَاللَّهُ يَدْعُو إِلَى الْجَنَّةِ وَالْمَغْفِرَةِ بِإِذْنِهِ ۖ وَيُبَيِّنُ آيَاتِهِ لِلنَّاسِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَذَكَّرُونَ   
(Marry not the polytheist women until they believe; a believing slave woman is better than an unbelieving woman even though she may be more attractive to you; likewise, marry not polytheist men until they believe; a believing slave is better than an unbelieving man even though he may be more pleasing to you; these polytheists invite you to Hell’s fire while God invites you to Paradise and forgiveness by His grace; He makes his revelations clear to mankind so that they may bear them in mind.) (Al-Baqara 221)
Conclusion: Marriage of a Muslim (man/woman) to a polytheist (woman/man) is forbidden.

Both these commandments are Koranic, i.e. the “literal word of God.” There remains no scope in Islamic law or Islam as a tradition for reinterpretation or modification in these, for God and His law is supreme, perfect, and timeless, and is the final word on any matter.

Argument 2: Interfaith marriages end in disaster.

Explanation: Picking up from the second of the commandments above, Parsa, Saya-i-Dewar Bhi Nahi, Mastana Mahi are infamous for showing non-Muslim spouses who are hostile, vindictive, adamant, and totally alien or even averse to the concept of a compromise. The message is clear – women who marry outside their religion are going to suffer.

Ahista Ahista comes off as something of an exception, with a man suffering from it. This series takes a political overtone, for the short-tempered and to a degree, psychopathic, wife is shown to be an Anglo-Indian.

Pyarey Afzal – not much memorable otherwise – had a character named Mehtab Chawla. The reason the name stuck with me is because instead of the Leftist interpretation of the name representing harmonious coexistence, a thorough sociological study of Pakistani society reveals something else – this character represents a very real trend. A Hindu, as his last name should be telling, taking on an Islamic first name. This is a common tactic used by Pakistani Hindus to make an attempt at getting accepted in the Muslim-majority society, which is through taking on Islamic names and mannerisms. Mehtab’s characterization shows more than enough about the stereotypes on Hindus – he’s a constant subject of ridicule, a male chauvinist and misogynist, and to some extent, acts foolishly. Not to mention he’s a semi-negative character overall.

I can debate more on what this conveys and what it does not, or what the most optimistic interpretation of “a coincidence” can tell about the reader, but I find that unnecessary.

Concerning points 1 and 2, a TV series announced by one of the top production houses of Pakistan titled ‘Maria bint Abdullah‘ (Maria, daughter of Abdullah) reifies the hatred for the Christian community that resurfaced some time ago with reference to the Asia Bibi Blasphemy Case (see below), projecting basically that a “good Christian” is defined by his/her acceptance of Islam. Its trailer, complete with the quote, “I’m Maria. My mother – Jenny D’Souza – is a Christian, but I am a Muslim, for I am Maria, daughter of Abdullah,” and soft music kicking in when she says “but I am a Muslim” – plays out like an advertisement that children of Christians should embrace Islam. The channel and production house denied both the accusations, issuing a clearly false statement that it would evaluate the content based on the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, and the show has been shamelessly broadcast despite the protests and objections made. What makes the incident of this TV series even more appalling is the fact that such a large cast of some of Pakistan’s finest actors and such a well-known production house got involved in anti-minority bigotry. It is also important to think whether the guidelines of the Supreme Court permit such objectionable content or whether the court simply does not care if writings like this one bring it a bad name it does not deserve. The final blow comes as a petition by a Pakistani Christian calling for a ban on this series, but unfortunately, not a single person has signed it, most probably out of fear that all who sign will be accused of insulting Islam and hurting religious sentiments under Pakistan’s infamous Blasphemy Laws.

This is the ugly face of Imran Taliban Khan’s Naya (New) Pakistan. You can even strike that epithet of “New” off and just say it shows “the ugly face of Pakistan,” and no one will even notice in the slightest because such bigotry along religious lines is not really new if you look at the nation’s history.

(*Asia Bibi’s is a typical case in Pakistan – a false accusation of “blasphemy” leveled against someone belonging to a religious minority (here, a Christian) over a trivial neighborhood quarrel for which she’d been sentenced to death. Asia Bibi herself has been more fortunate than others like her in that ten years after the initial accusation, she’s been acquitted. However, her acquittal has met with widespread protests across Pakistan where the general public demanded her execution.)

Argument 3: India and Indians are the worst lot on the earth, and are the enemies of Pakistan and Pakistanis. (+ A similar point for Hindus and non-Muslims in general.)

Explanation: Dastan is a work of historical fiction which presents this very message. It is based on the division of the subcontinent in 1947 and the violence and chaos that followed. The message is clear in the distinction between the positive Muslim characters and the negative Hindu and Sikh characters. As if the typecasting did not convey enough, the line “We want a Pakistan where we can live safe from the Hindus” should be the icing on the cake. What is shocking, however, is that a somewhat “edited” version of Dastan was actually broadcast in India. I dare not imagine how the Indians themselves would have reacted to this.

A similar case is to be made for Hindus in general (beyond the events of 1947, for which each side throws exclusive blame on the other). The negative characters routinely take on Hindu manners and terminology (e.g. puja – which literally means “prayer” but has a Hindu connotation in popular imagination – being the word of choice for a character who is shown as a coward and a miser). The terminology of kafir (infidel/nonbeliever)and kufr (an act of disbelief)is often used with reference to negative characters and their acts. There is also a certain obsession with the metaphor of war between India and Pakistan, and you find no shortage of jokes with India at its wrong (and sometimes semi-derogatory) end. Funny for a country which lost four out of five times it went to war with India (the fifth ended in mutual ceasefire).

Argument 4: Indian immigrants are vile and loathsome lowlifes, and their caste names are worthy additions to your dictionary of expletives.

Explanation: Too many TV shows are guilty of this, and I consider it unnecessary to name them. Pick one at random and you’d most probably find this issue in its writing. I don’t want to limit my readership to South Asia, so let me elaborate: Just like in India, someone’s last name can tell about their caste, and very often, their geographic lineage or ethnicity, in Pakistan, there are certain “castes” you can identify through last names. Unlike India, it’s not just with Hindus – your last name, even with Muslims – can identify to a Pakistani whether the person is a descendent of the Islamic invaders themselves, or otherwise an Arab/Turkish/Persian/Afghan immigrant, or a native convert, and also whether they were refugees who migrated to Pakistan or were native to the regions that became Pakistan.

Now, on what “this” meant when I said that “[t]oo many TV shows are guilty of this:” caste and ethnic slurs, and using the names of the castes of refugees or of native converts to Islam (as opposed to Arabs/Turks/Persians/Afghans) are liberally sprinkled and used as abusive words – yes, you read it right, as expletives. E.g. “Look at yourself! You look and act like a [insert caste slur here].” – a typical dialogue (in translation)

Argument 5: Urdu is pure while Hindi is not.

Explanation: Evident through an analysis of the language of positive and negative characters from various works. The negative characters tend to Sanskritize the language more, which can only be seen as an insult to the original, pristine language of Hindi. The same character may transition linguistically as well as his morality evolves in the story. Maybe the enmity is not to the language itself, but out of its association in popular imagination – when a large chunk of negative characters are Hindu, it should not come as a surprise that they speak the language commonly associated with the Hindus… But then, I’m just speculating optimistically.

The Exception that Proves the Rule

A name that is often cited as an “exception” to all of the above is a little-known show Seeta Bagri. While admittedly it stars a minority community (viz. Hindus) in the central position, I really do not see how the series is really different from the lot that has contributed to a systemic “otherization” of the Hindu community in Pakistan. Seeta Bagri serves the exact opposite of its intended purpose, serving more than anything to exoticize the Hindu community and their traditions, and enforce the notions that their customs, traditions and lifestyles – right from the obvious things like prayer traditions and mythology to things that really aren’t that different, such as mannerisms and linguistic register – are unusual and distinct from mainstream Pakistani culture.

Such a media portrayal does not serve the purpose of integration into the national mainstream but rather serves to further widen the already enormous rift between the Pakistani mainstream and the Hindu community. The story depicts a Hindu woman’s struggle to set up a school in her neighborhood, and the end demolishes the purpose of the entire series, because it is a Muslim character that turns this vision into a reality. Whether intended or simply a coincidence that is just as telling as regards the Pakistani subconscious imagination, the image of these knights in green armor always ready to help the minority communities is more clear than I’m comfortable with.

It should also be noted that Seeta Bagri makes no hesitation in mocking and criticizing India when it gets the chance, and the possibility that the show is merely propaganda to paint a false picture of Pakistan’s acceptance for its minorities is further highlighted in a line where a character goes on to say, “This is not India; this is Pakistan, where Hindus, Muslims, Christians, or Sikhs all live in harmony as brothers.” If anything could be further from the truth, please let me know in the comments.

Conclusion

Given the five arguments with examples above, there remains little doubt that the Pakistani film and TV industry does little to spare its minority and “national enemy” (as it were); these antics come as no surprise given the foundational doctrine of Pakistan – Pakistan meant “not India” and being Pakistani meant being Muslim and “not Hindu, Sikh, Christian (and so on).” The other minorities of Pakistan – those within the Islamic tradition (Shias, Ismailis, Ahmadiyyas) – get no mention in this article because the TV and film industry simply denies their existence. If you assess it by these standards, as the Leftists would assert you should, Pakistan comes off decently for a country founded on hatred for India and the kafirs. This article is an attempt to counter the dominant narrative of assessing everyone by their standards and using more universal ethical and moral standards instead.

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