A video released by film-maker Karan Johar pledging not to work with “talent from the neighbouring country” is obviously a last-ditch attempt to salvage his forthcoming production, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil . With the effect of a Rorschach test, Johar’s pitch can be read in divergent ways. At one level, as an outright capitulation to the mob, angrily led in Mumbai by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, as well as to a wider audience currently consumed by a low-grade intolerance of anything Pakistani. At another, as a cleverly coded defence of a film starring Pakistani actor Fawad Khan by drawing attention to the labour of “300 Indians” on the project who face unfair rejection. Either way, the larger issue is the ease with which a boycott of people from a particular country is enforced, so that everyone is intimidated into falling in line to a Tebbit-like test. Mumbai has, of course, long kept Pakistani sportspersons at bay. Three years ago, the Pakistani women’s cricket team at the World Cup had be shifted out to Cuttack, diminishing not just Mumbai, but India itself for the failure to uphold the spirit of sport essential to a liberal democracy. Last year, even Pakistani umpires and television commentators were compelled to pull out of their duties at an international match in Mumbai. It’s not Mumbai alone. In 2013, for instance, no team fielded Sri Lankan cricketers in Indian Premier League matches in Chennai.
But the current, post-Uri rash of objections to Pakistani artists is widespread — concerts have been cancelled from Gurgaon to Bengaluru, and the airwaves crackle regularly with some film or sport personality averring to keep apart from his Pakistani counterparts. However, it would be under-reading the challenge to India’s syncretic legacy if the political silence around such boycotts was not highlighted. It is not enough for officials at the Centre to say that there is no change in the visa policy for Pakistani citizens. When the political leadership — in government and in Opposition — does not take the lead in persuading the silent majority that barriers to cultural and academic exchange are undemocratic and represent a closure of the Indian mind, it renders vulnerable the scattered individuals who are willing to stand up to bullying. On Pakistan, the ambivalent attitude to snapping cultural ties highlights important foreign policy questions. Do we use India’s incredible soft power to win over Pakistanis and others to the ideals of democracy, liberalism, secularism, syncretism for the greater good of the neighbourhood? Or do we reduce all people-to-people contact to unrelenting enmity?