Crossing the Lines


Crossing the Lines: Kashmir, Pakistan, India
A story of people at war over borders and boundaries
A documentary film by Pervez Hoodbhoy and Zia Mian
Eqbal Ahmad Foundation, 2004, 45 minutes


Between Past and Future – Selected Essays on South Asia
by Eqbal Ahmad
Oxford University Press, Pakistan, 2004


The film opens with a shot of a demonstration in Karachi, Pakistan.  A group of people, with a young woman front and center, wave placards and shout: “Free Kashmir!  War!  War!  India, Burn it Down!”  An effigy is being burned in the corner.  Cut to a scene of a group of young men at night, this time in India.  “Ask for Kashmir and you will get blood!”  one of them says.  “I don’t care if it’s Pakistan or anyone else, ask for Kashmir and you will get blood!”

Such displays of fratricidal and ultimately suicidal passion by young people are both heartbreaking and all-too-common in the world today.  They are particularly common in long-running, deadly conflicts like the one between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.  It is thus highly appropriate that the makers of the latest film, about that conflict, “Crossing the Lines”, are among the most sober and cool-headed people working on any issue.  They are scientists and activists Pervez Hoodbhoy and Zia Mian.  Like their mentor, Eqbal Ahmad, they are scholars and activists, dedicated fighters for justice and rationality in unjust and irrational situations.  In addition to their film, they helped prepare a collection of essays by Eqbal Ahmad (Mian, with Dohra Ahmad and Iftikhar Ahmad, are editors; Hoodbhoy wrote the book’s Foreword), “Between Past and Future: Selected Essays on South Asia”.  Eqbal Ahmad was a writer, activist, and scholar who taught at Hampshire College in the US.  He died in 1999, but not before producing a major body of work on South Asia – and the problems of the third world more generally – that continues to be of tremendous relevance to those who are part of the struggle for justice. Mian and Hoodbhoy are worthy successors of Eqbal Ahmad.

Crossing the Lines

“Crossing the Lines” is a 45-minute documentary film that serves as a concise and clear introduction to the conflict in Kashmir.  At a screening of the film in Toronto, Hoodbhoy commented that the conflict is more morally ambiguous than most of the world’s long running conflicts.  Hoodbhoy made a comparison with Israel/Palestine, where there is a very clear victim and a clear oppressor.  Palestinian resistance sometimes violates the principles of international law and justice, even allowing for the right of occupied peoples to undertake armed resistance – but such resistance can only be viewed in the context of a massive, murderous, hugely immoral occupation designed to ethnically cleanse the Palestinian population.  In Kashmir, by contrast, both India and Pakistan have violated principles of law, justice, and morality.  Pakistan maintains that because Kashmir has a Muslim majority, it should have become part of Pakistan in 1947 and should be part of Pakistan today.  India’s claim is based on Kashmir’s accession to it in 1947, though it promised, but never allowed, a referendum to allow Kashmiris to decide their own future.  The conflict has claimed thousands of lives, mostly of Kashmiri civilians who still await the right to decide their future.  And unlike Israel/Palestine, where the way forward would be clear if only Israel could be persuaded or forced to withdraw from the occupied territories, solutions to the conflict in Kashmir are elusive. 

One of the strengths of the film is its ability to present nuance.  This does not come from some immature journalism-school notion of “neutrality”, in which every quote from an Indian is “balanced” with one from a Pakistani.  The filmmakers have clearly chosen a side: that of the victims of the conflict, on all sides.  That choice pushes the film away from the nationalist traps that such a film could so easily have fallen into.  It must be conceded that the filmmakers’ more extensive knowledge and contacts in Pakistan do affect the content of the film, but that certainly does not imply any shortage of informed content on India.

Another strength of the film is its consistent oppositional stance.  Indian activists Tappan Bose, Varsha Rajan Berry, and Gautam Naulakha are interviewed on Kashmiri history, the rise of the Hindu religious Right in India, and discrimination and human rights violations against minorities and people in conflict zones in India.  Pakistani activists include I.A. Rahman, of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, who talks about Pakistan’s role in the organization of the insurgency in Kashmir; Dr. Abdul Hameed Nayyar, who speaks of the use of education as propaganda in Pakistan (as his counterpart Varsha Rajan Berry does for India); Sherry Rahman, a member of the Pakistani National Assembly, who discusses the extensive military control of the Pakistani economy; and Karamat Ali, a labor organizer who talks about possibilities for a solution in the long-term. 

In addition to having courageous and uncompromising critical voices on both sides of the line, the film features interviews with Kashmiris from different sectors.  Shabbir Shah, a Kashmiri leader who spent 17 years in India’s jails, discusses how disillusionment with India grew over the years, explaining the armed resistance while repudiating violence against civilians.  Commander Syed Salhuddin of the Hizb-ul-Mujahaddeen, an armed resistance group, discusses his own disillusionment with India after elections were stolen in 1987.  Dr. Ajay Chrungoo, the Chairman of the Panun Kashmir Party, discusses the complexities and difficulties of the Kashmiri Pandit community, a historically privileged and dominant community that was attacked and largely driven out of the Kashmir Valley by the Muslim factions in the conflict.  Amanullah Khan of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, a secular guerrilla group that has been overshadowed in recent years by Islamist groups, lamented the use of terrorism by the mujahadeen who superceded the JKLF.  The film also includes many interviews with people affected by the conflict, street scenes, and a few interviews with political officials and hardliners. 

“Crossing the Lines” is much more than a collection of interviews, however.  It has some very effective footage from demonstrations, press conferences, and news clips.  All this provides a visual introduction to the South Asian conflict that complements the analysis.  Computer graphics, particularly maps in 2- and 3-D, are used to show the geography of the conflict as well.  This is particularly effective at the end of the film, when the narrator raises various proposals for a territorial solution to the conflict, demonstrates each on the map, and discards each in turn.  Despite doing so, the film retains a certain optimism, if not for the short term, then for the long term.  Even in a bleak situation, the strength and intelligence of the activists interviewed in the film shines through, forcing the viewer to reject hand-wringing and hopelessness.

Hoodbhoy told an audience in Toronto that he edited the whole film on his laptop.  Neither he nor Mian are professional filmmakers.  Neither are in command of great personal fortunes or Hollywood studios.  They are activists with ideas: they combined good footage with solid analysis and created a powerful and educational piece.  The final product points to a road more activists should travel.  Films can reach audiences that even the most compelling print and internet writing or blogging cannot. 

Between Past and Future

Reading “Between Past and Future” after watching “Crossing the Lines” reveals Eqbal Ahmad’s influence on the filmmakers.  Ahmad’s analysis of the Kashmir conflict is presented in one of the book’s essays, where he presents a “Kashmiri solution for Kashmir.”  He believes that a solution has to be pursued in three stages: autonomy, open borders, and ‘unifaction with divided sovereignty’.  The only stable solution, both Ahmad and Mian/Hoodbhoy argue, is a profound change throughout South Asia.  Since such changes are a long way off, the task for now is to “cool” the conflict down.  Ahmad’s careful analysis of the different interests involved (Pakistan, India, the Kashmiri insurgents, international powers) points to ways of “cooling” the conflict, while his innovative ideas on longer-term change provide activists on both sides of the line with a basis for dialogue.

On October 12, 1998, Eqbal Ahmad gave a talk in Boulder Colorado (1).  This is one of the things he said.

“In August 1998, another American President ordered missile strikes from the American navy based in the Indian Ocean to kill Osama Bin Laden and his men in the camps in Afghanistan. I do not wish to embarrass you with the reminder that Mr. Bin Laden, whom fifteen American missiles were fired to hit in Afghanistan, was only a few years ago the moral equivalent of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson! He got angry over the fact that he has been demoted from ‘Moral Equivalent’ of your ‘Founding Fathers’. So he is taking out his anger in different ways.”

As this brief quote shows, the talk was full of the things that made Eqbal Ahmad stand out: a focus on the most relevant issues, extensive background knowledge, and clear thinking whose result seems prescient.  David Barsamian, who broadcast the talk after 9/11, said those who called radio stations after the broadcast assumed the talk had just been given. 

The book “Between Past & Future” collects numerous essays and articles by Ahmad on South Asia.  Ahmad deals with South Asia issues from the perspective of a Pakistani dissident.  The book has four sections: an opening essay on the problems of the third world, a section on Pakistan’s foreign policy, a section on relations between Pakistan and India and the Kashmir conflict, and a section on domestic Pakistani issues.

The opening essay does what most of Ahmad’s work does: presents novel ideas and then leaves the reader wishing there was more.  After analyzing the historical trajectory of third world countries and the bases for social action in these countries, he identifies “the minimum requisites for achieving a measure of success in meeting the challenge of the Third World: (1) A coherent, consistent, and functioning ideology; (2) A revolutionary, radical political leadership; (3) Ideological and leadership commitment to the principles of accountability and democracy; (4) Institutions and mechanisms designed to ensure adherence to the democratic practices and accountability of the government to the governed; (5) Congruence of new institutions, styles of politics and political symbols with the historical inheritance and culture of the people; and (6) Operative commitment to self-reliance and endogeneous development as bases for planning and organization.”  

This quote, like the previous one, reveals something of Ahmad’s thinking.  Numbered lists are a frequent theme in his writing (the list quoted above is the seventh such list in the opening essay).  This style makes it easier for the reader to take from an essay what the writer wanted to convey.  The quote also reveals the strategic nature of Ahmad’s thinking.  He did not write or speak for fame, recognition, or even to lament the horrors of the world: he was a fighter, and he tried to think of ways to help other fighters.  Nearly all his writing features creative possibilities for action in addition to cogent analysis.  In a 1972 article analyzing the loss of East Pakistan in the war with India in 1971, Ahmad summarizes the problems with the state apparatus: “Our armed forces are better trained to occupy the country than to defend it… The bureaucracy is raised to rule the people, not to serve them.  Their colonial ethos, authoritarian structure, mediocre standards, and managerial outlook were suited to the service of their foreign mentors, and are unfit for a modern, independent nation.”  But as always, he goes beyond stating the problems: “They must be transformed into popular, participatory institutions emanating from and accountable to the people, capable of defending the country, and serving the public.” 

Ahmad’s careful observation of nuclear issues also emphasized realistic and strategic possibilities for peace and disarmament.  Immediately after India’s nuclear tests, Ahmad argued that Pakistan should not follow, since Pakistan stood to lose diplomatically, politically and economically from holding its own tests.  “It is much better for Islamabad to stay cool, calculating, and utilizing the opportunities Delhi has presented,” the article ends.  “May reason prevail!”  When reason did not prevail, Ahmad went right back to work.  In an article written shortly after the tests, he describes his own participation in a conference where speakers “included those who had earlier argued against Pakistan exhibiting its nuclear capability, but even they accepted the tests as a fait accompli, and discussed the post-test challenges for Pakistan.”  That meeting was disrupted by “about two dozen” violent nationalist youths from the Islamic party, Jamaat-I-Islami’s youth wing.  Physical threats didn’t disrupt Ahmad’s humanism.  He described the youths saying “They looked like bright kids, full of energy and motivation.  It is sad to see them wasted.”

A nuanced and original thinker like Eqbal Ahmad is not someone one is going to agree with on every issue.  On the Balkan conflict, for example, Ahmad warned early against “Milosevic[‘s]…campaign of ethnic cleansing… a mobilization of hate he calls Serbian nationalism.” (2)  He called what occurred in Bosnia a “genocide”.  In this case, the Western powers caught up, and eventually bombed Serbia, including civilian targets in Kosovo and Serbia.  Ahmad believed Milosevic so dire that such bombing had to be condoned.  Diana Johnstone marshalls evidence against this thesis in her book “Fool’s Crusade”, and many activists disagreed with Ahmad at the time.  Ahmad’s perspective on the Balkan conflict is evidently shared by Pervez Hoodbhoy, who wrote the forward to “Between Past and Future”.  Hoodbhoy’s opening paragraph describes his meeting with Eqbal Ahmad, which occurred at a time when “The Americans were diligently carpet-bombing Vietnam with their B-52s, and the West Pakistanis were busy cleansing East Pakistan with a vigour that would have delighted the Serbs.”  This last seems highly unfair to me.  If Hoodbhoy had written of “a vigour that would have delighted the Israelis”, he would have likely realized the need to explain such a statement.  Hoodbhoy is simply too principled and smart to resort to a stereotyped label of Serbs as ethnic cleansers.  The remark mars an otherwise great book, even if only in a minor way.

In “Between Past and Future” Ahmad also applies his critical eye to Pakistan’s intervention in Afghanistan, to the Kashmir conflict, and to secularism and fundamentalism.  On this last, Ahmad’s original contribution was to combine a scientific and radical mindset with extensive knowledge of Islamic history.  He argued that it was an insult to medieval Islam to call the Taliban “medieval”.  He put Islamic fundamentalism in the same context as other movements of the Religious Right globally: the Hindu Right in India, the Jewish Right in Israel, the Christian Right in the United States, all of whom are in a revolt against modernity.  He asks:

“What then is the future of these fundamentalist movements and parties?  I think it is limited and quite dim.  The reasons for it are multiple: Their links to the past are twisted.  Their vision of the future is unworkable.  And their connections to contemporary forces and ideals are largely negative.  Yet, in their limit lies the reason for us to fear.  Between their beginnings and end, right wing movements are known to have inflicted great damage upon countries and peoples.  So help us God!”

With the ever-increasing power of such movements, Ahmad’s lament echoes louder than ever.  Indeed, I find myself wondering what Eqbal Ahmad would have thought of the power of the Christian Right today, or of the Second Intifada in Israel/Palestine, or of the war in Iraq.  The late Edward Said told him not to “leave his words scattered to the winds or even recorded on tape, but collected and published in several volumes for everyone to read.” (3)  With Between Past and Future, the Eqbal Ahmad Foundation has begun this work of collecting Ahmad’s scattered words.  Readers can only hope the work will continue.

Individual orders of the film “Crossing the Lines” cost $35.  Institutional orders are $100.  The book and film can be purchased together for $100.  Mail orders (include name, address, and email) to:

Eqbal Ahmad Foundation
P.O. Box 222
Princeton, NJ 08542-0222 USA



1) The talk was called “Terrorism: Theirs and Ours”, and was republished as a Seven Stories Press book.
2) This is in “Confronting Empire”, pg. 147.
3) This is in the Foreword to David Barsamian’s book of interviews with Eqbal Ahmad, “Confronting Empire”, South End Press 2000.

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