The concert hall was full, the air filled with anticipation and a blissful blend of perfumes. The good and the great, the cultured and influential of Delhi were waiting to hear one of the greatest artists of musical history, Pakistan’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It was July 1996 and a sudden shower had washed away the dust from the streets outside, leaving the drenched earth emitting a pungent aroma as raw as the emotion of the audience. This was the second time in 15 years that the seminal singer, renowned for Qawwali , a form of Sufi Islamic mystical singing, would perform in India. In a press conference, he had expressed how happy and peaceful he felt when visiting the country. Khan, from a Punjabi Muslim family, was also touring other nations, telling his global fans that music had no borders. He felt responsible. For him, music was a means to bring people together and dilute hatred. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan did all he could to mend the bitterness between India and Pakistan , South Asia’s two most important regional powers that have been at loggerheads since the partition of India in 1947. During Khan’s 1996 trip, he even braved Hindu ultranationalist groups in Mumbai, on the western coast, to record a joint album with one of India’s most well-known lyricists, Javed Akhtar. But the following year Khan’s soaring voice fell forever silent. He died aged 48, leaving a void that has not been filled even now. He always knew how much Indians loved him although he also knew his best songs were plagiarised into gyrating Bollywood numbers. But that never stopped him from singing, for at heart his mission was about spreading the message of peace and friendship. His songs were accessible and loved by many in the Hindi-Urdu speaking belt of northern India who knew Khan as a voice without boundaries. It seemed everyone listened to his audio cassettes, but no one was arrested for enjoying his songs. It was not a crime to cross linguistic or religious divides to appreciate music. In India, Hindu caretaker of a mosque says: ‘It’s one God for everyone’ But that was then. In April 2022, two Muslim teenagers in India’s Uttar Pradesh state in the north of the country were charged for listening to “Pakistani” music. Their alleged crime was specified under the Indian Penal Code, citing three sections and covering the likes of national integration, intentional insult and criminal intimidation. The relevant song allegedly had words like ‘ Pakistan Zindabad’, meaning ‘Long live Pakistan’. From 1996, when Khan performed in India for the last time, to fatal attacks by Pakistani insurgents on Indian soldiers – including a major one in the Kashmir town of Uri in 2016 – ties between the two neighbours have become more fraught. Emotions range from uneasy angst to bitter enmity, but are often felt as a deeply existential tension. Khan was an exception: a Pakistani who could still travel to India. The reverse traffic was conspicuously missing. The years following his death were interspersed with moments of tension and calm but after Uri, when India made headlines for apparently hitting back at Pakistani militants across the de facto border, the relationship crossed a Rubicon, triggering a flash flood of hatred. Ties were never fully mended after that. Female suicide attack adds to China, Pakistan woes in Baloch conflict In October 2016, Indian broadcaster Zee barred shows from Pakistan from being aired. Then, the Indian Motion Picture Association imposed a ban on Pakistani actors and blocked the country’s musicians from working in the Indian cinema and music industry. Pakistan retaliated by pulling all Indian content off air, including popular Hindi films. It has been well-documented that these cultural bans between the two embittered nations reinforced the idea of borders, contributing to the rise of intolerance and the deepening of “otherisation”. And yet, in the quotidian mundaneness of life, tens of thousands rejected this early arrival of cancel culture, finding their own ways to watch Pakistani dramas and listen to the Qawwalis and ghazals (a genre of poetic, light classical music) of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, Mehdi Hassan, and many more. No bans could put a stop to their desire for music. US urged to sanction India for ‘significantly worsened’ religious freedom There had always been something relatable about Pakistani drama series that enamoured viewers from India. Perhaps their storylines, realistic performances and enchanting music appealed to viewers who had been ardent fans since such dramas began, in both countries, in the early 1980s. There were no satellite channels or YouTube back then. Television was relatively new to both countries with one national channel and limited content. That was never a reason for video cassettes (VHS) of Pakistani TV serials to be absent from Indian markets, just as VHS versions of Hindi films featuring doyens of the Mumbai film industry, like Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Rajesh Khanna, made their way into Pakistan’s biggest cities. One of the Pakistani series now considered a cult hit was Dhoop Kinare (At the Edge Of Sunshine). It was phenomenally well-liked in India. Originally aired on Pakistan’s state run media PTV in 1985, it was a drama series centred on a simple love story of two doctors with an age difference. Female viewers both in India and Pakistan found a heartthrob in the pensive Dr Ahmer, the male protagonist, while men were fascinated by uber cool Dr Zoya Ali Khan, a medical intern and silent rebel breaking social norms. The bold plot was ahead of its time and inspired an Indian remake titled Kuch Toh Log Kahenge (People Will Anyway Say What They Have To) in 2011. India faces calls to probe officials who crushed Muslim homes in Madhya Pradesh Dhoop Kinare’s popularity was not a one-off hit for Pakistani content among Indian audiences. Video cassettes of comedy show Bakra Qiston Pay or BQP (Get Fooled But By Instalments) hosted by Pakistan’s famed stand-up comedian Moin Akhtar and drama series like Tannhiya (Moments Of Loneliness) and Parchaiyaan (The Shadows) can still easily be found in many cities in northern India. To this day, older viewers remember BQP and recognise how it influenced India’s most successful comedy show, hosted by Kapil Sharma. After the VHS era died in the early 2000s and the internet was still a dial-up connection, watchers across the borders made do with old tapes. Then in 2014, Zee came up with a television channel called “Zindegi” (The Life), promising to air the very best of Pakistani content with an emphasis on drama. Seemingly overnight, Pakistani actors Fawad Khan, Mahira Khan and Saba Qamar were charming thousands of Indian viewers. Consequently, Bollywood signed them up. Mahira Khan even starred opposite global superstar Shah Rukh Khan in Raees (The Rich, 2017). But fast forward to 2017 and Zindegi went off air following the Uri attack. Pakistani content in India dried up and the only means to find it was YouTube. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, fans of Indian films and music continued to listen to Hindustani classics and recordings of mushaira (poetry sessions) by Indian poets, as they sampled films via YouTube. Late Indian singing legends like Lata Mangeshkar , Kishore Kumar and Mohamad Rafi still live on in the hearts of Pakistani listeners and viewers. Even with the political weather deteriorating as India heightened its politics of vitriol and bigotry, on YouTube channels featuring such content most comments were about mutual appreciation and love, complete with emoticons of red hearts. Recent Pakistani dramas like Mere Pass Tum Ho (You Are Mine, 2019) Ehd e Wafa (The Declaration of Loyalty, 2019-2020) and Pyar Ke Sadqay (For The Sake Of Love, 2020) were adored by Indian YouTube watchers as well as viewers of Zee5, the revamped Zindegi channel that was reincarnated as an app in 2021. But Indians never really stopped listening to Pakistani music. India’s young and growing fandom of India love their neighbour’s contemporary artists like Ali Sethi, Atif Aslam and Sajjad Ali. When Coke Studio Pakistan began broadcasting on television in 2008, featuring performances by both established and emerging artists, there was no looking back. India lapped up each and every season, a heartwarming way to cherish Pakistan’s entire musical repertoire, presented in a modern, pop style. For old renditions of Pakistani maestros Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or Mehdi Hassan, YouTube was the most dependable resource. Amid such a backdrop, India went to even greater lengths to clamp down, producing jingoistic ultra nationalist films such as Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019) and Kesari (Coloured by the Saffron, 2019), fomenting anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim sentiments. Singapore bans Modi favourite ‘The Kashmir Files’ for stirring racial hate Now, the two Indian Muslim boys charged for listening to Pakistani music await punitive measures. As in other aspects of their daily lives, they cannot escape their government’s obsession with targeting the Muslim minority. Their crime was simply having the temerity to listen to what they liked. That will not stop millions of others on both sides from continuing to turn to YouTube – because the heart always finds a way. Nilosree Biswas is a filmmaker and author, most recently of Banaras: Of Gods, Humans and Stories.