Suraj Gogoi

Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid’s criticism of the Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files as “a propaganda, vulgar movie” at the closing ceremony of the International Film Festival of India in Goa on Monday drew several sharp reactions – including a bristling response from his compatriot Naor Gilon, the Israeli ambassador to India.

In an open letter to Lapid on Twitter on Tuesday, Gilon began by reminding the director – chairman of the jury of the festival’s competition section – of India’s tradition of hospitality. Gilson tweeted:

“In Indian culture they say that a guest is like God. You have abused in the worst way the Indian invitation to chair the panel of judges at @IFFIGoa as well as the trust, respect and warm hospitality they have bestowed on you.”  

His statement not only cast light on the state of India-Israel relations, it also described what Gilon believes is the Indian practice of hospitality, marked by trust, respect and warmth.

While this all sounds fuzzy, in reality, it is necessary to recognise that hospitality is actually political. To understand this, one must ask: “who do we trust?”, “who do we respect?” and “who do we treat with warmth?”

Our understanding of hospitality says a lot about friends – and also our enemies. To whom do we extend our hospitality?

Muslims? Dalits? How hospitable are we towards them? In his powerful book Annihilation of Caste, BR Ambedkar said that India perhaps is a nation but it is not a society. Because of the persistence of caste, there will be no mobility within groups, he said. In the absence of mobility, we cannot have fraternity. And when fraternity is absent, how can there be hospitality?

During the abrupt lockdown imposed in March 2020 to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of migrant workers in Indian cities were forced to undertake perilous journeys home. Along their long routes, they experienced unimaginable traumas. Where was the hospitality of the Indian state then? Where, as the police assaulted the weary travellers, was India’s warmth towards its own people?

Similarly, India’s refusal to recognise and grant asylum to Rohingyas speaks of its selective hospitality towards refugees. Is one’s religion a criteria in India to be considered for hospitality? Even the legal framework set out in the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 offers only selective citizenship to persecuted people in India’s neighboring states – categorically leaving out Muslims from its purview.

As a general rule of hospitality, we do not throw out guests unceremoniously. But this happened with the National Register of Citizens, the exercise in Assam aimed at identifying undocumented migrants. Of course, the bureaucratic process of producing specific documents was so complex, Indian citizens – that is to say, Assam’s Muslims – were tipped into a panic.

The first iteration of the register was published at midnight on December 31, 2017. As the Czech philosopher Jan Pato?ka reminded us, the “night is not nothingness”. The publication of the list sent shivers down the spines of lakhs of Assamese Muslims. That night, 37-year-old Hanif Khan from the Barak Valley died by suicide, unable to bear the trauma and uncertainty of being excluded from the register and becoming stateless.

Despite the traumas it caused, the National Register of Citizens had widespread support across India. Is India really as hospitable as Gilon would have us imagine?

This narrowing of the notion of hospitality should push us to demand a different kind of hospitality. Hospitality should not be only a ‘‘virtue of sociability”, a phenomenon extended solely to those of whom we approve. Hospitality, as Turkish-American philosopher Seyla Benhabib and German philosopher Immanuel Kant remind us, is a “right” that belongs to all human beings.

Philosopher Jacques Derrida once noted that any act of hospitality can only be poetic. In his critique of Kashmir Files, Lapid poetically extended his solidarity towards the Kashmiri Muslims. In his act of solidarity via his critique, Lapid was being a responsible guest by taking the courage to speak for the minorities in India, even if that meant offending his host.

Suraj Gogi is an Assistant Professor at the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, RV University, Bengaluru.

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