October Issue 2003

By | Opinion | Speaker's Corner | Published 16 years ago

Why are first-time visitors to India from Pakistan, or the other way around, always surprised by the warm reception they get from ordinary people? “We never thought people would be so friendly,” say most Indians when they visit Pakistan. And you hear almost identical responses from most Pakistanis who visit India. So then why do we grow up expecting the other country and its citizens to be unfriendly and hostile?

I think I have finally cracked the puzzle. In the three days I spent in Karachi in September, the news that the English language newspapers carried of India consisted almost exclusively of items about Kashmiri deaths at the hands of Indian security forces, statements about Kashmir made by groups abroad, or pronouncements by Indian political leaders critical of Pakistan. I gather that the Urdu press would not have carried much more than that.

Over the same period in India, it is more than likely that Indian newspapers reported anything President Pervez Musharraf said about India, news about arms sales to Pakistan, anti-India statement by even minor Pakistani politicians or by politicians outside Pakistan and perhaps something on cricket.

In sum, the media in both countries concentrates on politics and the extremes of politics and little else. Some English language papers do carry columnists from each other’s countries. But these columns appear on the edit page. Their presence, or the sentiments expressed by the respective writers, does not alter the nature of the reporting in the main sections of the paper. An event-driven media concentrates on reporting only the sensational. The mundane, everyday processes that help us to understand other countries, other societies, other cultures are absent from the columns of our newspapers. Thus, generations of Indians and Pakistanis have grown up knowing precious little about other concerns in each other’s countries.

Apart from news, or limited news, the other great communicator is cinema and more recently, television. But even television serials represent, at best, a partial and distorted image. Take for instance some of the more popular Hindi serials telecast on satellite channels which Pakistanis told me they loved. They give the impression that Indians live in joint families, where women dress in silk sarees, smear generous quantities of red sindoor in their hair and spend their time sorting out complicated relationships with husbands, children and mothers-in-law. Are such women typical of Indian women? Of course, they are not. But how would people in Pakistan know otherwise?

And Hindi films — adored on both sides of the border — are another distorted mirror. Apart from the gloss of unreality that coats the average Bollywood offering, the recent exaggerated surge of patriotism in India has been mirrored in the content of these films. On this visit I realised that not all Pakistanis are as enamoured by Hindi films, as we in India believe they are. Several people complained about the routine depiction of all Pakistanis as villains in Hindi films. “Why should your film producers want to spread such hatred towards us?” a driver in Karachi, who is a Hindi-film enthusiast, asked me. My response was to reassure him that Bollywood films present an exaggerated version of what a few people in India think but certainly do not reflect the views of the majority.

From conversations with some journalists in Pakistan, I gathered that there are people in the media who believe that in India, despite its democratic claims, the press is not entirely free of government control and that this is particularly evident in the way events in Kashmir are reported. I would readily admit that in the past, major Indian newspapers did conform to the government’s line on Kashmir. Many still do. But of late, a substantial section of the mainstream Indian press has broken away from its “security” obsession of the past. It now reports human rights violations in Kashmir, what ordinary Kashmiri men and women feel about their future and about the failure of Delhi’s politics. Many such media organisations now have Kashmiris reporting from the region unlike the past where a Delhi-based correspondent would “parachute” into Kashmir for a few days and report developments based almost entirely on briefings from the army and the intelligence agencies. This alone has dramatically altered the quality of reporting from the troubled region.

I was also asked how secular-minded Indians could allow the government to rewrite textbooks, alter historical facts in them so that a distorted view of Islam is taught to Indian school-children and tolerate the election of someone like Narendra Modi despite what happened in Gujarat last year. Those who asked this question clearly did not know that an active civil society was challenging every such step taken by the government, that there were dozens of independent reports on the Gujarat carnage, that the press had been persistently critical of Modi and his government. Also that the media and human rights groups, in particular the National Human Rights Commission, had pursued the Gujarat story. As a result, in a path-breaking move, the Supreme Court had intervened, reprimanded the Gujarat government and asked for a re-trial of one of the most crucial cases in Gujarat — the Best Bakery case.

Matching such ignorance is India’s lack of knowledge about the Pakistani press, the fact that despite an ostensible absence of democracy, Pakistani newspapers and magazines have been critical of their government, carried devastating exposes about corruption in high places and human rights abuses and have done all this despite the risks journalists face from the powerful in their country. Predictably, the only time we come to know that Pakistan also has investigative journalism is when there are stories about Mumbai’s underworld in Pakistani magazines, including Newsline. Such stories are then featured on the front pages of leading Indian newspapers.

In India, the kind of reporting we get on Pakistan makes people believe that the whole country has turned fundamentalist, that people are pulling down advertisements depicting women, that soon all Pakistani women will have to wear the burqa as did women in Afghanistan under the Taliban and that the country is teetering on the edge of chaos.

Most Pakistanis I met seemed to feel that India had turned completely saffron and pro-Hindutva, that Narendra Modi was a possible future Prime Minister of India, that Indian Muslims were under siege and were not safe and that by and large Indians hated Pakistanis.

Such perceptions are so far from the truth as to be laughable. Yet, the very fact that there are many people who believe this, should make those of us in the media who do not want to exacerbate tensions and would like to have a peaceful South Asia, pause and think why these impressions persist.

One way to initiate change is if the media decided, on both sides of the border, to report on issues that are common to both countries. Issues such as poverty, environmental degradation, the urban crisis, water shortages, drought, the status of women, societal divisions etc. Instead of just comment, our newspapers should carry reports on these issues. Thus, there is absolutely no reason why Indian newspapers have not reported the story about the Tasman Spirit and the devastation that the oil spill has caused to the environment around Karachi, to the livelihood of the fisherfolk, to the economy of the city. People in Mumbai, for instance, would empathise and understand the nature of this crisis as they too live in a port city. Why should the politics of Kashmir prevent the media from reporting on such issues?

Similarly, given the controversy raging around the Kalabagh dam, surely readers in Pakistan would be interested to read about similar struggles against large dams in India, like the Sardar Sarovar Project on the Narmada River.

Is it unrealistic to expect such a change in the manner the media on both sides of the border functions? Perhaps. But some people would say, so is expecting peace between India and Pakistan in our lifetime. I prefer to believe that even the impossible is possible.