In the 21st century, South Asia’s two largest nuclear powers – India and Pakistan – are not on talking terms with each other. Peace talks have stalled and cooperation – other than through the hotline – does not exist. All the gains of the past have been overshadowed by the current wave of animosity. The blame game is endless.
This reflects badly on the quality of leadership and their vision of politics, region and, above all, for their people. The policy of bleeding each other is at work, with the false hope that it will serve as a pressure tactic.
No forum – regional or international – is willing to bring the two countries on the table for talks. We, in Pakistan, have been told that India is our enemy and an arrogant power that wants to dominate the South Asian region. Indians trace all sources of terrorism across the border without realising that Pakistan itself is a victim of terrorism and terrorism is a result of policies that non-elected regimes in the country followed for their own political survival.
In the absence of a dialogue framework at the state level in both countries, the Washington-based Atlantic Center’s South Asia Center hosted a dialogue last week titled ‘Media Diplomacy: Challenging Indo-Pak narrative’. It invited two former information ministers – Manish Tiwari from India and Senator Mushahid Hussain from Pakistan – and Bharath Gopalaswamy, the director of the South Asia Center, raised critical questions to both speakers on the media’s role in creating narratives on bilateral relations.
After the first-half of the session that focused on the role of the media, the discussion turned – as was expected – towards versions that are aligned with their official policies. Both speakers did not say anything that, though correct, may have been unpopular back home as they feared a backlash from the media. They did not challenge the dominant narrative and instead reinforced the stated policy versions.
Mushahid Hussain repeated the argument that Pakistan’s civilian and military governments are not opposed to establishing close relations with India. He cited examples of past agreements between countries signed during civil and military governments. The question that arises is: who is opposed to close relations with India? Why have the channels of communication been locked down as both countries continue to bury their civilians and soldiers? The human and economic costs of this ‘not-so-war-like situation’ are huge and unbearable.
Manish Tiwari was partially right in saying that the Aman Ki Asha project became a victim of an intra-media rivalry. Later, even Nawaz Sharif, the country’s then elected prime minister, was viewed as being sympathetic towards India.
This is the kind of jingoistic environment we have allowed to flourish in the country. Even after 105 television channels in Pakistan and 391 in India, 1.19 billion people phone users and 465 million internet users, we are not well-placed to initiate peace talks and accept the norms of conflict resolution and management.
The media is a commercial industry and has not missed any opportunity to play with fire and appear sensational and irrational at many times. Politicians in both countries do not speak the truth at public forums because they fear a media backlash. Honesty has yet to become the best policy as far as these matters are concerned. Can you think of a news channel that broadcasts breaking news or even offers an analysis with background music being played? That is where we stand at present.
Barring the Middle East, is there any other volatile, disconnected region on the planet like South Asia? The region is home to two billion people. India is the world’s sixth largest economy and is likely to become the second largest economy in the coming decades. India has more to gain from a stable, economically well-connected South Asia. According to Manish Tiwari, the Pakistani media buys content worth $5 million from India at present and Pakistani plays have also gained popularity among Indian viewers. We share a past and a legacy of literature and resistance to imperialism. Who in Pakistan has not grown up watching Bollywood movies?
India used to be a lot saner than what it has become today. The Gandhian spirit for justice and equality is almost lost and the tide towards Hindutva is damaging the secular standing of the country. In the aftermath of the Gujarat massacre in 2002, Khushwant Singh said the incident marked the “end of India”. There is a standby army of extremists in both countries on social media and the mainstream media that issue fatwas and declarations of war. We know that they do not represent our future and socio-economic wellbeing of two billion people in our region.
This year, India and Pakistan will be celebrating the 70th anniversary of their independence. It is time to reflect on the past seven decades. Ideally, joint seminars and dialogues must simultaneously be held in Delhi and Islamabad and speakers from both countries should participate in these discussions. This could create an opportunity of dialogue and an enabling environment to reduce animosity.
But are we ready for this? Are we left with people who can act as visionaries and encourage us to think in that direction? Only the civil society, authors, thinkers and activists can take extraordinary initiatives. Political leaders won’t break the ice. They are held hostage to popular sentiments that they have helped generate over the years.
Abdul Kalam Azad stated in his autobiography that: “India has spent almost 250 crores for maintenance of [its] defence forces, which is half of the total revenues government collects, and Pakistan is spending at least 100 crores from [its] own revenue besides the aid [it] gets from the United States”. Aren’t we stuck in the same arms race and are we not spending on militaries at the cost of human development and the basic delivery of social services? Is that the future that we want to build, invest in and offer to our future generations?
Defence colleges in both countries will continue to teach war games to cadets as that is the nature of their business. The point is: what are the members of the civil society and the so-called voices of reasons doing? They are the ones who need to bring peace for the nations of Bhagat Kabir, Guru Nanak, Meera, Ghalib, Shah Hussain, Bulleh Shah and Shah Latif. The media is not interested in building a pro-peace narrative for India and Pakistan. History’s big tasks are addressed by mass movements and, in South Asia, people on both sides of the border need to take the charge of their future.