Five years of bilateral critique

In 2002, when Panos South Asia and Himal Southasian launched the first roundtable of senior journalists from India and Pakistan at Nagarkot in Nepal, we did not expect that our initiative would become an annual event, let alone have any sort of impact on the polity of the two states. It was a modest attempt to bring together influential sections of the media and help them to listen to each other. The time of the Nagarkot meeting was when Islamabad and New Delhi were on the brink of war. There was massive mobilisation of forces along the border following the attack on the Indian Parliament, an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation; there were provocative statements from both sides, while self-righteousness and narrow patriotism governed the narrative of both countries' political and media discourses. Amidst such an atmosphere of heightened hate and mutual distrust, the participants at the very first meeting set the tone for all the sessions to follow Nagarkot, in Bentota, Bellagio, Istanbul and Cairo. They proved that the voice of sanity, reason and forbearance would be able to penetrate even ultra-nationalist chatter of the highest volume. As the organisers started these series of meetings five years ago, media pundits and political scholars were sceptical of the result. In their view, the reasons for Partition had not disappeared, and in fact had become more complex over five decades. In their considered opinion, Kashmir remained an intractable issue because neither side could discuss it outside their stated state-side positions: that total possession of Jammu & Kashmir was vital for the two countries to complete their nation-building exercises according to their chosen paths; that Muslim-majority J & K had to be an integrated part of India to prove the latter's secular credentials; that Pakistan could not give up Kashmir because that would challenge the former's very rationale for existence under the two-nation theory. Back then, the arguments in favour of war and confrontation were cast in a modern-scientific mould, while the articulations in favour of peace between India and Pakistan were ridiculed as naïve, emotional yearnings of peaceniks woefully out of touch with reality. Against this background, in 2002 it looked like Panos South Asia and Himal Southasian were anachronistic sisters championing lost causes. The security state
The new global political narrative after the attacks of 11 September 2001 was a significant impediment. In Southasia as elsewhere in the developing world, there was an attempt to force the focus away from the welfare state to the security state. Suddenly every requirement for a population's social and economic wellbeing was being viewed from a security paradigm, and the think tanks and geostrategic analysts quickly shifted gears to speak up for this new, exclusionist (some would say war-mongering) position. The very use of language indicated this shift: what used to be termed 'food self-sufficiency' and 'energy needs' in discussions from the 1960s right up to the 1980s now began to be addressed as 'food security' and 'energy security'. The attempt to provide 'basic needs' was couched in the language of 'livelihood security'. Planning and implementation of welfare models were replaced by the notion of 'strategies' and 'execution'. The warmth of compassion was being substituted with the cold language of one society establishing 'strategic advantage' over another. All of this was given a market twist, and the pundits suggested that it was the demand of the market which required a hardening of stances. But right from the first of our confabulations that brought together senior journalists and also politicians, analysts and former bureaucrats and diplomats, the organisers of the roundtable realised that the situation was not as hopeless as the sceptics in New Delhi and Islamabad wanted us to believe. Nor was it necessary to trudge down the path of confrontation they proposed. Through the dynamic of bringing together editors, media proprietors, columnists and politicians from the two countries to discuss the pitfalls and opportunities that lay before media in their coverage of bilateral issues, we found that space could be created for new possibilities. At Nagarkot, participants discussed a variety of issues that determine the way India and Pakistan figure in each other's media. Also under discussion was the role that the media plays or can play in either reducing or inflaming the one conflict that has dominated all of Southasia for some time, Kashmir. Through these and various other exploratory discussions, a perhaps unprecedented exercise was carried out: one of Indian and Pakistani media on Indian and Pakistani media. The result was an illustration of the processes of journalism, and a revelation of the tensions that inform and emerge from the practise of this difficult trade in this difficult region. Internal critiques
The myth that the market itself demanded a chauvinistic approach was exploded during the 2002 meet by Kalpana Sharma of The Hindu. She said: "The Hindu would not have been the second largest circulating newspaper if the market did not want to read the kind of things that it publishes. The Hindu is published from a very conservative part of the country, in the south, and the kind of news it has carried and its editorial criticism of the BJP has invited furious letters to the editor. But the paper's circulation did not decline for that reason. The market is therefore just an excuse behind which other kinds of priorities are being met." One of India's dynamic ministers, former diplomat Mani Shankar Aiyar, was candid in explaining the problems of the state machinery and its understanding of the media. "I find this whole exercise of trying to either defend our own minds from the other side or inflicting our point of view on the other side so naïve. It assumes that you could very easily change what the other person's perception was or get your own perceptions so easily changed. The attempt to use intelligence information or the media for propaganda purposes is doomed to failure, especially in our countries." Pakistani editor Rehana Hakeem brought out the pressures on media during intense conflict: "People do tend to take sides, and the media is not an exception. Besides, access to information is limited. Journalists are not allowed to investigate independently, and so they have to rely on the government. But usually – and of late, once the event is over – there is a fair bit of introspection, as happened in the case of the Kargil war." By bringing such voices together and initiating an internal critique of both countries' media and governments, our roundtables have managed to energise and also be a part of a very important shift in perceptions among 'gatekeeper' practitioners in India and Pakistan. Instead of projecting the practitioners from the other country as part of the enemy camp, editors began looking at them as peers, besieged by the same set of problems. Over the years, we experienced increasing openness in the roundtables, and a willingness to set aside exclusive nationalist positions, and to question one's own state establishment. Editors and media-house owners, once the floodgates were opened, were not hesitant to touch any tricky or sensitive issue. At Bellagio in Italy (2003), they discussed the wretched nuclear issue. At Bentota in Sri Lanka (2004), they took the discussion beyond the confidence-building measures, and scrutinised the Composite Dialogue between the two countries. The most inflammatory issue, Kashmir, was discussed amidst the presence of Kashmiri leadership at Istanbul in 2005. And at Cairo in November 2006, as reported in this issue of Himal, the media gatekeepers and policymakers of the two nuclear neighbours shared – with extraordinary candidness – their perspective on internal and external factors that affect the relations between the two countries. We believe that our modest but sustained initiative over the last five years has played a small role in keeping the process of détente on track, despite the many provocations we know so well.

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Himal Southasian