Indo-Pakistan Cross Fertilisation
The Indo-Pakistan feud keeps South Asia apart, but a criss-crossing media is rapidly bridging the subcontinental gap.
ALIENS from another planet, or at least, strangers from faraway foreign lands. Not quite. But to a large extent that is how a Pakistani visiting India feels. Yet, paradoxically, there is also an inescapable sense of familiarity. It´s like coming home, but being in a strange land, where everything is what you expect it to be, but so very different. The cliches come fast and furious: so near and yet so far… There is the undoubted affinity between the Punjabi-, Sindhi-, Gujrati- and Urdu-speaking people across the border. But for other regions of India, Pakistanis are near-total foreigners. Witness the scene, on a Calcutta street last December when a young journalist from Lahore was stopped and asked for his autograph by a student who couldn´t believe he was actually face to face with a real, living Pakistani.
"The new generation on both sides knows nothing about each other and both sides are demonising each other," wrote columnist I. Hassan, after a visit in March to his alma mater in Dehradun, the Royal Indian Military College. "Younger people who met my wife or myself were surprised that we spoke the same language, wore the same dress and were just ordinary human beings like them. Young cadets wanted to know what the land looked like across the border. When told that the Indo-Gangetic plain was the same all the way from Peshawar to Calcutta, they found that incredible."
As the rest of the world becomes a global village, the great chasm between India and Pakistan too will have to be bridged. And it is happening. On the one hand, opinion-makers and policy analysts from the two sides have been able to sit down and talk, thanks to the increasing number of intra-regional conferences and workshops, often organised or funded by international donor organisations. On the other hand, the common man gets a chance to see how the other side lives through the popular media that is gaining increasing popularity on both sides.
The most popular television channel in Pakistan is Zee. Although not state-owned, it is definitely an ´Indian´ channel, and it plays to the lowest common denominator with its game shows, chat shows, sing-along programmes, and reruns of popular Hindi films and songs. In India, meanwhile, a Pakistani feels proud of all the appreciation shown for Pakistan Television tele-dramas (available both on television and in video cassettes), particularly among Hindi- and Urdu-speakers. The television screen, indeed, has managed to do what the diplomats found impossible to do for decades—permeate this most distanced of South Asian relationships.
Well-known Indian poet and writer Javed Akhtar, on a visit to Karachi this March, told university students that Pakistanis were showing greater understanding towards his country than in his last visit five years ago. He attributed this to the Indian or Indian-backed satellite channels. "Your television plays have done likewise, taught the man in the Indian street that you are not very different from us," said Mr Akhtar.
Newsprint and Email
While news and feature services have been transferring stories across the border for some time, the last few years saw the sudden arrival of Indian columnists on the pages of Pakistani newspapers. Pakistani journalists now regularly get bylines in Indian publications. Ann Ninan, editor at Inter Press Service´s South Asia office in New Delhi, says any story datelined Pakistan gets snapped up by Indian editors.
Any newspaper can pull out and slap on an agency story, but exclusive commentaries or in-depth features have their own weight and readership. The thaw in Indo-Pakistani relations, to the extent that it is real, has much to do with the publication of personalised columns by Indians and Pakistanis in each other´s papers. "Why don´t you write for us?" says a Karachi-based editor to a visiting Indian journalist with whom a rapport has been struck. When several journalists form part of a delegation, like in the recent Calcutta gathering of the Pakistan-India People´s Forum for Peace and Democracy (see Himal, Mar/Apr 1997, page 41), the chances of cross-border writing increases several times over.
The effort by the English language papers on each side to run columns from the other side has reaped obvious dividends. Non-hawkish reports on current events from local columnists have helped enhance the credibility of various points of view. Such cross-pollination in the press has helped override to some extent the propaganda of both sides. Yes, even on the "Kashmir issue".
"All right, so a bunch of people gets funds to sit down and talks to another bunch of people from across the border. How does that change government policy?" asks the cynic. The answer is that such meetings do not directly change government policy, but do influence the policy-makers. Good reportage and analysis from across the border also limit the extent of the politician´s political posturing. Take the Kashmiri tangle, where the view is gaining ground among the vanguard intelligentsia in Islamabad and New Delhi that rather than being a territorial dispute, it is a matter involving the aspirations of the Kashmiris themselves.
Indo-Pakistan forums have been immensely useful. The two major ones held in India—in Delhi in February 1995 and in Calcutta in December 1996—led to a series of articles in Dawn by prominent columnists like M.H. Askari and M.B. Naqvi. The agenda laid down by such writers, urging dialogue between the two governments, inevitably became part of public discourse, which made it easier for (or forced) Pakistani politicians to drop some of their posturing.
The forums have also taken advantage of the new information transfer technology represented by electronic mail. "Thank God for email," said a journalist participating at an Indo-Pak forum held in Lahore in November 1995. Indian and Pakistani journalists had just decided to keep in touch and exchange articles, and they knew that without the new technology of electronic mail this would be ok.
Given the exorbitant costs and hassles of faxing, email has indeed arrived as a godsend for regional communicators. Increasingly, human rights groups, women´s right activists and development workers and others, too, are taking the lead of the journalists. The volume of electronic exchange of information over the Indo-Pak frontier is rising rapidly, bypassing all the obstacles placed by officialdom, the post, and poor phone lines between the two countries (email is routed through international channels). This can only add to the confidence-building that has already been achieved by television and print media.
The sudden increase in cross-border seminars and workshops organised by those outside government have provided unprecedented opportunity for Indians and Pakistanis to travel across. One such workshop ran for nine days at the Neemrana Fort Palace in Rajasthan last October, organised by the Centre for Defence Studies at King´s College, London. Among the participants was a young, Lahore-based journalist, Mazhar Zaidi, who, visiting India for the first time, saw first-hand how personal contact could clear the air. By the time the Kashmir issue came up for discussion on the last day of the workshop, he reported, the participants had already managed to "tear apart the imposed wall of hostility and antagonism which has been created between the people of the two countries."
Mr Zaidi, however, was already a ´dove´. What about the ´hawks´? Among the Pakistanis at Neemrana was Saad S. Khan, a student from Islamabad and a self-confessed "cut-throat, anti-India hardliner". Said Mr Khan, "Till the last day, in my heart of hearts, I wished at least one Hindu would misbehave with me, to substantiate my deeply ingrained beliefs about the ´Hindu mentality´. But nobody obliged." In an article titled "Confessions from the Land of the Enemy", Mr Khan reported on his myth-shattering experience in an India where he only received warmth and camaraderie.
While wandering around old Delhi, says Mr Zaidi, he was bombarded with questions about Lahore by old people who were once of that city. "Is Lakshmi Chowk still called by the same name?" Yes, it is. So is Ganga Ram Hospital, Gulab Devi Hospital, Mozang Chungi, Lakshmi Mansions on Regal Chowk and Model Town.
Wrote Mr Zaidi, "You can´t understand why, if you are not in your country, everything still looks the same. Standing near Jamia Masjid in Old Delhi, you can feel the ambience of Lahore´s Mochi Darwaza. Or the similarity between South Extension, where you´ll find the yuppie crowd eating out at trendy restaurants—it´s just like Liberty Market in Lahore, or Jinnah Super in Islamabad."
More than a culture shock, he says, it´s like coming "face to face with a mirror image of the same culture". It is this face on the mirror that media exchanges between India and Pakistan, whether it is satellite channels beaming down unasked, email and the Internet, or terrestrial journalists visiting each other´s country, are helping the people of each country recognise as one´s own.