It is self-evident that Bangladesh and India, which share the longest border in all of Southasia – 4053 km – ought to get along, but that is far from the present status of the bilateral relationship, which is at a low ebb. That it is important that the media in its age-old and new-fangled forms try and restore a balance to this relationship, too, is self-evident.
Fortunately, notwithstanding its limitations and constraints, the media enjoys a good deal of credibility in the minds of the ordinary people on both sides. People tend to believe what is communicated by print media and television. The reach, power and apparent credibility of media have all increased with the proliferation of electronic media, and in particular since the advent of cable/satellite channels. As a result, media has evolved as a key actor in international relations.
Indian media reaches Bangladesh in two layers: those of the national English/Hindi media and the regional Bangla media. In the 1970s, both played an active and direct role in publicising East Bengal’s war of independence, thereby creating a unique instance of foreign media becoming a key actor in a neighbour’s struggle for freedom. While the government radio and national press in India might have backed the struggle out of strategic considerations, the Bangla broadcast and print media went out of its way to lend overwhelming support. Thus, Pranabesh Sen, an employee of the Calcutta station of All India Radio, would openly declare in his popular program Sambad Parikrama, that he was part of East Bengal’s struggle as “a soldier armed with words.” Much of this support could be ascribed to pan-Bengali feelings that touched Bangla media persons on the other side of the border.
There has been a rapid descent in this kind of involvement from the heights of the coverage of 1971. Today, Bangladesh is a marginal entity as far as the mainstream media in India is concerned. The dominant representation of the eastern neighbour is that of a kind of wasteland marked by utter poverty and religious fundamentalism, a den of anti-Indian militants from India’s Northeast and an official sponsor of ‘infiltration’. The familiar images are those of people neck-deep in flood waters, processions demanding the death of writer Taslima Nasreen, and the burning of the Indian tri-colour. While these images of course are not fictional, it is the choice of the press and television to highlight them that carries a certain impression of Bangladesh to the Indian masses. Interestingly, there is no difference between the government channel, Doordarshan, and the private satellite channels in terms of the stereotypes they present of the Bangladeshi character.
When it comes to the Indian Bangla news media, there is a growing trend here too of treating Bangladesh as ‘wasteland’, but this is combined with intense representation of a pan-Bengali sentiment, particularly on occasions such that of Rabindranath Tagore’s birthday. In promoting this pan-Bengali emotion, the Indian Bangla news media continues to play on the E par Bangla, 0 par Bangla theme (“this side of Bengal, that side of Bengal”), highlighting the commonalities within the community that was worst hit by the great divide of 1947. The reference is to an ‘imagined community’ based on affinity of language and culture rather than religion. But contrary to the expectations of some, this attempt at projecting similarity backfires, because it threatens to dilute the status of hard-earned Bangladeshi national identity.
India, as a large power, looms much larger in the vision of the Bangladeshi media. For the same reason, India also emerges victim to Bangladeshi politics, which in turn generates media bias. Indeed, the coverage of India by some sections of the mainstream press seems to be marked by an anxiety syndrome that obviously has its origins in the economic and political asymmetry of the bilateral relationship.
Compared to its counterparts in India, including West Bengal, the Bangladeshi media is much more under the thrall of the political parties, i.e. the Awami League, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and, increasingly, the Jamat-e-Islami Party. The main bone of contention seems to be the controversial issue of ‘Bengali vs. Bangladeshi’ identity, with editorial writers feeling the need to clamour ever-louder in favour of the latter rather than the former. This ultra-nationalist posture would deny the West Bengali a share in the pride of the Ekushey movement of East Bengal for supremacy of Bangla over Urdu, and similarly it would deny the Indian Army its active role in the 1971 Bangladeshi war of independence.
It is against this backdrop of unremitting suspicion that bilateral issues have to be dis-cussed, such as the cost-benefit analysis of the supply of Bangladeshi natural gas to India. Other items receiving periodic attention, as news and editorials as well as on television discussions, are bilateral trade, the transit facility sought by India to access its Northeast, the adverse impact of the diversion of Ganga waters by the Farakka Barrage, and so on. The Chittagong Hill Tracts no longer make much news, but the issue that seems to have overtaken all others at present is the River Linking Project proposed by the previous Bharatiya Janata Party government in New Delhi, and the impact that this would have on the national economy and environment of Bangladesh.
The negative representation of the other country in Bangladesh and India is intensified by the fact that there is little cross-pollination of ideas between the two countries in the form of a flow of books, magazines, journals and newspapers. There are some little magazines that enjoy a limited cross-border readership, and literary magazines such as Desh or Ekak Matra have a bi-national, intellectual clientele, but it falls to the mainstream media to pick up the challenge of removing stereotypes. But the fact remains that the copy and programming of the mainstream media on either side is long on stereotypes sprinkled with token items meant to highlight ‘good official ties’.
Some change for the better is occurring with the advent of two prominent Bangla television channels. ETV Bangla and Tara Bangla, based in India, have gained easy access into Bangladeshi households. Tara Bangla carries regular programming targeted at Bangladeshi viewers, including talk shows, interviews and news. In a symbolic gesture, its newsreaders greet the audience with simultaneous ‘Namaskar’ and ‘Salaam Walaikum’. ATN Kolkata has an agreement with NTV of Bangladesh, and it beams regular telecasts to Bangladesh, including the Rater Khabar daily news.
While these trends are positive, there is a need for an accelerated change in mindset that will help us to go beyond the stereotypical, mythical and frenzied representations. The political class and the bureaucracy in both countries must realise that if bilateral ties are to be raised to a higher pedestal, there must be a more nuanced mediation at the level of society. Indeed, the attempts at improving interstate relations must be complemented by generating mutual popular awareness in the cultural sphere. Policy makers on both sides must understand that India-Bangladesh relations involve a volume of emotions that go over and beyond the grammar of bilateral diplomacy, mainly because of the existence of the unique West Bengal-Bangladesh dimension.
It is thus clear that the media in Bangladesh and India can no longer remain, as it does now, appendages of official-level dialogue and negotiations. It must set out on its own to understand, explain and benefit from the coverage of each others’ societies.