The vernacular idiom expresses emotion far better than it does reason.
Indian and Pakistani media were state-dominated to begin with. Since most of the population is not yet literate, it watches television and listens to the radio, which means that the state is still the great communicator. TV and radio on both sides have been hostile to each other, and there never was any subtlety in the propaganda unleashed on each other. There never was any effort to persuade the people on the other side of the border to look at one’s country as a good country. Both sides decided to malign each other.
After 50 years of negative portrayal of each other, populations on both sides are totally convinced of the evil-country-next-door thesis. Pakistan’s thesis is simple and ideological: India is inhabited by Hindus who were against the formation of Pakistan, Hindu religion is inferior to Islam, Hindu leadership in India dismembered Pakistan and is still at it. The Indian thesis had to be different because it couldn’t attack religion, so its thesis is that of destabilisation: Pakistan is an agent of bigger enemies elsewhere (the United States, China) and wants to destroy India’s pluralist society.
The result is that both the media have convinced their own populations without having any effect across the border. They have been inward-looking, limited only to brainwashing their own societies. A part of India receives Pakistan’s TV and radio broadcast, but after decades of being subjected to Pakistani propaganda no one in India is favourably inclined towards Pakistan. In Pakistan, the VCR revolution has brought Indian films to people at the district and tehsil levels, and the Indian entertainment TV channels are watched in Pakistan more than PTV is, but the people remain totally convinced of the evil-country-next-door thesis.
The print media in India and Pakistan has performed the same function to a lesser or a greater degree. The Urdu press of Pakistan and the Hindi press of north India are locked in a battle of two nationalist mythologies. The opinion expressed in the vernacular is close to state policy. Meanwhile, the state policy itself is moulded by the vernacular press because the parliaments of both sides are influenced more by the ‘language press’ than by the more sophisticated English press.
In fact, with the consolidation of democratic institutions, the influence of the English-language press has declined, and with it also the power of rational discourse. Nationalism is more effectively expressed in vernacular idioms because these idioms express emotion far better than they express reason.
The role of the secret services, too, is prominent when it comes to the vernacular press. There are two reasons for this. First, the speaker of the vernacular is already indoctrinated in the process of negative and adversarial nation-building; second, the ground-level employees of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) are not literate in English. In a way, two hostile nationalisms are in the process of communication through the vernacular press of India and Pakistan. Both sides are isolationist and to an extent paranoid – the two qualities of Third World nationalism.
Same language, different uses
It is in the sector of English-language print journalism that India and Pakistan are found to be quite different. In Pakistan, freedom of the press is of recent vintage. This freedom expresses itself in opposition to the indoctrination imposed by the state under long years of dictatorship. The English press, because of its variegated sources of information, better third-party knowledge of the world and India, and opposition to dictatorship, expresses a view alternative to the state ideology.
Rational discourse in English and its capacity to carry facts and figures have equipped the Pakistani press with tools of persuasion that puncture indoctrination at two levels: in the domain of internal policy and in the domain of foreign policy. The English press in Pakistan is frequently critical of the ideological transformation of Pakistan as well as its policy towards Kashmir and India. Criticism of the two-nation theory and the Kashmir policy is possible in English, though not as yet in Urdu.
In India, the English press plays a powerful role in favour of the country’s secularism. It is also extremely effective in acting as the watchdog of the government in power. But in the domain of foreign policy, and particularly of policy affecting Pakistan, there is a consensus that is unnatural given the freedom of expression available in the country.
India’s English press communicates with the South Block, where foreign policy is formulated. The path of persuasion is a two-way street. The big journalists – some of them experts formerly in the government – guide and mould policy, while the young journalists have taken it for granted that guidelines for Pakistan must come from the foreign ministry. There is also a much better established mechanism for briefing the press in India than in Pakistan.
In a way, changing the attitude of the influential English press in India is going to be more difficult than in Pakistan. The attitude formation there has come about in an environment of freedom under an unbroken tradition of democratic rule. The opinion of the English press is its own and therefore deeply ingrained as conviction. The indoctrination under democracy is deeper because it gives the illusion of being genuinely ‘shared’ and not ‘imposed’. It, however, relies on nationalism which again gives the illusion of being genuine under democracy. This accounts for the inflexibility in interpreting Pakistan as the evil-country- next-door.
On the contrary, in Pakistan, freedom after decades of dictatorship means revolt against the indoctrination imposed under coercion. It is going to be easier to actually persuade the Pakistani journalist to change his attitude as long as he thinks that this change is a result of his new-found freedom to think on his own. It is the natural consequence of an ideological state crumbling under freedom of expression.
What can be done to undo the gridlock of hostile media perception on both sides? The state-owned media are in a way incurable because governments are not prepared to give the sort of freedom necessary for change. It is in the domain of private sector media that changes can be brought about. Luckily, this is the domain where the ability to persuade is far greater despite the disadvantage of low literacy on both sides and the consequent dependence on TV and radio.
As far as the members of the English press in India are concerned, nothing will be more effective than arranging for more frequent visits to Pakistan. There is a quick disarmament of suspicion when a hidebound Indian journalist visits Pakistan. The problem here is that Pakistan is not institutionally geared to receive Indian journalists. If conditions are created for these visits, the greatest persuader will be what the Indian journalist sees as the ability of the Pakistani press to criticise its own government in all domains of policy.
Pakistani journalists visiting India, however, feel that the prejudice and suspicion among their Indian counterparts are too palpable to ignore. Even so, exposure to Indian society has a positive effect on journalists who have an irrational bias against India. Needless to say, the process of mutual exchange of visits will be more effective among young journalists than among the old, whose negative attitudes have become doctrines to be defended even in the face of hard facts. Moderate senior Pakistani journalists, however, can help in creating a good environment for the visits.
Perhaps the real problem would lie in the exchange of visits between the vernacular journalists on both sides. This is the field which has so far remained unexplored simply because the vernacular field is not well understood by third parties who finance the dialogues. English is the universal medium of dialogue among adversaries, but in the case of India and Pakistan, Urdu and Hindi are so closely linked that a dialogue can take place in them.
The Urdu-Hindi language is also the carrier of state propaganda and the vocabulary of two opposed nationalisms. If a dent is made in this sector, the result will be far-reaching. There is no tradition of communication between the vernacular journalists. As a result, the opinion they express is more virulent and adds more effectively to the rupture of comprehension that has taken place between Indians and Pakistanis.
One advance that has taken place on both sides is the competence with which the two opposed media criticise and reveal misgovernment at their own national level. When Pakistani and Indian journalists met in the past, they criticised each other’s country; now they tell each other what is wrong with their own governments. The possibilities of psychological disarmament using this process has not yet been fathomed to bring the two sides together.
India has the institutional capacity to invite Pakistani journalists and make them stay cheaply in India. Pakistan has no such capacity. Therefore, the expense incurred by exchange of visits is impossible to bear in Pakistan. Even third party interventions prefer the venues in India rather than in Pakistan because of budget constraints. It seems clear, therefore, that some effort must be made to institutionalise visits of Indian journalists to Pakistan.
Under SAARC, Pakistan and India have agreed to exchange of publications, that is, to allow free import of each other’s publications. But Pakistan has shied away from it because no one has effectively presented the case to the Pakistani press. What will be the effect of such an exchange?
The Indian English-language publications – newspapers and magazines – will find a good market in Pakistan. (Already, the smuggled Indian film magazines are bestsellers.) Once the Indian newspapers establish a market in Pakistan, they will have to arrange for coverage, which will improve their general stance and make it more balanced and less ‘nationalist’ in deference to new readership.
It is the Pakistani Urdu press that will benefit the most by developing a market in the other direction because of the large Urdu readership among Indian Muslims. The effect would be to bring better balance of coverage because the Pakistani editors would become sensitive to Indian readership. On balance, the Pakistani press will benefit financially in return for moderation on its ideological stance. All international publications with a world-wide market have had to defer to local ideologies and views, and this will happen in South Asia as well.