What was planned as a great meeting of minds between Indian and Pakistan media bigwigs, was far from that. They came as strangers, and left not much different.
The pick of Indian journalists— from the nationalist right to the liberal left, print to broadcast, and English to Hindi—all of 45 of them were there in Islamabad, warmed up and waiting to take a message back to the Indian public from General Parvez Musharraf, CEO of Pakistan. The South Asia Media Conference of 1-2 July was a coup of a public relations opportunity for a leader whose militarist image has legitimised the righteous official Indian stance of “no talks” with a man whose “hands are stained with (Kargil) blood”. Here was the opportunity to make a symbolic unilateral gesture, to appeal directly to the Indian people, cutting across the bigoted bureaucracies on both sides.
But the General is not a man who values symbolic gestures. Indeed his belittling of Indian Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee´s gesture of visiting the Minar-I-Pakistan in Lahore in February 1999, queered the pitch of his 90 minutes exchange with the visiting media. Vajpayee´s visit to the monument which stands on the plain outside Lahore Fort had been an affirmation of India´s recognition of Pakistan as a sovereign independent state. It provoked a barrage of criticism against Vajpayee from ultra-nationalists at home. The General was miserly with his acknowledgement, “Vajpayee´s going to the Minar-I-Pakistan was a symbolic gesture, but what if the real issue is not touched? It puts one´s sincerity in doubt if the core issue of Kashmir is not resolved.”
The accusatory refrain about the insincerity of the Indian leaders, whether it was Lahore or the Simla agreement, brought BJP ideologue K.R. Malkani—also present at the media meet—to his feet. Moving to the front of the room, his body angrily tense, he asked “If you believe that the Indian leaders are insincere, why do you want to talk to them?” Before the CEO of Pakistan could respond, a heckler from the back cried out, “Malkani has no right to ask a question! He´s not a journalist!” At issue was not so much the locus standi of Malkani, a former editor of the RSS organ The Organiser, but astonishment at how and why, in the presence of General Musharraf, someone dared to be so confrontational. What happened to the bonhomie, the candid cross-border opening up of journalists, the attempt to rise above distorted perceptions, which supposedly had characterised the two days of South Asia Media Conference?
Gen. Musharraf´s no-holdsbarred press conference ended up as a public relations disaster, if his opening remarks invited the South Asian press to communicate that he should be taken seriously and should be talked to, the feisty question-answer session produced a hardening of antagonistic positions and the grim we-told-you-so realisation of absolute inflexibility. Surely this was not the message the Pakistanis wanted to send.
There were some like Seema Mustafa, political editor of The Asian Age, who was disarmed by the candid, straight-shooting style of Gen¬eral Musharraf and his relatively ´liberal´ image, a striking contrast to the diplomatic guile associated with his predecessor, the Islamising General Zia-ul Haq. But Dilip Padgaonkar, managing editor of The Times of India, was not impressed: the general had invited dialogue but indicated no scope for flexibility to make talks on Kashmir, Kargil or jehad, anything but an empty exercises. As for Tarun Vijay, editor of Panchajanya (another RSS mouthpiece), Gen. Musharraf´s words only made rock solid the irreconcilable divide between India and Pakistan. The pan¬dering questions of a Jang reporter, sycophantically trying to warm up to an un-responding Chief Executive, was a grim reminder of the very jingoistic hysteria for which Musharraf had castigated the Indian press. The tolerance of dissenting viewpoints, which had up to a point marked the Conference sessions just a few hours earlier, was cracked wide open.
Perhaps, it was naive to think that diplomatic flexibility could have been shown by the CEO, for irrespective of his predilections as a ´social liberal´, what won´t go away is the power dynamics of his relationship with the corps commanders, the Islamisation of the army and the dependence on the mullahs vis-a-vis the traders. How taut is the line the general walks was highlighted by the protests of the Jamaat-e-Islami against an alleged “softening” of stance on the 1971 war, in an interview he gave to The Hindustan Times published on the eve of his press conference.
The ´K´ Problem
All of 200 South Asian journalists were gathered in Islamabad at the initiative of The News of Pakistan, with support from UNDP, the Canadians and the Pakistan government (most notably by providing visas to the Indian contingent). This was meant to be an opportunity for indepth and candid exchanges, and a variety of participants was certainly at hand. The daily newspaper had pulled of quite a feat in getting together some of the most re-spected as well as the brightest names in subcontinental media— from Barkha Dutt of NDTV to the most syndicated columnist of South Asia, Kuldip Nayar; from Rehana Hakim of the courageous Karachi newsmagazine Newsline to I. A. Rehman, now of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Ajit Bhattacharjea, the chairman of the Editors Guild of India, enviously observed that back in India they felt good if they could pull in even three editors. But it was not lost on anyone that it was the availability of Pakistani visa which had lured these media luminaries to Islamabad.
Current affairs editor of The Nezos and organiser of the conference, Imtiaz Alam, flagged off SAMC by specifically juxtaposing the breakdown in official Tndia-Pakistan dialogue with the possibility of Indian
and Pakistani journalists entering into a dialogue. Unfortunately, Alam had structured the conference wrong, with set presentations by scores of speakers over two days in one vast plenary. This miscalculation alone was enough to virtually stifle interaction both within the conference and outside in the corridors. A break-up into various working groups may have proved useful, and time for free-wheeling discussion on the issues may also have brought people out of their nationalist cocoons. But this did not happen, and so the Indians and Pakistanis in particular mostly walked and talked past each other.
Most of the participants came to Islamabad as strangers and left as strangers, essentially caucusing within their own country delegations. The brave words spoken at the plenary about transcending a negative mindset, turned out to be sterile. The News, in an editorial, celebrated SAMC as a “peace model” but if the impressionistic accounts written by Indian and Pakistani journalists about the Islamabad event are anything to go by, the report card is disappointing.
Hardly any of the reports indicate that either Indian or Pakistani journalists engaged with the ´K´ problem in ways that transcended their respective nationalist orthodoxies. Seen from the Indian prism, Pakistani journalists remain locked in their distorted history of the Kashmir problem, which sees the place as rightfully belonging to Pakistan—despite their criticism of the Kargil misadventure, they legitimise interference in Kashmir. Seen from the Pakistani prism, Indian journalists turn a blind eye to the disaffec¬tion in the Valley and the atrocities being committed there, and while condemning Kargil, refuse to acknowledge India´s aggressive manoeuvres in occupying Siachen. Indeed, the only issue on which there seemed a consensus, remarked a TV journalist from India, “is the common opposition to the autonomy resolution of Farooq Abdullah”. While certainly, even in Islamabad, there were those who held pluralist positions and refrained from demonising the neighbour, the intellectual space to challenge the claim of an essentialist India-Pakistan hostility did not open up.
The objectives of the conference would have been all about introspection—journalists to take respon¬sibility for what in their hands has become a medium to promote hate and hysteria, and as professionals, to commit ourselves to a free and fair media. Many of the speakers did speak candidly and with vision. But in the crush of presentations, the arguments were lost. On the au¬tonomy issue, Dawn columnist M P Bhandara in his paper “The Long Journey of Peace”, daringly argued that Pakistan should acquiesce in the implementation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, and supported granting full autonomy for the Valley as an interim step. Let alone pro¬voking a debate, he was cut off midway, as other presentations were in line.
All in all, it was a lost opportunity. The fact that there was no reach¬ing out was clear in a verbal skirmish that took place between a Pakistan Television journalist and Auradha Jamwal, the journalist daughter of Ved Bhasin—founder editor of Kashmir Times. Her lived reality of Kashmir through these 11 years was dismissed by the PTV journalist´s prejudiced notions of what he thought to be the truth in the Valley.
It should have been a unique opportunity to listen, to talk, for it is not the easiest of tasks to get together such a wide array of cross-border editors and columnists. What survived for the Indian journalists was the brief glimpse of Pakistan and the relative media openness under military rule. As The News editorial wrote, for many it was their first exposure to Pakistan. And, certainly, they found “no hate squads pelting stones at them, no religious fanat¬ics demanding their expulsion…” Unfortunately, many had gone looking for something more.
THE ISLAMABAD conference participants were offered the opportunity to visit the Line of Control in Azad Kashmir/Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, and many jumped at the opportunity even while realizing that the Pakistani ‘minders’ would be all over. What the Indian participants had bargained without was the barrage of flak against them for visiting the ‘disputed’ area. Already, the ultra-nationalists has lambasted them as anti-national in an editorial in The Pioneer, and later at a cocktail-reception in New Delhi, a highly respected former foreign secretary accused them of having betrayed the Indian position on AK/POK and legitimizing Pakistan’s stand.
The truth was that the journalists barely set foot on AK/POK, so zealous were the ‘minders’. The set-piece interaction played out at the 10-year-old Ampere refugee camp had no more reality than a grimy picture postcard. Officially, there are 20,000 refugees who have come over from the Valley, with about 10,000 residing in the camps of AK/POK. In Ampore camp, nearly 3000 families lived in abject poverty. “Pakistan will not let us go. India will not let us come over,” said one young man. The reality of being victimised by both sides was clear in his recitation of atrocities, which had driven him’ across 10 years ago from the border district of Kupwara.
Along the 750-km LoC, are armed troops (before 1989 armed with dandas), standing in between mines„ with searchlights glaring at night. “It is not possible that 2500 fighters are waiting to cross over, said Major General Rashid Quereshi. “Pakistan recognises the sanctity of the LoC,” (Although in his press conference Chief Executive Musharrat had implied that space existed for jehadis fighting repression in what he emphasised us as the disputed area of Kashmir.)
Gen. Rashid’s briefing to the visiting journalists in Muzzafarbad, exposed the clash of two distinct and confrontational histories as they relate to Kargil. The general was then Brigadier Rashid, and the spokesman of the Pakistan Army on the raging Kargil conflict. Talking to the journalists, there was a distinct sense of him making it up as he went along, as he presented Pakistan’s version of the events leading up to Kargil. Against the background of India grabbing the Siachen heights, Pakistani regulars had seized the opportunity to occupy the gaps in between Shyok-Drass-Kargil along the LoC in February-March 1999 to preempt the Indian army, he explained. Whren did the Pakistanis discover that the jehadis had infiltrated across the LoC? “In May, when the mujahedeen fired on the Indian convoy.” He added, “At the time we thought it was an Indian ploy.”
When asked about Azad Kashmir being a base for the operations of the Hizbul Mujahedeen, Harkat ul-Mujahdeen or. the Lashkar-i-Toiba, he answered: “I need to check whether they have offices here.” Meanwhile outside, scrawled on the rocky hillsides, were “HM”, “JKLF”, “ATI” Anjuman Talba Islami) in huge letters for all to see.
The acting prime minister of Azad Kashmir was the gracious Shahibzada Md Irshad Zafar. “No, there were no offices of the HM or Harkat. We don’t want a war with India,” he said. How was it then that HM leaders like Salahuddin made announcements from here, asked columnist Prem Shanker Jha. “Maybe he was visiting, I’ve never met him. But we won’t stop him. He has a right to be here. He’s a Kashmiri.” The Constitution of Azad Kashmir specifically states that it will be a base camp to support the liberation of Kashmir, pointed out Zafar Mehraj, the editor of Srinagar ‘s Kashmir Monitor. Despite repeated requests, the journalists could not get a copy of the Constitution.
In what appeared to be a major departure. the acting prime minister said, “If that is what the people of Kashmir want, then independence, too, cannot be ruled out.” However, he quickly added that there was no support for independence in Azad Kashmir. Just outside, on the hillside, was another scrawl: “Kashmir banega Pakistan.”