All the while state policies continue to corrode social cohesion in both India and Pakistan, the casual mention of war as a solution by officials representing the two neighbours on the media has become a common practice.
In this context, panellists at a talk on the media’s role in Indo-Pak relations on Friday stressed the need for the media on either sides of the border to act more as mediators and change perceptions, rather than fortifying the existing negative ones.
Held as part of an ongoing signature campaign for peace between the two hostile neighbours, the panel discussion, ‘Indo-Pak Relations and the Role of Media’, was organised by the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s office.
Speaking of his childhood, seasoned journalist Wusutullah Khan said that during those years every Urdu newspaper that one read carried a headline about persecution of Muslims in one state of India or the other. “It gave us the idea that there was nothing else happening in India,” he said.
But it only took a young Hindu student, who he came across in Grade 5, for his perceptions, cemented over the years, to be shattered. “We encircled the child, named Kanhaiya Laal, out of curiosity. But to our utter surprise he had all the human features the rest of us (Muslims) did,” the journalist quipped.
“Because the Hindu we were shown was a man with a single braid growing out from his otherwise bald head and two pointed teeth sticking out of his mouth,” he said. Such was the perception the media had built, that the children in the classroom found themselves amused over how similar the Hindu student was to them, Khan stated.
Commenting over the narrative the two countries have built regarding the historic event, Khan said that while both Indians and Pakistanis know that millions were killed during the Partition, nobody bothers to ask why 70 years on, not even a single person has been held accountable for the killings on either side of the border.
He said the media industry would have to think ‘out of the frame’ to pacify relations between the two countries. The only hope of relations between the two countries improving lies in both of them acknowledging their mistakes, said senior journalist Mazhar Abbas.
“Unless you do that, you won’t move on.” Speaking of media’s role during times of conflict, Abbas said that in 1938 when the Pakistan Movement was at a crucial juncture, Quaid-e-Azam appointed a British journalist, Pothan Joseph, as the editor of ‘Dawn’ which was about to be converted into a daily owing to the latter’s exceptional journalistic skills.
Abbas said that it is important that when dealing with such situations the media puts responsibility foremost rather than doing things that garner more ratings. “It [the media] has the power to both escalate and defuse a conflict.”
Citing more political events, he named a newspaper which he said had a crucial role in flaring up the Urdu-Bangla language riots of 1952. Furthermore, he said the Agra Talks would not have derailed had General Musharraf’s press conference not been aired.
“The timing, the exposure and the fallout of the presser sabotaged all that the two countries had achieved during the talks,” said Abbas. However, he said that it was not just our media, as the gradual collapse in standards of the Indian media, its secularism and democracy also warranted discussion.
Also part of the panel was renowned poet and activist Zahida Hina who was a regular invitee at several seminars, literary gatherings held in India ever since she made a name in the literary circles of Pakistan.
Having spent all her youth hoping that relations between the two countries would improve, the poet, now 71 years old, said the idea now seems like a dream she won’t see fulfilled, at least, in her lifetime.
Calling on both the states to make good use of the influence they hold over their respective populations, Zahida ended her talk with a piece she wrote on the relations between India and Pakistan.