In the mid-1980s I asked the editor of the Economic Times in Bombay (now Mumbai) why his paper gave very little coverage to international economic and business news? I had in my mind the economy pages of Pakistani newspapers that carried a lot of foreign news. The seasoned editor replied: “In the limited space I have domestic news and views which crowd out the international news as India is a big economy.” That was the time when India was comparatively a closed economy and Manmohan Singh had not yet happened to it.
Fast-forward to 2014: a channel Zindagi was launched in India; it broadcasts Pakistani TV channels dramas and has instantly become a hit. The feedback I get from the Indians I meet while travelling in India is pleasantly amazing, particularly from those who have not travelled to Pakistan. It also shows how little people there know about Pakistan.
They ask questions like: do these TV dramas portray the real picture of Pakistan? Does the middle class have as good a lifestyle as portrayed in the plays? Are Pakistani TV channels allowed to challenge anti-women values and myths? My answer to them is that by and large Pakistani TV dramas portray real life with minimum exaggeration, which is a norm of this genre to drive the underlying message home.
Zindagi it seems is doing a great job to present a moderate Pakistan narrative. No Pakistani government has done that much to project the real image of our country. On the other hand Indian news channels give out the message that Hafiz Saeed and other Islamists’ anger-seething-crowds represent Pakistan. On the Pakistan side, Bollywood movies had started changing perceptions about India way back in the 80s thanks to video technology.
The softer image of both countries is slowly sponging the poison of negative propaganda injected by the co-evolutionists of the war economy. The people of Pakistan started a cultural trade of Rs10 in the 1980s at least once a week – while watching pirated videos of Bollywood movies. The illegality of this trade aside, it clearly manifested that the soft image of secular India was accepted by a large majority of Pakistanis, contrary to the establishment’s narrative that India is our ‘enemy no 1’. Mauled by terrorists and having lost 60,000 Pakistanis, the establishment has now declared terrorism as the country’s foremost enemy.
To project that Pakistanis are by-and-large moderate peace-loving people is a gigantic task in a huge country like India. In this backdrop when the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) invited me to speak in Delhi at a conference on ‘Understanding Pakistan Today’ I readily accepted. The topic was of importance given the fact that very little is known about Pakistan in India. My experience is that most electronic and print media journalists in both countries lazily or deliberately paint each other with one stroke of the brush dipped in the colour of hatred.
Once I, unfortunately, landed in India when reports about the alleged killing of Indian soldiers at the LoC was coming in. One Indian channel anchor invited me to his talk show where hawks were in majority. In a belligerent tone that does not suit a journalist, he editorialised that people in Pakistan hate Indians. I contested that sweeping statement with an explanation.
At a conference in Delhi earlier this month my contention was that in Pakistan, which is a multi-ethnic country, there is no monolithic view about India and Kashmir. Let’s take a quick tour of Pakistan. The Baloch have never been anti-India, the same is true for Sindhi and Urdu-speaking people of Sindh who want to be friends with India. In southern Punjab, while the majority is ambivalent about India, there is a small religious militant section which is the beneficiary of the war economy and is die-hard anti-India. Big business which leads the ruling classes of Pakistan has been lobbying for normalisation of relations with India as they want free access to India’s market.
However, medium and small farmers want some protection against the free import of agricultural produce as they find it difficult to compete with India, which subsidises its farmers. But the same farmers are keen to import Indian agricultural machinery and seeds. Northern Punjab which has traditionally been the army recruiting area will always go along with the establishment’s narrative. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, leaving aside the pro-Taliban religious groups, most Pakhtuns led by the Awami National Party and JUI-F are for improved relations with India.
This peace pulse of the people is understood by all major political parties. The overbearing factor is that in all elections since 1988 there was no anti-India tirade in the election campaigning.
The delegates who spoke at the PIPFPD conference were academics, journalists and women and human rights activists. From the Indian side the mix was the same. There were presentations on Pakistan’s economy, politics, history and labour and women’s rights. From the Indian side a number of intellectuals and journalists participated. Even though the Indian participants were of a high intellectual calibre, many admitted that the conference was educative. “We did not know about the level of studies done in Pakistan, divergent sentiments of the people regarding India and the resilience of the country’s economy”, one JNU professor admitted.
It is generally accepted in India that those who travel to Pakistan come back with positive impressions about the people and the level of development of our country. And that is true on this side of the border too. We have to let Indians know that Pakistan is beyond terrorist groups, and we have to know that India is beyond fire-spitting electronic media and chauvinist organisations.
More intense people-to-people contacts are necessary to clear the cobwebs of history spun by the respective war economies of both the countries. Each terrorist blast to sabotage the peace process should be matched by a ‘peace blast’ rather than stepping back from the peace process and becoming hostage to terrorists and beneficiaries of the war economy.
The writer is a freelance journalist and author of ‘What’s Wrong With Pakistan?