Half-truthing the other

December 15, 2019

Both India and Pakistan share a reductionist view of the ‘enemy country’ and lead similarly clichéd political and military rhetoric against the other state in the media

If Pakistan and India, along with their respective political and security establishments, consider each other as hostile states, should it be a surprise that the media in these two countries, in general, view the other state similarly? Probably not! But there are interesting nuances that differentiate how the media operates in each country vis-a-vis the other and the triggers that dictate these behaviours.

Principally, India is a global brand and its best-selling value is that it is the world’s largest democracy and, arguably, the non-western world’s most sustainable one. This kind of brand recognition does not accrue artificially – free media is needed to make this brand of democracy tick. And so there is! India has also been, arguably, the world’s most pluralistic state and it makes this well-nigh impossible for its media to be unitary and hence it is as multifarious as they come.

Pakistan, of course, has struggled with its democracy, a variety that is at best emaciated and, in cycles, simply unsustainable. Hence the (broadly speaking) ten-year cycles of military rule and representative dispensations. The ability of the state to manipulate or cow down the media is at the heart of the varyingly hybrid democracy of Pakistan. While not as dizzyingly pluralistic as India, Pakistan is pretty diverse in its nationalisms and ethnic, linguistic, religious, social and cultural pluralisms. A malleable media, therefore, ensures that it follows the establishment’s adamance and policy of portraying Pakistan as an artificially unitary and centralised state.

With these peculiar attributes, it gets interesting how media in these two countries view Pakistan and India respectively. Paradoxically, the media in Pakistan has had a rich tradition of finding fault with the foreign policy of the country over the decades – from Ayub’s western leanings to Bhutto’s socialist inclinations, and from Zia’s Islamist bent to Benazir’s cosmopolitan predispositions, the media has – despite all the pressure brought to bear on it – called out the government of the day’s foreign policy swings. The mainstream English media and large parts of Urdu media have often opposed Islamabad’s policy hatred of India and argued for entente and trade.

Comparatively, the Indian media has struggled to disagree with Indian foreign policy. From South Bloc’s rarely varying stance on Pakistan as a ‘terrorist’ state to its swinging positions on Moscow and Washington, or its steady cultivation of the Mideast, the Hindi and English mainstream media establishments have tended overall to promote New Delhi’s positions. It’s hard to find even mainstream sections of Indian media pleading for engagement with Islamabad.

This unregulated space is a magnet for all those – military and political establishments, political and religious parties and the gullible youth and masses – seeking to demonise the other.

Another difference is the nature of vernacular media in both countries. The Indian media landscape is massive with its vernacular language media much larger in size than its ‘national’ Hindi and English media versions. Mainstream Indian media, therefore, apparently finds it difficult to diversify its view of Pakistan than the vernacular media. It’s the reverse in Pakistan where mainstream Urdu and English media is much larger in size – including both print and electronic media. This makes it relatively easier for it to find a different perspective on India than the security establishment. The vernacular media in Pakistan is much smaller in size and since most of its content comes from ‘statement journalism’, it may perfunctorily carry anti-India statements of ministers and retired and serving military officials but it also carries editorials and opinions that are at odds with officialdom’s views of India.

Television media, a landscape which has expanded massively in both countries over the past 15 years, however, has had a major influence on how media in both countries view the other country and their impact on public opinion. With growing economic competition and the pressure of real-time coverage, TV media on both sides do not shy away from being over the top and cringe-worthily stereotypical. For most mainstream TV channels (particularly in Hindi and English in India and the Urdu ones in Pakistan), the other side is a monster scheming to devour their country. So, according to Indian TV channels ‘Muslim Pakistan is a terrorist state’ and for Pakistani TV channels ‘Hindu India is anti-Muslim, anti-Kashmir and in cahoots with Israel.’

Paradoxically, Indian political establishment and Pakistani security establishment share a reductionist view of the ‘enemy country’ and lead similarly cliched political and military rhetoric against the other state. Again paradoxically, the political establishment in Pakistan and the security establishment in India generally shy away from talking about the other country in harsh tones – unless there is a flashpoint event like Mumbai, Indian Parliament and Uri attacks, or downing of an Indian fighter plane in Pakistan and Indian political annexation of Kashmir, which is when it suddenly becomes obligatory national duty to loosen self-restraint and ‘rip the enemy apart verbally’.

Another unavoidable trend is the advent of the internet in the region in the early part of this century and the ubiquity of social media in this decade. This unregulated space is a magnet for all those– military and political establishments, political and religious parties and the gullible youth and masses – seeking to demonise the other. It’s a free for all. Netizens from both countries perpetuate stereotypes and troll the other like hell. Mainly politicians in India and the military spokesman and the allies of the public relations office of the military in Pakistan are ramping up the tweets on all kinds of issues on the other side. In Pakistan’s case mostly ruling party politicians – led by the prime minster, no less – who is especially prolific on Twitter against ‘fascist Hindu India’ – have exceedingly negative perspectives on India.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect is geography. Northern and western Indian media is particularly anti-Pakistan fuelled by the near-perfunctory rhetoric of the national political establishment there. For southern, eastern and even parts of central India, Pakistan is simply not part of their everyday reality (except when one of India’s pilots is offered tea in Rawalpindi). In Pakistan, the media capital is Karachi where the media is dominated by Urdu-speaking media practitioners who, along with their news bureau counterparts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and even Balochistan do not tend to grant India a coverage priority until a critical mass of official pressure from Islamabad finds its way south and northwest.

The irony is that whenever ordinary Indians are able to visit Pakistan – like during the Kartarpur inauguration, during religious events in Hasan Abdal, or when events like literary festivals bring prominent Indians to Lahore or Karachi – the local media revels in both gushing about their positive views of Pakistan or gushing about them. Likewise when, more rarely, Pakistani students, players or patients visit India, the media and the visitors tend to gush about each other.

People’s perceptions about issues and events are in a major way shaped by the perceptions of the media itself about these issues and events. Unless media practitioners in both countries meet often and have regular engagement with the civil society – instead of just the stiffened officialdom and political elite – their perceptions and opinions will not change. Nor will it be easy for the hapless ordinary citizens on both sides to see through the veneer of often harmful artifice of official rhetoric. The media, in short, should give public interest a try, their original mission.

The author is a political analyst and media   development specialist. He can be reached at adrehmat@gmail.com

India and Pakistan: Half-truthing the other