The idea is to explore the possibility of a way forward in the relationship given all the known knowns.
On Monday, July 24, at 3 pm Eastern Standard Time (12.30 am IST) Senator Mushahid Hussain, the former information minister of Pakistan, and I will sit down for a public conversation at the Atlantic Council in Washington D.C. The objective is to examine the role played by media narratives in the relationship between India and Pakistan.
At a point in time when relations between the two nations have touched a nadir, cross-border shelling and raids is more the norm than the exception, dominant national narratives in both India and Pakistan only fuel further tensions with media platforms — print, broadcasting and social media — amplifying the stereotyping and underscoring the otherness of the other. The idea is to explore the possibility of a way forward in the relationship given all the known knowns.
Can our syncretic though strained intertwining be reimagined and reinvigorated for conflict should not be the new normal. Does the media have a role — other than that of a spoiler — to play in this paradigm?
Before addressing this question, let me briefly outline the structure of media in both the countries. In India, the total number of registered publications, as on March 31, 2016, for which Registrar of Newspapers for India (RNI) figures are available was 1,10,851. The number of newspapers was 16,136 and periodicals stood at 94,715. The combined circulation of all print publications during the year 2015-16 was 61,02,38,581. The breakdown of circulation numbers was as follows: Hindi publications — 31,44,55,106; English publications — 6,54,13,443 and Urdu publications 5,17,75,006.
The total number of private television channels as on May 31, 2017, was 882. Out of these 391 are news channels and 491 are general entertainment channels. And 183 million homes have access to cable and satellite television. The total numbers of private FM radio stations are 243 and there are 200 operational community radio stations. Internet subscriber numbers have touched 465 million as of June 2017. In addition to that public broadcaster Prasar Bharati runs an elaborate radio and television network.
In Pakistan also the media landscape is equally rich and diverse. 140 million people have direct or communal access to television with approximately 15 million cable TV connections being shared by 105 million viewers. There are 105 private satellite television channels that have been licenced by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). In addition to this, state broadcaster Pakistan TV runs its own terrestrial network. There are 269 medium wave, short wave and FM radio stations with a listenership of 190 million people; of these 96 are private FM radio stations. There are 3,080 print publications in Pakistan, including 457 registered newspapers and 2,623 periodicals. Out of the 457, 195 are Urdu newspapers, 161 Sindhi, 98 English and three are in Gujarati. Pakistan had 34 million Internet users out of which 3.1 million have broadband Internet connectivity as of July 2016. Numbers obviously must have gone up in the past one year.
It is therefore quite evident that with such widespread proliferation of private media there is scope to write a new script for the India-Pakistan relationship. Then where is the problem? The media and public opinion have a convoluted correlation — the proverbial chicken and an egg with each feeding of the other.
States routinely utilise the media to propagate a certain narrative, fly trial balloons prior to formulating a policy and even rally public opinion to provide the rationale for a particular policy decision. The flip side of this manipulation is that states themselves become hostages to the perceptions they create through the media when they want to shift gears of policymaking. This is a truism insofar as India and Pakistan is concerned given that anti-India sentiment in Pakistan and anti-Pakistan mawkishness is seen as both patriotic and nationalistic in both the countries.
Then there is a fertile field of trauma, conflict, bitterness and odium dating back to 1947, that has only got exacerbated as passed on memories from generation to generation have amplified the villainous and rapacious credentials of the other without ever emphasising the commonalities and shared heritage. To that has been added the additional antagonism of the past 70 years.
One good effort was made under the aegis of the Aman ki Asha programme. It was conceived and implemented jointly by two media houses one from India and the other from Pakistan. Launched on January 1, 2010, it endeavoured to facilitate normalisation of relations through a three-pronged strategy, first being the resolution of disputes through dialogue and discussion. They would bring members of governments, hawks, international think tanks and civil society on their print and electronic media platforms to discuss complex issues that continue to bedevil the two countries and propose solutions. Second, to bring leaders of industry together and propose resumption of trade and investment, given that mutual economic benefit could be the strongest binding force of good bilateral relations. Third, to encourage greater people-to-people contacts through increased cultural exchanges.
Over a period of three years, between 2010 and 2013, Aman ki Asha caught the fancy of people in both the countries. It was applauded by the international community and was affirmed as the “most likely to thrive” initiative for peace between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan.
However, Aman ki Asha faced opposition from the usual bunch of hyper-nationalists in both the countries. The maximum damage was inflicted by a television channel of the same media group that was partnered the endeavour. While they did Aman ki Asha in the morning their own TV channel made “Aman ki Ashes” out of it each night between 2010-2014.
In Pakistan initially, the deep state supported Aman ki Asha, even facilitated visas for Indian citizens who came to participate in events sponsored by the peace initiative. However, by 2013, Aman ki Asha was labelled as anti-Pakistan.
A large part of this campaign of innuendo against Aman ki Asha had everything to do with the fact that it was seen as an initiative of two large media houses to the exclusion of others. The other media houses worked overtime to undermine and discredit it, specially in Pakistan. Corporate rivalry trumped a noble initiative to try and build a new narrative between the two countries.
Given the vibrant nature of private media in both the countries, a pan media platform involving as many media players as possible must be created again to resuscitate the initiative albeit on a larger scale. This exertion must go on irrespective of the state of relations at any particular point in time.
In the short and medium term, this effort must focus on the co-production of content. Such collaborative programmes should deal with non-contentious issues — cultural, social, environmental and even economic — that have a bearing on both the countries, along with entertainment shows. A viable starting point for the broadcast of such content would be through digital platforms and gradually such shows can air simultaneously in both the countries on established television channels via satellite links, with identifiable, well-known anchors and guests from both the countries.
In the long run, the free and uninterrupted circulation of Indian and Pakistani newspapers, books and other published material across the respective borders and the possibility of directly downlinking Indian and Pakistani news and entertainment channels in the other country as well as investments in each other’s media industry will help populace realise that people on the other side of the border are just like them, have similar hopes, dreams and aspirations. If this movement generates sufficient momentum it would compel even the “deep state” mandarins to change their spots. For nothing can stop history on the march.
South Asia is home to two billion people. It is the most unconnected region in the world with the worst human development indices. The problem is the India-Pakistan paradigm. We owe it to posterity to surmount our issues and build a better tomorrow for the generations that will come after us.
Updated On: Jul 22, 2017