By Babar Ayaz
For three days during the 8th South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA) conference held at Amritsar and Lahore early this month, over 250 journalists heard the leading policy makers from India and Pakistan ensuring their commitment to peace between the two countries.
In Amritsar we heard Indian External Minister Salman Khurshid thanking the journalists for their contribution to break the ice between the two countries and said that we will soon drink the cold water of peace. Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, who is a graduate from FC College of Lahore, said that both the Indian and Pakistan Punjab cannot develop and prosper without opening up free trade and free flow of people.
In Pakistan opposition leader Mian Nawaz Sharif reiterated his consistent position that relations with India have to be normalised. He has been supporting peace initiatives ever since he invited Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999, at the cost of annoying the military establishment. Prime Minister of Pakistan Raja Pervaiz Ashraf hosted a dinner for SAFMA delegates and stressed that peace between India and Pakistan is the key to take SAARC objectives forward. Many leading journalists and intellectuals of the region expressed the same feelings. Although the conference was regional in nature but the Pakistan-India relations theme dominated SAFMA’s Amritsar-Lahore conference.
All this has been already reported, but I have recapped it to emphasis that there is a strong lobby of “Journalists for Peace.” Also there is a surging urge between the leaders and peoples of both countries to fast-forward the peace process. Indeed there are also chest-thumping ultra-nationalists on both sides of the border. They may not be many, but they have violent tools to derail the peace process. Therefore recent clashes at the LOC were not unexpected.
Not long ago Pakistani military establishment was the biggest impediment in moving ahead peace with India. Around them are their co-evolutionists who have been benefited by the war economy. But both, on the basis of my analysis and information, I have from the people who have access to the establishment it is safe to say that Pakistani military establishment is now keen to diffuse tension with India. The recent statement from the army quarters that there is a paradigm shift as the biggest existentialist threat to Pakistan is from within i.e. from the growing terrorism in the country. Sensible analysts in Pakistan have been saying that for the last many years. So they were happy that finally reality has dawned on our establishment. I had indicated to the shifting national security paradigm in 2011 winter in The News-Money Matters, but for my friends my analysis was too good to be believed. Many Pakistani and Indian journalists at the conference were found asking if this good news is true.
While all indicators are that the statement should be believed, it has to be understood that Jihadi organisations and their handlers in the establishment cannot be easily convinced to accept this paradigm shift regarding India. They are resisting all such moves and have now started cooperation with each other to attack the armed forces personnel and installments. The Indian government and media need to understand this phenomenon.
Listening to some of the Indian armed forces retired officials on TV last week after the gory killings of soldiers of both India and Pakistan, it was clear once again that India has also many ‘Hamid Guls’ of their own. Though it is a well-known fact that Indian political leaders have more say on the matters of national security, it is also a truth that military and its co-evolutionists are trying to push the weak Congress-led coalition government to take a hawkish stand on the issue of alleged cease-fire violation and beheading of an Indian soldier.
However, the good news is that both India and Pakistan governments are not listening to the hawkish politicians, retired army generals and journalists. They are responsibly showing restraint. But the stoppage of trade and bus service from LOC is a bad move as it would hurt the progress made so far on making life easier for the Kashmiris, we ostensibly love. Its continuation would manifest Pakistan’s earnest desire for peace.
A discussion at the conference was particularly devoted to the journalists’ role in the times of conflict. My friend Kumar Ketkar, who is the Editor of a Marathi newspaper, defined it rightly. He said that ‘we should be humanists first, journalists second and citizens third.” Unfortunately not many journalists around the world subscribe to this golden rule and the order in which it has been laid down by some objective journalists. The real test of objectivity and commitment to humanism comes in the moment of conflict and strife. Otherwise it is all very easy and enlightened to talk about it over a cup of coffee or an evening drink.
The stand taken by some journalists that they report facts as they are has to be taken with a spoonful of salt. It is not that simple. The journalists in this day and age are opinion-makers and many a times their personal biases are reflected in their reports, articles and comments on TV channels. Take the recent cease-fire violation incidents. Most of the TV programmes telecast on both sides of the border were competing with each other to be more hawkish – all in the name of national interest. In this bid they inadvertently or consciously forget that pushing the conflict further is not in the interest of over one billion human beings living in the two countries. Worst it would lead to more killings of soldiers on both sides, they are human beings first with families shattered with grief.
At the NDTV Prime Time programme, where I was one of the guests, anchor Ravish Kumar quoted a leading Pakistani anchor’s sweeping statement that most Pakistanis hate India. Now this is nonsense. No country has monolithic views on such issues. By making such irresponsible statements journalists are actually building a negative opinion. Both Indian and Pakistani societies are multi-ethnic and multi-class. The opinion of a section of ultra-nationalists cannot be dubbed as the opinion of the people. Take the case of Pakistan: the Balochi, Sindhi and Urdu speaking Sindhis, Sariaki, and businessmen of Punjab and progressive politicians of Pakhtunkhwa are not anti-Indian. The political parties they elected were clear on the need to build peace bridges with India. Elections are the biggest quantitative survey. Similarly, most people I talked to in Delhi were upset on the incident but still wanted peace. The people before the camera are usually different. One, they want to show off their nationalism to the public; two, it is also important how the question by a reporter is framed and posed; and three, which interviews are selected by the TRP conscious producers.
Journalists’ exuberance for peace after the conference was short-lived, as cease-fire on LOC was broken and three human beings were killed. But the resolve that both the countries should not let the hawkish lobbies to hold peace hostage was evident in my interaction with many Indian journalists recently. (firstname.lastname@example.org)