ACROSS THE BORDER
How the media in India and Pakistan created a war where there wasn't one
While the two states never came to blows, the private news channels on
both sides of the border launched strike and counter-strike to keep
the issue burning.
Image credit: via YouTube
Yesterday · 06:30 pm
Updated Yesterday · 08:28 pm
At a time when Indians and Pakistanis – politicians, sportsmen,
entertainers, media persons and regular civilians – are hurling abuses
at each other, it probably renders me unpatriotic to say that Glimpses
of World History by Jawaharlal Nehru is one of my favorite books.
When on his death row, deposed Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali
Bhutto, whose regime had been overthrown by a military coup, wrote a
letter to his daughter in which he expressed his admiration for the
aforementioned book. Does that exonerate me of daring to admire the
writing of the first prime minister of India and the nemesis of
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of my country, Pakistan?
Probably not – because Bhutto does not fall within the patriotic
standards, one that invokes a unique amalgamation of chauvinistic
nationalism, disdain for democracy, an unquestioned love for the army,
and a vague concept of pan-Islamic nationalism.
Of course, with the coming to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party and
the tussle between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party to bear
the standard of Indian nationalism, Nehru too has been interpreted and
re-appropriated to fit the needs of the changing times. He is no
longer the larger-than-life figure who is above criticism.
However it is not Nehru’s role as a politician or his importance in
the contemporary Indian nationalism that I am interested in. It is one
of his messages reiterated throughout the book that I cannot help but
reflect on as Indians and Pakistanis engage in a new kind of a war,
one fought via their respective media.
In Glimpses of World History, a compilation of letters written by
Nehru to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, from 1930-’33, while he was in
prison, Nehru time and again tells his daughter that the country’s
struggle is against British imperialism and government and not the
people of England. He reminds her that our hatred for British rule
should not lead us to hate the British.
This message is as pertinent today as it was more than 80 years ago.
Before elaborating on this, let me stress that there is no way India
and Pakistan were going to wage an all out war, even at the height of
hostility about a week ago, after India claimed to have struck terror
camps across the Line of Control on September 29.
While the Indian government evacuated gullible citizens from the
border villages and the Pakistani state blocked its major highway to
use as an emergency landing strip for air-force, it was clear that
rather than preparation for battle, these were just political
manoeuvres by both countries. The only combat that had begun was on
private media channels on both sides of the border.
This is the new face of war in the 21st century. We saw the first
signs of it on the Indian side 1999, during the Indo-Pak Kargil
conflict, as private news channels had begun to mushroom there. There
wasn’t much of a response on this side of the border because there
were hardly any private news channels in Pakistan at time.
In 2016, however, there are about 100 such channels in Pakistan, all
of which think it their duty to serve this nationalistic agenda in the
media war with India – as is the case across the border.
Years later, when writers and analysts will look back at 2016 as a
time when both the nuclear powers were on the brink of war, perhaps it
will be forgotten that the war was actually fought – not between
soldiers or governments but between citizens of the two countries
through private and social media. This was a cultural war from which
both of sides believed they emerged victorious, but none did.
The need to otherise
The India-Pakistan conflict, like other major political conflicts
around the world, is one between two states. However, every time the
situation escalates, it takes the form of a civilisational conflict
between opposing world views. In the popular Indian imagination, this
becomes a conflict between a democracy and dictatorship, between a
pluralist secular state and a theocratic state and between a civilized
country and a barbarian terrorist state.
It is seen in the framework of a historical battle that has continued
for at least 1,000 years between the invading barbarian Muslims and an
all-embracing Indian society that accommodated this new civilization
but was eventually betrayed by it.
On the Pakistani side, an escalation of this kind reinforces the
popular sentiment that justifies the creation of a separate Muslim
country, which would have never been able to survive under the tyranny
of a Hindu majority now represented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi
and his bhakts. It is seen as a battle between a bully and a proud
nation that is not afraid to punch above its weight. It becomes a
battle between right and wrong, between an oppressive community and a
persecuted one and between Hindu and Muslim. Perhaps all conflicts in
the world are interpreted in this civilisational framework, stripped
off their political agendas.
The American war on terrorism, from the US perspective, is one between
the freedom-loving world and intolerant Islamists. And not so long
ago, Israeli lobbyists put up posters in New York presenting the
conflict between Palestine and Israel as a one between barbarians and
the civilized. It becomes easier for a state to exonerate itself from
the crimes of a war by casting the other as inhuman and barbarian.
Normalcy will return to India-Pakistan ties (the kind of normalcy one
can expect between the two) and it will be business as usual –
Pakistani actors will work in India, and Indian movies will be shown
However, the concept of the barbarian other will continue to linger in
minds of ordinary Indians and Pakistanis, till the next time both
these states find themselves purportedly on the brink of another
The conflict between India and Pakistan is no longer confined to the
two states but has now become one between ordinary Pakistanis and
Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: a study
of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: a journey
into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities
The article was first published on The Kashmir Walla.
Peace Is Doable
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