The Media War Between India And Pakistan

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.

Media wars

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 in Pakistan.

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 imminent war.

The conflict between India and Pakistan is no longer confined to the two states but has now become one between ordinary Pakistanis and Indians.

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