By: Nirupama Subramanian
AT the Islamabad airport in 2009, I was waiting for a flight to Lahore. All at once a large family bunched behind me broke into wails.
Most likely it was news of a death. The men crowded around, consoling the women. As I looked curiously over my shoulder a scrawny teenage boy in the group caught my eye. He wouldn’t drop the stare, so I looked away.
Minutes later, the family, still sobbing, was lined up in front of me to board its flight. The boy was still staring at me. Suddenly, to my great shock, he abandoned the queue and rushed towards me. “Aren’t you Pranab Mukherjee?” he asked.
“Wha…what?” I sputtered back. Then, recovering my composure, I told him that I was not the Indian minister and explained that in any case, it was a man’s name. “But you are an Indian, right?” he asked. Evidently he had seen me on a Pakistani talk show.
“Yeah” “I want your autograph.”
The incident told me a couple of things about that beast called the India-Pakistan people-to-people relationship: a frank curiosity about each other and selective media exposure, mostly from television, that provides a seeming familiarity with the other, often mistaken for knowledge, when in fact what actually exists is ignorance.
You only have to look at the policies between the countries to understand that the ignorance is not an accident. Between which other two countries in the world today is there a wilful ‘no tourism’ policy?
As egregious is the restriction on journalism between the two countries.
India and Pakistan may have a number of differences, but on one thing they have had no trouble arriving at a perfect meeting of minds — that only two journalists from either side can be stationed in the other. And that they shall be so hemmed in by restrictions that their access to people, information and places is negligible, such that their presence makes no difference to the larger scheme of things. So well understood is this by both sides that they don’t even have a written agreement for it.
I am no advocate of ‘peace journalism’, and I am the last one to claim that journalists can bring normality between India and Pakistan where politicians and diplomats have failed. But what I can say with some certainty is this: capable, professional journalists can help in better understanding a subject when allowed to carry out their jobs without restriction.
People ask, why go on about journalists and visas? Is the foreign correspondent relevant today when bloggers, Face bookers, tweeters and the Internet are all providing the news? It is tempting to conclude that these days you do not need even one journalist across the border. The argument is made also about the newspaper industry in general — do we need journalists at all? If your answer to that is no we don’t, why then are online portals of trusted newspapers the main source of news, analysis and opinion on the Net and not random bloggers and tweeters?
Yes, a lot of news now breaks on social media, and if not for it we may have remained uninformed about many events. But in the India-Pakistan context, that makes a foreign correspondent more, not less, relevant. She acts as the gatekeeper with the brain and the skill set to separate wheat from chaff and can provide interpretation and analysis, based on knowledge that comes only from being part of the milieu, in a way that can be understood by a faraway audience.
Another argument is that since television channels now easily access talking heads from across the border through satellite links, a journalist does not have to be physically present in the other country to find out what people are saying. Excuse me for sounding critical about fellow journalists of the electronic media, but when was the last time anybody made sense of a complex issue by listening to Indians and Pakistanis fighting each other on a talk show?
Even with a visa that restricts the present Pakistan correspondent of The Hindu to just one city, Islamabad (despite the convention of a three-city visa for the two resident journalists), the newspaper manages serious coverage of Pakistan that goes beyond breaking news, though much remains beyond such coverage due to travel restrictions.
For most media outlets the information gap is filled by ‘experts’ whose expertise is based on statist or state-fed information or opinion about the other side that sometimes turns out to be wrong or just wishful thinking. I can think of no other reason why in 2007, India’s national security adviser got it so wrong about which way the wind was blowing for Musharraf.
For coverage that is non-episodic and can put itself in the shoes of the subject, there is no alternative to more journalists on the ground with full freedom to travel within the country. At least India has two journalists in Islamabad; Pakistan has none in New Delhi. When it did have them, they were both from official media, and their job it definitely was not to put themselves in the shoes of India or Indians.
In four years in Islamabad, all I read in Pakistani papers about India were opinions by two or three high-profile Indian columnists and the occasional wire story about Kashmir. There was virtually no coverage of Indian regional politics, so central to India’s foreign policy today, and zero coverage of one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Some Pakistanis I’ve met claim to understand India better through Bollywood than their media.
But imagine if half a dozen journalists from Pakistan were based in New Delhi with the freedom to travel and report from across India, and vice versa for Indian journalists in Pakistan. It won’t bust every evil myth about the other side, it will not turn the two countries into best friends overnight, but it might just promote a slightly better understanding of the other side than there is at present. And maybe I wouldn’t get mistaken for a man in a Pakistani airport.