Web of estrangement
By: A.G. NOORANI
PRIME MINISTER Nawaz Sharif’s recent discussion with Subhash Chandra, the CEO of Zee TV, an Indian TV network, is noteworthy because what he said reflected the generally sad state of communications between the peoples of the two countries.
Mr Sharif said that the regulatory regimes in India and Pakistan need to be relaxed to facilitate media outlets and to reach out to a maximum number of viewers in both countries. He also called for the relaxation of Indian rules so that Pakistani channels can be seen in India.
Right now, Indian entertainment channels are beamed in Pakistan but Indian news channels are banned. There is, on the other hand, a complete ban on all Pakistani television channels in India.
The prime minister rightly highlighted the media’s role in bringing the people of Pakistan and India closer. One might add that it could also foster informed exchanges between the two peoples, strengthen the role of dissent and democratic discourse within each country.
The citizen will no longer be dependent on the official spokesman of his government and the motivated spin he provides.
One example from personal experience will suffice to prove the point. On the very first day of the Agra summit, in July 2001, the then Indian minister for information & broadcasting, Ms Sushma Swaraj, meticulously listed to the battery of media persons of India and Pakistan the subjects discussed — everything bar Kashmir, which she studiously omitted.
Contradictory reasons were provided. Kashmir was so “obvious” she said only to reveal later that she had been briefed to speak thus. This writer switched on to PTV and learnt from the anchor, who had spoken to a member of the Pakistani’s delegation, that Kashmir had figured prominently at the summit.
PTV remains banned in India only from June 2002 for reasons that were never officially disclosed. It had done no damage to India’s security even during the weeks when India’s troops were massed on the Radcliffe Line in Punjab and along the Line of Control in Kashmir. Nor, I might add, can All India Radio or any of the Indian news channels inflict any grave damage if they are permitted within Pakistan.
The truth is that instead of progressing towards freedom of media, we have regressed. Till the war of 1965, this newspaper was sold in parts of my city, Bombay. Radio Pakistan could be heard for long.
The monster of television has swallowed radio, a far more informative medium, to the point that manufacturers of radios provide you with FM and AM but not so readily the bandspread short-wave. We are the poorer for that; especially on information about the one neighbour whose well-being is so closely tied up with our own.
In April 1961, 14 years after the partition and while the Kashmir dispute was the subject of animated debate in the UN Security Council, an Indo-Pakistan cultural conference was held in New Delhi. The report of its proceedings is a collectors’ prize.
It was inaugurated by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Erudite papers were read on archaeology, history, education, the fine arts, languages, journalism and films. Pakistan’s delegation was led by Dr Ishtiaq Hussein Qureshi who had won distinction as a professor in the University of Delhi. Urdu received special attention.
The conference’s recommendations were ignored. They bear recalling now, half a century later. It recommended that:
“1. (a) for exchange of information on literary and cultural matters centres may be established in the two countries;
“b) meetings of representatives of the two countries should be held from time to time;
“(c) facilities should be provided for work and study to genuine students and researchers sponsored by the universities and learned bodies of standing;
“(d) exchange of professors and students should be encouraged;
“(e) facilities should be provided for the (i) study of archaeological and other material, books, records, manuscripts, visits to such sites, journals, etc., for the supply of their copies — microfilms, photostats, etc. (ii) exchange and transmission of books and journals published in the two countries and (iii) facilities should be granted to individual scholars who have left behind their collection of books to secure them.
“(f) conferences may be held periodically for scientific and academic subjects in which representatives from the two countries may participate.
“2. The conference strongly urges upon the governments of India and Pakistan the desirability of protecting the copyright of the authors and publishers and requests them to enter into an agreement for this purpose.”
Both governments determine the level of communication between their peoples and where they also influence its content.
Organisers of a seminar in India need an OK from both the external affairs ministry and the home ministry if participants from any of the neighbouring countries are to be invited or of the subject of the discussion is, among other things, ‘political’. Pakistan’s interior ministry doubtless has its own curbs to impose.
The citizen is the poorer for all these curbs that go to weave a web of estrangement. Pakistan’s television has become far richer and more varied in the last decade. Dissent in both countries is more articulate. Therein lies hope.
We must press the two perpetually feuding states to grant the citizen his freedom to travel and to receive information from any source of his choice.
It is vain to look to the courts alone for redress. The bans on telecast are utterly unconstitutional. So are the arbitrary curbs on travel. The citizen has a right to listen to a writer, artist or scientist whom an organisation invites to participate in a conference.
To deny him a visa is to violate the citizen’s right to receive information. This was argued in the case of Tariq Ramadan, the distinguished scholar on Islam, in the US. However, the courts are chary of intervening when the state claims ‘national security’. It is for civil society to assert itself.