"Ma'am, why is it only India who always initiates Peace", asked a class XII student
I asked him to share some examples. He quoted bilateral meetings initiated by India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's swearing in ceremony and his visit to Pakistan. He further said that India keeps making overtures without any positive response.
Initially, I shared some examples to burst the "peace is one-sided" narrative that exists in both countries. I then asked him to share the source of his information. To which he replied that he reads the newspaper regularly. Thereafter, I provided some clues to facilitate a discussion in the whole class about yellow journalism, the way the media works as a means for the ends of a nation-state, the politics of media and moreover, knowledge between India and Pakistan.
The media is the platform to know the "other". It is also the platform to understand the conflict.
This conversation was part of a peace building workshop of Aaghaz-e-Dosti, an Indo-Pak Friendship Initiative, in a school in Delhi. These workshops that are about peace building and conflict resolution in general and Indo-Pak in specific are designed to familiarise students about life and people across the border, educate them about issues of conflict between India and Pakistan, and to facilitate critical thinking. Based on the responses of students and the interaction, this workshop highlighted the role that the media plays in Indo-Pak relations.
In view of the restrictions in mobility, the media forms the main source of knowledge between India and Pakistan. The media is the platform to know the "other". It is also the platform to understand the conflict. As we see in the above cited incident, the student had a particular image of Pakistan and Indo-Pak peace based on his readings of the newspapers. This was not limited to this one student, school or just to India.
During my trip to Pakistan last year, I had interacted with students in a Lahore school. The students raised the case of a Pakistani musical band that faced opposition by an extremist, anti-peace political group in India. The students believed that this was supported by Indian government and all Indians. They were not aware about the support that several organisations had extended to the musical band. The counter-culture put up by the people was not reported in the newspapers with equal vigour.
On both sides, the media plays a very important role in connecting or disconnecting the people of both countries. With the diversity in media channels, their interests and politics, they play different roles.
Owing to the popularity and availability of Indian movies and serials in Pakistan, the Pakistanis know about India and Indian culture far more than Indians do about Pakistan. This is reflected in the kinds of questions that Pakistani students ask Indian guests in peace sessions in Pakistan. During our sessions, especially those that Indian and Pakistani students through video conferencing, the conversations revolve around Bollywood, with students of both sides singing songs together. In one such session held earlier this year, students from a Karachi school sang a popular bhajan.
The Indian side, on the other hand, remains largely unaware about Pakistan and holds a homogenised image of the country and its people. The coming in of Pakistani serials through Zindagi Channel had bridged this gap to some extent. In fact, some students in this Delhi school shared their love for Zindagi Channel. There were two students who had started exploring Pakistani movies and other serials after their initiation through Zindagi Channel. One student had also referred to it as a "Pakistani channel" in India.
People—not just young students—often take coverage uncritically because of their trust in the claimed authenticity.
TV, media and cinema are known to have a great emotional impact on people. The reel is able to transcend all boundaries and touch real hearts. In the context of Indo-Pak relations, it also plays an important role in connecting the people of both countries and contributing to a culture of peace and understanding. It builds a sense of familiarity and the potential to bond. It busts stereotypes and counters the foundational assumption that Indians hate Pakistan and vice versa, as it works to highlight the fact that we are in essence the same people and that there are outliers on both sides.
The recent strains in Indo-Pak relations have also had repercussions for cross-border media and art. On both sides, steps have been taken to stop and boycott cross-border cultural exchanges. In Pakistan, PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) has put a ban on the release of Indian movies in Pakistan. In India, while the government has not officially issued a ban—and in fact Home Minister Rajnath Singh officially announced that India will not stop granting visas to Pakistani artists— some extremist elements supported by media groups influenced popular opinion against Pakistani artists. Zindagi Channel also stopped the telecast of Pakistani serials. This last decision is absurd, especially considering that Zindagi Channel seems to be contradicting its own vision and tagline of "jodey dilo ko" (to connect hearts) that seemed to convey the role of the media in facilitating people to people communication and bringing about a change.
It is imperative that we realise the different roles that the media plays in Indo-Pak relations, as well as its impact.
In both countries, the news media—TV and print—with its claim of authenticity of information is problematic. As we saw in the cited incident about the student, people—not just young students—often take coverage uncritically because of their trust in the claimed authenticity.
While we all know that the media is often obsessed with TRP and has underlying agendas, when it comes to conflict—and especially Indo-Pak conflict—we accept whatever it reports without question. There have been several examples of misinformation and exaggerations in the case of Indo-Pak relations. The medias of both sides also tend to present any first information that they get hold of as final facts. The clarification and cross-verification happens later with much less sensationalism. This has been noted in cases of unidentified boats, farmers, villagers mistakenly crossing the border and any suspicious activity.
It is imperative that we realise the different roles that the media plays in Indo-Pak relations, as well as its impact. It is imperative that we realise that the nature of media—the selection of news, its coverage based on TRPs, competition and interests—remains the same for all issues. Our knowledge about each other lies within the boundaries of the nation-state and a capitalist media.