The problem with the narrative

Perils of being hostage to xenophobia

 

 

The deafening noise of warmongers roaring non-stop on both sides of the Pak-India border is being consumed by powerless but prone to citizens of both countries regularly, every single evening. Rather, every singly moment of 24/7 hysterical news media. The cry for peace has never been popular in these two fateful countries, but there used to be a small space still available for those who chose to swim against the tide. Till few years ago that is to say. Ever since there has been change of guards on Pakistan side and a change of ruling party on Indian side, not only that the muscle flexing has become the swag for both establishments, there has been a conspicuous plunge in national, collective tolerance of the dissenting view. Or even of a slight mention of peaceful options.

It is perhaps much easier to blame the entire media for it, but the fact remains, the media industry has to tow the line that ensures them smoother revenue generation and profit making. What happens in India and Pakistan, to the section of media that chooses to have even slightest possible semblance of objectivity – let alone outright dissent – is quite evident to all. The way Pakistani opinion makers and journalists have been hounded on media (social as well as mainstream) as traitors; working on enemy’s agenda and having bought by India and the West, was seen in broad daylight. Similarly, what happened in India to JNU students & teachers who raised slogans in favour of Kashmiris, and scores of media personalities like Barkha Dutt and Arundhati Roy, has also been witnessed in hugely bad taste.

Resultantly, minor professional undertakings like seeking even a thin shred of evidence of whatever both states (their security establishments that is) keep claiming, are acts of superb bravery in the subcontinent of 2016. Doing such outrageously subversive acts as of putting questions to state’s narratives, has become so unthinkable that the endangered specie that the dissenters have become on both sides, sound like mentally challenged people having no clue about the environment they are living in. “You are too ignorant to be afraid”, I was once rebuked by a family elder who was trying to say I should not always question my own state.

The problem is, this intolerance for even a marginally different narrative is getting transubstantiated into an insatiable eagerness to look and sound more aggressively belligerent and hawkish than even the actual fighters on both sides would prefer to be. Almost all in media and intelligentsia appear to get ‘christened’ in holy waters of self-defeating patriotism – the term that we have left for the security establishments to define and determine for us.

Leaders in Pakistan, like Imran Khan for example, ironically defeat their own long-held consistent position on Pak-India peace, when they chastise their political opponents as cowards and as the ones working on their own business agendas when dealing with India. Leaders in India like the otherwise pro-peace Indian National Congress, make a joke of themselves when terming their Prime Minister ‘soft on Pakistan’ just because his government is not ‘acting’ against Pakistan. Mr. Modi himself is guilty of unnecessarily upping the ante just to appease the xenophobes at home just to serve short-term domestic political agenda.

Both the security establishments are committing a grave mistake by nourishing and patronising xenophobic paranoia among masses through their media proxies and trumpets within the intelligentsia. Reportedly, India’s Defence machinery had held a special briefing session with the ‘defence analysts’ – which is euphemism for mouthpieces of army who sit on umpteen TV channels every evening and regurgitate their state’s position along side delivering harangues of patriotic hatred with frothing mouths – in order for them to ‘shape the narrative’ in favour of Indian Army’s claim of conducting ‘surgical strike’ across LoC on Pakistani side.

Both the establishments appear as if being completely unable to comprehend the consequences of propagating outright hatred against each other’s country among masses. They might win for the time being in securing ‘public opinion’ in their favour through this kind of manipulation, but one sees no one who realises that such mass hysteria once created, is almost impossible to suppress for decades. As they say, change is the only permanent thing.

Times change, nations’ priorities change, geopolitical considerations change, so do state’s interests. Going by the issues faced by the developing nations currently, it is safe to say that the upcoming times in Pak-India subcontinent are going to be the times of strained economies with internal security challenges. India, considering her ambition of going global power, has more stakes in future than a war-hardened Pakistan, who is fighting for its survival. The time is not far when even the establishments would realise the need to move away from unnecessary conflict and war in order to make their states emerge out of chaos, poverty and crises of under-developed human resource. It would be in the interest of nations to focus on internal development and progress rather than war. Would the angry citizenry on both sides allow their respective states to change the course? Most unlikely.

India is seeing the manifestation of this helplessness more than Pakistan. The media – which in India too is a thriving industry having its corporate interests at heart – has been seen openly dictating policy and international posturing to their government. At times, their government appears to be helpless in coming out of the heightened hysteria dictating foreign and security policies. The space of independent policy-making by the states shrinks when populace is made into an angry mob.

More than any other nations, Pakistan has experienced this in the form of blatant challenges to the state writ by non-state actors, which are supported by the masses brainwashed by decades of the manipulation of national thought process. I was Advisor the Ministry of Women Development in 2005-6 when there emerged a debate on scrapping the notorious Hudood Ordinances as part of government’s initiative to do away with discriminatory laws.

During a high level meeting with half a dozen Federal Ministers, when I suggested that Blasphemy Laws should also be included in this agenda, I was told unanimously by all Ministers that they would not like to instigate public reaction against their government. There was a conspicuous divide among the Cabinet for scrapping even the Hudood Ordinances because of public backlash. That was one reason that instead of repeal, it was decided to water down the Ordinances by a piece of legislation that practically makes the Hudood Ordinance toothless. Even for that, a massive media campaign had to be carried out with every-half-an-hour TV advertisements against the Ordinances, alongside putting a lot of money in the pockets of usual suspects among the clergy who were feared to lead mass campaign against the government because of this step. It could not be done for blasphemy laws even under the all-powerful military dictator, General Musharraf.

Such are the perils of making the minds of masses hostage to hatred, extremism and xenophobia. Before learning the lesson the hard way, it is better for India to seek guidance from such experiments that Pakistan has done. A narrative of war is more dangerous for India than it is for Pakistan in the backdrop of the global ambitions and plans of national progress of both the countries.

Marvi Sirmed is an Islamabad based freelance columnist



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