HOW the tables have turned! For years it was India that held out the hand of trade and economic opportunity to us, and it was Pakistan that growled back defiantly, wedded to antiquated notions and primitive instincts.
And now, one incident on the Line of Control (LoC) later, it is India that is doing the growling and Pakistan talking the language of peace, of resumption of dialogue.
Let’s get one thing clear on this whole issue: the incident on the LoC was just that, an incident. It was not a terrorist attack. With two large armies facing each other across such forbidding terrain, in such close proximity, it is inevitable that such incidents will occur, and have occur-red with almost boring predictability.
This is not unique to India and Pakistan. Wherever you have two large armies, belonging to countries with a history of armed conflict, faced off against each other within line of sight, and stuck in these positions for years on end, incidents of this sort occur.
What’s more, we also hear that the story is a lot more complicated than imagined at first, that it was not a case of unprovoked firing and infiltration by the Pakistan Army, but that there was, as with everything else, a history and a context to the whole thing.
What is unusual in this case is how the Indian media whipped up a storm of fury and peddled a dubious version of events that whitewashed any trace of responsibility on the part of the Indian army and held the Pakistan Army responsible for the entire sequence of events.
The hype and fury whipped up by television anchors was so intense that ordinary Pakistanis on a visit to India under newly improved cross-border sporting and cultural ties felt personally threatened in the street if they identified themselves as Pakistani.
Much credit belongs to the few brave journalists in India who actually took the trouble to unearth the facts, and brought to light the understanding that the events were complicated, were not without precedent, and that both sides had engaged in brutal behaviour towards each other for over a decade.
I thought the entire point of the thaw in relations was to get past these primitive sentiments and antiquated notions. I thought that the composite dialogue was meant to compartmentalise the relationship precisely so that events and incidents of this sort did not spill over into other domains. And I also thought that setting up the dialogue in this manner was an idea that originated in India.
So what happened? We’re told that heightened sensitivities on account of the elections lie at the root of this whole fiasco. Apparently the media pandered to the lowest common denominator in its thirst for ratings, and none amongst the politicians had the courage to stand up to this right-wing fury for fear of how it might impact their chances for reelection.
As a consequence, we are told, the fury travelled from the screens to the streets to the highest levels of policymaking with blinding speed.
Fair enough. We in Pakistan understand these things because we have seen them happen in our country too.
We know how the approach of elections can make the political system jittery and vulnerable to emotional storms. We know how the media can pander to the worst in all of us in its thirst for ratings. Many of us also know that anchors tend to be, almost universally, a rather ignorant breed.
So what else is one to expect then? A media driven by ratings will peddle hate from time to time because of all primitive instincts, nothing sells like hate. Anchors will dissemble before their viewers because that’s what they do night after night anyway. And what’s an anchor without ratings? Politicians will cower in fear because if they were so brave as to be able to stand up before an enraged mob, they wouldn’t be in politics.
The biggest shame here is that the talks on economic opening up have been stymied on account of this whole sordid episode. It would’ve been far better if economic issues, that were supposed to be removed from these primitive instincts, had not been allowed to once again become hostage to them.
Only this time it’s happening in the very country that has, for years now, lectured Pakistan on the importance of disentangling economic considerations from LoC-related matters.
The best hope both these countries have of finding a just and lasting peace with each other is through greater economic cooperation.
There are three large issues that need to be sorted out separately between India and Pakistan. They are territorial issues, arising from disputes on how to draw a line on a map. Second is water sharing, and the third is economic opening up.
It bears repeating here that it was a good idea to separate these issues and place them in different compartments. Cutting off talks that are trying to deal with water-sharing issues, for instance, due to an incident on the LoC makes no sense. Some of us have spent many years trying to knock this sense into thick heads here in Pakistan. Now it seems we will have to spend a few more years trying to knock it into equally thick heads in India as well.
It’s pointless to rage against the media for pandering to the ratings, or to urge anchors to show more sense. But it is possible to reach across to those sections of the journalism profession in India where better counsel still lives and breathes, and urge them to do the hard slog, and take the big risks, to ensure that this maelstrom of emotion doesn’t sweep us all before it.
After all, that’s precisely the job that some of us have been doing on this side of the border for decades now.
The writer is a Karachi-based journalist covering business and economic policy. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @khurramhusain