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Poisoned atmosphere

January 17, 2013

DID the Pakistan Army decapitate the corpse of any Indian soldier or mutilate it without beheading it? Was it one soldier or two? Was a Pakistani or Indian soldier killed first? The India-Pakistan stand-off over Line of Control violations has become an alarming case of a nation missing — or being made to miss — the forest for the trees. Almost always, the only facts journalists have from inaccessible conflict zones is what they get from militaries. And in this case even Indian military sources, as some Indian journalists have pointed out, have provided conflicting reports about what was done to the two Indian soldiers who have died. Yet the alleged beheading has become the focus of Indian outrage. Along with the angry rhetoric, Pakistani hockey players have been sent home, visiting theatre troupes kept from performing and a new visa regime for senior citizens put on hold. Where the media, civil society and politicians should be trying to save the larger goal of peace in the region, they are allowing possible propaganda and an incident that involved far fewer casualties than prior conflicts — even including the three Pakistani soldiers who have died — to possibly derail a hard-won peace process.

Pakistanis know all too well how state propaganda during conflict with India works; we have been misled by it ourselves. The Pakistan-sponsored militancy in India-held Kashmir in the 1990s was sold to us as an indigenous jihad. During Kargil, we were told that mujahideen were fighting the battle. The recklessness of that misadventure only emerged when Pakistani soldiers began dying along the LoC. Meanwhile, the ‘facts’ the military had supplied us with and the jingoism that had been created deceived us in the short term and poisoned perceptions about India in the long term. Wednesday’s ceasefire and the Pakistani foreign minister’s offer of talks with her counterpart have now provided an opportunity to tone down the tension. At this moment of hostility in India, Indian politicians and the media would do well not to take at face value the information they’ve been given and focus on the bigger picture — the importance of not derailing dialogue.