The Times of India discovers Peace

BY KALPANA SHARMA| IN Opinion | 01/01/2010
The sceptics in India will be forgiven for questioning the motives and timing of the Times Group. The first step that the Group needs to take in its Aman ki Asha project is to get the Times Now anchors to tone down their anti-Pakistan rhetoric,
says KALPANA SHARMA

Second Take

Kalpana Sharma

 

 

Readers of Times of India woke up to shocking news on January 1, 2010. The Old Lady of Bori Bunder had discovered Peace.  Its front page, most often reserved for lucrative full-page advertisements, announced the paper?s joint campaign with the Jang Group in Pakistan to promote peace and amity between India and Pakistan.  ?Love Pakistan? stated its startling headline with four white doves taking flight ? in fright? 

 

The sentiments behind the Aman ki Asha project cannot be doubted.  It is about time the media on both sides of the project actively participated in peace building.  Yet what we should not lose sight of is that what the Times and the Jang group propose to do with their substantial resources has been attempted by civil society groups on both sides, with little or no funding, over several decades. 

 

The group that pioneered the idea of people-to-people contact was the Pakistan India People?s Forum for Peace and Democracy. This initiative resulted in a hundred people from either side crossing the border each year to discuss all aspects of the India Pakistan relationship including controversial issues like the future of Kashmir.  The people were all non-officials.  They were students, doctors, lawyers, activists, teachers etc.  They paid their own way.  Through this effort, a large network has been built that intervenes anytime tensions build up between India and Pakistan, as they do ever so often.

 

Journalists too have been active in the India Pakistan peace process.  Veteran journalists like Kuldip Nayar have been at the forefront for years promoting dialogue.  He has been a part of the annual candle light vigil held at the Wagah border by peace activists on either side during the respective Independence Days.  Earlier too, editors on both sides agreed to feature columnists in each other?s newspapers in order to get across the opposite point of view to readers. 

 

Groups like the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation (CDR) based in Delhi have conducted quieter diplomacy by facilitating track two meetings between officials and retired officials. People like Admiral Ramdas, the retired Chief of India?s Navy have kept links alive between men from the armed forces from both sides who want peace.

 

Trade unions from both sides of the border have held meetings on common issues of concern about workers? rights but also the need to build a permanent peace between the two countries.

 

People in the world of arts, theatre, literature and music have constantly facilitated exchanges between artists from India and Pakistan to perform on either side of the border.  Amritsar, for instance, has become a hub of this kind of cultural exchange with the active encouragement of the Punjab governments on both sides of the divided province.

 

Even in Jammu and Kashmir, despite the on-going tension, meetings have been held between people from both sides of the Line of Control and civil society intervention has been instrumental in opening trade routes between the two sides.

 

So inevitably, one has to ask why the most powerful media house in India has joined an equally prominent media house in Pakistan to push for peace.  What do they gain from it?  Why this sudden desire to promote amity?  And why now?

 

The sceptics in India would be forgiven for questioning the motives of the Times Group given the aggressive anti-Pakistan stance of its television channel Times Now.  Ever since the terror attack on Mumbai on November 26, 2008, Times Now has been running a virtual campaign promoting suspicion and even hatred of Pakistan.  Immediately after the attack, it was Times Now that kept asking why the Indian government was not being tough enough to bomb terrorist bases in Pakistan.  Before you knew it, ordinary people were repeating this sentiment. Even a year after the terror attack, the tone of the channel has not changed much. ?Guests? from Pakistan are regularly invited to feature on talk shows through satellite link.  Yet, they are usually interrupted, not allowed to complete what they want to say, and when they do speak, their responses are met with obvious scepticism by the anchor.

 

The Editor of TOI, in his note on page two of the paper, admits that TOI is not blameless.  In a virtual mea culpa he writes: ?We believe the media can serve as facilitators in fostering greater understanding between people.  Unfortunately ? and TOI cannot entirely escape blame ? we tend to focus far too much on the negative.  In the process, the good that people do is drowned out by the sensational, and by the constant flow of death-and-destruction headlines?.  Well said, Jaideep Bose.

 

So the first step that the Times Group needs to take in its Aman ki Asha project is to get the Times Now anchors to tone down their anti-Pakistan rhetoric.  It will be interesting to monitor the channel in the next weeks to see if it displays a sudden change of heart.

 

If the media in India and Pakistan try and project a more complete image of each other?s countries, the constituency for peace that does exist on both sides will be strengthened.  By writing only on security issues and Kashmir, and by constantly highlighting the extremes on either side ? for instance, every anti-Pakistan utterance of Bal Thackeray is prominently reported in Pakistan as are equally strident anti-India statements by Pakistani politicians on this side ? ordinary people get the sense that everyone in the other country hates them.  The reality, as anyone who has crossed the border, knows is very different.  Ordinary people want peace and prosperity; politicians want to keep tensions alive.  And the media on both sides, unfortunately, has become a part of the politics of hate.

 

The proof of the sincerity of the Times Group will lie not in the cultural exchanges that it has already announced but how it reports the next episode of tension between the two countries, something that is inevitable given the history of friction of the last 62 years.  Will it train its journalists in ?writing peace?, where you pause before you use a particular adjective or a phrase, where you control your desire to editorialise, where you ensure that what you are reporting is substantiated and not sourced from the hawks that proliferate in the establishment on both sides of the border, where you hold yourself back from playing up every little incident that shows up the weakness and villainy of the other side and where you balance the security issues with stories about what life is like for the ordinary people on both sides, many of whom live in poverty. 

 

Peace is not like instant noodles.  It is a process, often a halting one.  It cannot be time-bound.  And we cannot expect to produce ?success stories? within a short time.  In this age of marketing, where all ideas are reduced to simple equations of lighting candles and holding hands, it is important to underline the complexity of peace-building, particularly between India and Pakistan.

 

 

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