Thorny road to ‘Aman’

BY KALPANA SHARMA| IN Opinion | 30/03/2010
While TOI seems to have run out of steam, perhaps temporarily, The News, the Jang group’s English daily, is going great guns.
KALPANA SHARMA says its efforts require more courage than the approach adopted by TOI.

Second Take

Kalpana Sharma

 

Peace talk, at least on this side of the border, seems to have taken a break.  After an initial rush of articles and events, launched on January 1 by The Times of India as part of its Aman Ki Asha, when several pages were devoted to articles advocating peace with Pakistan, the campaign appears to have been put on the back burner. 

On the other side of the border, its partner the Jang Group also launched a similar campaign.  But in the course of the three months that the campaign has run, the difference is apparent.

While TOI seems to have run out of steam, perhaps temporarily, The News, the Jang group’s English daily, is going great guns.  In fact, the variety of features and articles carried on its Aman Ki Asha pages surpass those in TOI both in terms of quality and innovation.

One of the most innovative efforts is the Conversations between Mumbai-based writer and journalist Dilip D’Souza and Beena Sarwar, well-known Pakistani journalist and peace activist who is currently managing the Aman Ki Asha pages for The News. These conversations take place through an email exchange between the two journalists.  They touch on issues that all of us think about but often do not express.

In the latest Conversation, D’Souza asks: "Why has the relationship between our countries come to be defined by people who are fundamentally antagonistic and vengeful? Is it something intrinsic to the very existence of India and Pakistan? But even if it is, does it have to remain so for eternity?"

To which, Sarwar responds: "I agree that we need to define the relationship between our countries -- 'we' as in people like you and me, rather than those who are ‘fundamentally antagonistic and vengeful’. Certainly, even if it has always been that way, now is the time to change that. If sane voices have an equal playing field and reach the people, the call to resolve all issues through dialogue will prevail over those who routinely use aggression to sabotage peace."

Perhaps this exchange is not highly original, particularly between two people who have been associated with peace efforts.  But the very fact that these thoughts appear in a form that anyone can read and access make them interesting • regardless of the impact they might have.

What has made an impact are some of the other articles that have appeared in The News as part of Aman Ki Asha.  One particularly remarkable piece is written by Perwez Abdullah titled "When the enemy isn’t". The article contains a first hand account "of how Indian soldiers, bound by the ties of ethnicity rather than religion, helped and protected a community of fellow-Biharis in newly liberated Bangladesh".  The article describes how a group of Bihari Muslims, apprehensive on seeing truckloads of Indian soldiers in their neighbourhood, were surprised when the Indian soldiers spoke to them, established connections through their common links in Bihar and ensured that they were not attacked.  "It seemed so odd but reassuring, a real blessing in disguise. It was not religion but ethnicity that bound them to us", writes Abdullah.

However, while we on this side of the border would find the article interesting, it has stirred up controversy on the other side, given that it is presenting the Indian army with a human face.  As a result, the rival of The News, the hawkish English newspaper The Nation, ran a front page piece the next day headlined: "Is India using Pak media for nefarious designs?" . It went on to suggest that the joint peace initiative by TOI and the Jang group was "showing the first signs of turning into a propaganda tool for the Indian establishment…instead of giving equal airtime and print space to viewpoints from both countries, the initiative has become a one-way traffic of Indian official propaganda peddled as ‘peace stories’ that highlight Indian policy priorities or force Pakistani writers and artists to seek Indian patronage."  What seems to have offended The Nation more than the story about the Indian soldiers saving Bihari Muslims in Bangladesh is the use of the term "newly-liberated" Bangladesh in the very first paragraph. It accuses The News of promoting "the Indian invasion and occupation of East Pakistan as ‘liberation’." 

While ethnic ties over-ruling religious differences is not beyond the realm of credibility in the India Pakistan context, The Nation believes that emphasizing this is a deliberate ploy. "The implicit theme was that geographic and cultural links to some Indian states should be more important than religious links to Pakistan. This is a roundabout way of attacking Pakistan. Indian propaganda has always tried to tell Pakistanis that links of individual Pakistanis to place of birth that lie in India are more important than their links to Pakistan."

The response by The Nation is indicative of the thorny path that India and Pakistan still have to tread for any kind of meaningful dialogue for peace.  Aman Ki Asha pages in The News have carried a range of stories from the desire of Pakistani business to improve trade relations with India to the true story of the young Pakistani boy who strayed across the border in Punjab recently, much like the boy in the film "Ramchand Pakistani", was imprisoned but finally released following efforts by people on both sides of the border. Yet, the enthusiasm of the editors in The News has clearly provoked an entirely different response in those suspicious of anyone talking peace in Pakistan.

It is significant that while the Aman Ki Asha efforts by TOI in India have either been welcomed, or met with some scepticism given the commercial preoccupations of that newspaper group, there has been no outright attack or criticism of the effort.  One reason perhaps is the absence of anything really controversial on the Aman Ki Asha pages in TOI.  Most of the articles are feel-good, treading carefully around any thorny issues that block the progress towards peace.

By way of contrast, The News in Pakistan has been much more engaged in issues and the accusation that it is doing propaganda for India perhaps suggests that it is making an impact.  No doubt, The News will now be compelled to "balance" what is seen as a pro-Indian Army piece with another that depicts it in a negative light.  But even if that happens, one must admire the courage of those running the Aman Ki Asha campaign in The News and their persistence in the face of not just cynicism but outright hostility.

 

 

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