CNN explores the ‘Path to Peace’

BY subarno c| IN Media Monitoring | 29/09/2005
The two-hour special was silent on post-Independence riots. Perhaps the ‘path to peace’ with a Muslim neighbour requires a certain degree of amnesia about Muslims within India.
 

 

 

Subarno Chattarji

 

 

As part of a global series ‘CNN CONNECTS’ and with particular focus on Indo-Pak relations, CNN International aired a two hour programme on September 18, 2005. The first hour was a documentary split almost evenly between India and Pakistan. Interviewees on the Indian side included Nusli Wadia, Onkar Kanwar of Apollo Tyres, Bal Thackeray, Dr Devi Shetty, Mahesh Bhatt and Rani Mukherjee (described as the ‘Nicole Kidman of India’). On the Pakistan side the human cost of partition was highlighted through interviews with Syeda Begum and Professor Beg, who left his father and brother behind in India, never to meet again. Interviews with Pakistani film stars Reema Khan and Meera, Noor Fatima’s father, as well as Mohammad Yahya Mujahid of the Lashkar-e-Taiba completed the scenario. The second hour consisted of a live audience and panel interaction conducted rather timidly by Jim Clancy.

 

Common themes:

On both sides of the border common themes were highlighted. These included the booming economy - Pakistan’s economy has been growing at a rate faster than that of India - and the need to do business; the possibility of ‘film diplomacy’; the strengthening of cricket diplomacy; the setting up of co-operative commercial, educational, health systems that will outlive political problems and dispensations in either country. The emphasis on increased trade relations, the ripple effect this will have on both economies, as well the positive outcomes of the peace dividend have been a part of media and political discourse since the post-Parliament attack thaw between the two countries. The talk has, however, translated into little expansion in actual trade or business collaboration. As the documentary pointed out, the major goods traded across the Wagah border are potatoes and onions.

 

Cricket and film diplomacy:

Similarly the exchange of cricket tours has generated goodwill but done little to ameliorate older patterns of media representation. These patterns, as I have argued earlier, are indicative of an us-versus-them mindset that continues to dominate popular perception.[i][1] CNN’s take on Bollywood and its cross-border influence is not new but it was projected as a significant element in the documentary as well as in the live interaction that followed.

 

The change in film politics from Gadar and Border to Veer Zara is projected as a transformation within India from anti-Pakistani rhetoric to more sensitive portrayals of the ‘other’. While there is some truth in this assertion it seems to overlook the ways in which films such as Veer Zara sentimentalize the ‘other’ (Preity Zinta will finally choose to live in India). Thus Rani Mukherjee’s exhortation to ‘just love’ and ‘just chill’ makes for good sound bytes but lacks political insight. Perhaps one should not expect, as CNN seemed to do, that the likes of Mukherjee, Bhatt, Reema Khan and Meera would provide insightful commentary. While CNN did mention that Indian films are still banned in Pakistan it did not make the connection that the removal of that ban (and the subsequent quashing of the huge pirated film market in Pakistan) would open up a new business territory for Bollywood. The peace dividend obviously means more monies for Indian entrepreneurs and film producers. Of course, this would be infinitely better than the continuing arms race in the subcontinent, but to expect film or cricket diplomacy to roll back these realities seems a bit naïve.

 

Noor Fatima and Dr Devi Shetty:

The CNN documentary was on much firmer ground when it highlighted co-operation in health services (the positive side) and extremist voices on both sides (which put the ‘just chill’ credo into perspective). Noor Fatima’s story and the interview with her surgeon, Dr Devi Shetty, projected real possibilities. Although Fatima’s surgery in 2003 received saturation media coverage, Dr Shetty has continued with his treatment of Pakistani children out of the media glare, and hopes to set up a children’s heart hospital in Pakistan. Dr Shetty’s desire to create systems of co-operation that will outlast political regimes is visionary in its awareness of political hurdles, and the need to formalize permanent systems and exchanges that are not merely media events.

 

Extremism in Pakistan and India:

The documentary’s subtitle, ‘Path to Peace’, is indicative of a process, and to its credit it did not shy away from impediments to that process on both sides of the border. The interview with Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Mujahid directly foregrounded the idea of jihad in Kashmir. Mujahid’s dismissal of the peace process as a ‘dream’ from which one will awaken indicated quite clearly the obstacles to any positive movement. His very presence gave the lie to the official Pakistani claim that the likes of Mujahid no longer operate out of its territory. Similarly Qazi Hussain Ahmad’s statement that Kashmir is non-negotiable placed Kashmir squarely on the agenda.

 

The interviews in Pakistan were paralleled in India and show how one kind of fundamentalism feeds another. Bal Thackeray, described as India’s ‘best-known Pakistan baiter’, repeated some of his old bile. He claimed (as he has earlier) that ‘Pakistan will not understand India’s generosity’, that this ‘goody-goody business’ will not work, and ended with the rhetorical question, ‘Peace at what cost?’ The problem with extremist rhetoric on both sides is that it finds an echo in the polity and amongst the very people who are supposed to be yearning for peace. A CNN-India Today poll conducted for the programme indicated that 30% of those polled believed that the Kashmir issue will never be solved. 17% stated that India and Pakistan have nothing in common. These might be statistical minorities but they add up to a lot of people who support the likes of Thackeray and Mujahid.

 

CNN’s erasures:

CNN did not interview any other extremist leader in India, creating the impression that Thackeray was one of his kind. Neither did it mention the continuing history of communal violence. The archival footage of Partition riots was voiced over with comments on carnage that followed along religious lines. By its subsequent silence on post-Independence riots CNN seemed to consign these unsavoury events to history. This de-historicized someone like Thackeray making him seem like a lone and anachronistic monster. A significant portion of the Indian part of the documentary was shot on location in Mumbai, and the irony of that location was available in the silence on the Mumbai riots not so long ago. Perhaps the ‘path to peace’ with one’s Muslim neighour requires a certain degree of amnesia about Muslims within India.

 

‘CNN CONNECTS: DIALOGUE FOR PEACE’:

Jim Clancy’s interactive session with a high profile cross-border panel followed the themes laid out in the documentary. The panel consisted of Humayun Akhtar Khan (Pakistan Commerce Minister), Imran Khan, Mian Muhammad Mansha (CEO of the Nishat Group in Pakistan), Nusli Wadi, Praful Patel, and Shabana Azmi.

 

Repetitive rhetoric:

The interaction was insipid at best and clichéd at worst. Panelists from both sides stressed the need for people to people contact, for cricket and film diplomacy, that expenditure on armaments should be replaced by development, and that there should be a level playing field for trade.

 

Kashmir remained the core issue and Imran Khan was quite clear that without a solution to Kashmir confidence building measures have no meaning. This led to some wrangling between Humayun Khan and Wadia on whether Indian troops should withdraw first or whether the terrorists ought to depart. There was also the usual skirmish on whether terrorists (or ‘freedom fighters’ as Musharraf put it in a video interview from New York) are actually harboured by Pakistan, with Praful Patel chipping in with a lecture on the accountability of democracies (the old ‘we are a democracy therefore more virtuous’ argument).

 

Exceptions to banality and the role of the media:

Perhaps the only exceptions to the general lack of new ideas and analytical conversations was in Shabana Azmi’s declaration that this is an era of regions and not nations, that we need to think outside the box of national identities. How this could be done or worked towards was not mentioned. Azmi also made the plea that we should not communalize history and that we need to face Partition and move on. This was the only reference to inglorious internal histories in either the documentary or the interaction, and was not followed up.

 

A member of the audience asked the very pertinent question of how ‘barriers of the mind’ could be overcome. Unfortunately the answers were yet another round of platitudes. Humayun Khan suggested that the media can help to remove such barriers. The media can be a force multiplier for better understanding and co-operation, as it was during the Noor Fatima story. The media in both countries, however, contribute significantly to the fomenting of hate and stereotypes of the ‘other’. India Today is a classic example of influential English language media perpetuating stereotypes of Pakistan as a den of jihadis. The Nation in Pakistan seems equally adept at portraying India as a ‘hegemonistic’ nation that is responsible for most if not all the ills that plague Pakistan. This was most evident in The Nation’s coverage of the recent Indo-US nuclear and defence pacts.

 

CNN’s role:

Part of the reason that the interactive segment was so tepid can be attributed to the fact that Jim Clancy is an ‘outsider’, as he candidly admitted when asking a question about whether the Indo-Pak relation could be seen in terms of a ‘sibling rivalry’. That ‘outsider’ status could have been an advantage, giving him greater clarity and the ability to ask uncomfortable questions. He seems not to have been briefed properly which resulted in the lack of pointed questions. Of course, he was not helped by his panel which reduced even direct questions to rhetorical drivel.

 

The contrast becomes sharper when we place the September 18 segment against a similar programme (part of the same series) aired on September 17, 2005 and conducted by Christiane Amanpour. Her panelists included Bill Clinton, Paul Wolfowitz, and Muhammad Younis among others, and they discussed questions related to global poverty, climate change, and terrorism post 9/11. While banality was not totally excluded (Ted Turner’s intervention, for example) it was a far more focused and informative discussion. In contrast, Jim Clancy seemed a bit out of his depth.

 

More vitally, the panelists in Mumbai did not discuss in any depth questions of fundamentalism on both sides of the border, and there was no serious brainstorming on Kashmir and terrorism. The documentary at least made a foray into these territories whereas the panel largely stuck to the platitude of similarities of culture and food.

 

Questions:

The two-part programme raises some questions. What is the philosophy behind the CNN CONNECTS series with particular reference to India and Pakistan? Is it to emphasize the importance of peace and co-existence in a globalized world? Does it hope to bring to world media attention issues of poverty, terrorism, religious fundamentalism? If yes, why is the role of the US in the region totally erased? It is interesting that although the Iran gas pipeline was mentioned, there wasn’t a single reference to the pressure that the US has brought to bear on the Indian government to scuttle the deal. Despite generalized references to the need for disarmament there were no pointed analyses of the implications of the recent Indo-US defence and nuclear deals for the subcontinent.

 

Finally, despite its attempt to be even-handed, CNN titled the program ‘EYE ON INDIA’ and located the interactive session in Mumbai, not in any Pakistani city. The media frame was perhaps unconsciously India-centric.

 

One totally unintended irony further framed the discussions. While the panelists were busy creating the rhetorical spaces for peace and hope, the news ticker at the bottom of the screen carried Musharraf’s denial of the statement he made to the Washington Post about rape being a ticket to Canada. The media packaging of peace on the subcontinent seems perennially threatened by the contradictions of these polities and their multitudes.

 

Contact: chattarji_s@yahoo.com

 

 

 


[i] See Subarno Chattarji, ‘Karachi Captured’ and ‘We For Victory’ on www.thehoot.org
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