“Shouldn’t Arundhati Roy come from Pakistan?” sarcastically asked a Delhi freelance journalist, commenting on the Facebook posting about a panel discussion, ‘Does Media Jingoism Fan India Pakistan Tensions?’ The cynical remark stemmed from his annoyance, shared by many, at Roy’s consistent exposure of India’s ‘warts’.
The panel, organised by the recently formed Forum of Media Professionals (www.fmp.org.in ), included four journalists from India besides the celebrated writer and activist Arundhati Roy as well as four Pakistani journalists and The Hindu’s Islamabad correspondent Nirupama Subramanian.
Delhi is far cleaner and greener since I was last there nearly five years go, thanks to laws (that are actually implemented) banning diesel and making CNG compulsory. On a more intangible level, another kind of pollution remains, reminiscent of a phenomenon we face in Pakistan: right-wing jingoism fuelled by emotional appeals to religion and nationalism.
The jibe about Arundhati Roy, disguised under an urbane sarcasm, is just one aspect of bigoted nationalism. Going by that logic, those in Pakistan who fight for justice — a struggle that necessitates exposing wrongdoings, or ‘washing dirty linen in public’ according to our critics — should represent India. Another aspect of such thinking is evident in the comments back home when I show my documentary ‘Mukhtiar Mai: The Struggle for Justice’, in Pakistan: “Why don’t you make such films about violence against women in India? Women there have these problems too.”
I wonder at this competitiveness that makes us feel self-congratulatory when we can point out how much worse the other is in some way.
Thankfully, not everyone takes this myopic view. In Allahabad, at a crowded meeting of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD), there was none of this one-upmanship or finger pointing. The audience immediately saw the commonalities of the issues raised in the films I showed, on Pakistan’s flawed and discriminatory Hudood Laws and Mukhtiar Mai. They understood that the phenomenon in Pakistan of Taliban ‘punishing’ women for alleged transgressions is not much different from those who rape, kill or lynch women and couples for the sake of ‘honour’ in India itself or indeed in traditional communities in Pakistan.
The difference is that most of these ‘honour crimes’ are committed by relatives of the women who ‘transgress’, as opposed to the Taliban who are taking it upon themselves to enact these punishments as part of the imposition of their own criminal justice system that flouts the writ of the state.
Another difference is that the family in Haryana who hanged their daughter and the man she eloped with (in their own home) will be charged, tried and probably punished. In Pakistan, the ostensibly Islamic Qisas and Diyat (retribution and blood money) laws imposed by a military dictator in the 1980s allow the murder victim’s family members to ‘forgive’ the perpetrators who are often their own relatives.
As for the Taliban and their sympathisers, none have ever been charged for their criminal transgressions, ranging from blackening women’s faces on billboards, to disrupting public events in that involve women (remember the Gujranwala marathon?), to blowing up schools, killing teachers and dragging women out of their homes and murdering them for alleged ‘immorality’.
At the Allahabad meeting, the tone was set by senior advocate Ravi Kiran Jain in his introduction when he stressed on the need for a stable government in Pakistan, and the desire to remove misunderstandings. His words reminded me of Nirupama Subramanian’s appeal at the panel discussion in Delhi urging Indians to “be sensitive to Pakistan as a country that has problems and show moderation in we respond to these problems.”
Many Indians already understand this, but we don’t hear their voices in the media very often. For instance, Utpala, a women’s rights activist during the discussion in Allahabad talked about the need for Indians and Pakistanis to be allowed to visit each other’s countries. Her own visit to Pakistan many years ago, she said had expanded her ‘angan’ (literally, courtyard). She ended by asking, “How can we in India be happy until there is a pro-people, pro-women government in Pakistan?”
The Delhi panel was disrupted for a minute or so by one man at the back of the auditorium who stood up and shouted anti-Pakistan, pro-war slogans. The organisers threw him out. He turned out to be from the Sri Ram Sene, one of the faces of India’s right-wing ‘Sangh Parivar’, who . Three or four others were outside, whom the organisers had refused to allow entry as they were not signing their names in the register. The SRS, which does not otherwise have much presence in Delhi, later claimed it had sent ‘thirty’ men to disrupt the meeting.
True to form, illustrating the very issues we had been discussing, most media hyped up the disruption which then overshadowed the discussion itself. Pakistani journalists were ‘roughed up’, ‘attacked’, the meeting disrupted for ’15-20 minutes’ and so on. The incident set off a chain reaction across the border, giving right-wing forces in Pakistan the opportunity to condemn the ‘anti-Pakistan feelings in India’. A ‘human rights’ organisation held a demonstration against the ‘attack’. Jamat-e-Islami’s recently elected chief Munawwar Hasan promptly issued a statement saying that it should serve as an eye-opener to those who talk of friendship with India and they should refrain from visiting India (‘ba’az ajana chahiye’).
For such people, obviously the anti-Pakistan slogans raised by one miscreant are paramount over the dozens of people in the IIC auditorium who listened respectfully to the discussion and engaged in a dialogue with the speakers later. The people in Allahabad and at the Delhi Press Club a few days later who came to hear a Pakistani journalist and express their support for a democratic order in Pakistan also don’t count, even if some of them were prepared for a rough time, like Zafar Bakht in Allahabad who had lent his school’s auditorium for the event. “After hearing of the Delhi incident, we rolled up our sleeves and were prepared,” he said later.
In the end, the anti-Pakistan slogans raised by one miscreant hogged the media limelight rather than those who filled the auditorium, heard the speakers respectfully and engaged in dialogue later. This is the nature of the media beast. Who is going to tame it?