A road show for peace; S. Balakrishnan: ‘Shatter stereotypes’

Below – introduction from the ‘aman ki asha‘ page in The News on Wed, March 4, and thoughts from S. Balakrishnan, Times of India’s chief of bureau in Mumbai who happened to be in Karachi at the time

A road show for peace

`Are you from India? Can I have your sign please?” was a question that those associated with the organisers often heard during the Aman ki Asha event at Park Towers, Karachi, last Sunday (Feb 28).

Asked why he wanted to meet Indians, one young man cradling a six-month old baby wrapped in pink, answered quietly, “”I want to ask them why they are being so hostile.”

Personal meetings rub the edge off hostility. As the poll conducted by the Jang Group and Times of India for Aman ki Asha in December 2009 underlines, the majority of people on both sides want peace. Being able to meet without the restrictions that currently mar travel between the two countries would help this process.

But unless the governments of India and Pakistan change their visa policies, such mingling and meeting will remain a dream. Even the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy that has been providing a platform for such meetings since 1995, discussing all issues, including contentious ones like Kashmir, religious militancy and nuclear weapons, has been unable to hold its annual convention for the last few years.

People to people meetings gain immeasurable strength when backed by the power of the media. That is what Aman ki Asha has the potential to do, as an initiative of the two largest media groups in Pakistan and India.

Partnered by Park Towers and FM 107, the Aman ki Asha event in Karachi on Sunday was aimed at bringing the initiative to the public. Hopefully, more such events will take place in other parts of the city, and the country.
– aka

`Time to smash the stereotypes’

Indian journalist S. Balakrishnan was swamped by requests for interviews and autographs

Balakrishnan at The News office, Karachi

When S Balakrishnan, Times of India’s Chief of Bureau in Mumbai, finally got a visa for Pakistan, he was so excited that he forgot to do anything about the ‘special treatment’ that Indian and Pakistani authorities reserve for each other’s citizens. But even the run-around involved in the police registration process required of Indians and Pakistanis visiting each other’s countries within 24 hours of arrival and departure could not overshadow the warmth and hospitality he received.

Nor did the blow of having his Indian cell number going blank, instead of being on ‘roaming’, as soon as he landed in Pakistan. “We must be the only countries in the world who don’t allow cell phone roaming in each other’s territory,” he marvelled.

His mission: to break the stereotypes about Indians and Pakistanis in each other’s country. What better place to start than with Abdus Sattar Edhi, whom he came to interview. Other stories he is taking back – the work of the Citizens’ Foundation network and the Layton-Rahmatullah Trust Fund for the Blind. “All we hear about is the terrorism. But so many people are doing such wonderful things here, and I want to highlight them.”

Balaji, who initially wanted to name his daughter “Benazir” eventually compromised with the more secular, cross-cultural ‘Roshan’ (“a name shared by Hindus, Muslims and Parsis”), now 26 years old.

“It was something Roshan said back in 1988 or ’89. We used to get PTV in India. Benazir was making a campaign speech, and my daughter said, ‘Baba, she is speaking our language’. That got me thinking about this wall of ignorance and the stereotypes that must be pulverised.”

His first visit to Pakistan coincided with the event organised to commemorate Aman ki Asha. The only Indian at the venue, he ended up being a virtual celebrity, swamped by requests for interviews – and autographs.

Visitors thronged the galleries encircling the three floors of the building, overlooking the main lobby where the event was being held. Asked to address the crowd, the calm and collected Balaji did so smilingly, unruffled by the clamouring hordes and dozens of questions.

He spoke about the need to forget the past differences and move on to progress, given our commonalities – “ our language, culture, food, the sports we love, religions… My God, we even share the same gaalis!” Unfortunately, we also share “the dangerous combination of soft opposition and corrupt ruling elites”.

“When I landed at the Karachi Airport, I felt like asking the airline for a refund because I felt as if I was still in Mumbai,” he joked. “This is my first visit to Pakistan, but hopefully not the last. I love everything I have seen here. I have been studying Pakistani politics, current affairs, the social structure, and the development that has been going on here. I was very happy to see that my impressions about the Pakistani people were confirmed.”

Someone commented that some people were suspicious of ‘Aman ki Asha’ and termed it a hoax perpetrated by the two media partners.

“But why?” inquired Balakrishnan sounding faintly amused. “You see, the Jang Group and Times of India are both established media groups. We don’t stand to gain anything from this project. We are not making any money from Aman ki Asha. Our purpose is to encourage peace.”

“I think the young people of both countries can play a very important role,” he added. “People like Bal Thakeray – he is about 84 years old — are spent forces. The fact is that the young people don’t carry any past baggage. They are not prejudiced. They think alike, and can help promote peace.”

He underlines people-to-people contact as vital for peace. “Visas should be available on arrival, but it is vested interests and the governments who keep the people apart and prevent interaction between India and Pakistan.”

“When your artists visit our country, we revere them,” he said, talking about the special reverence for legends like Faiz Sahib, Mehdi Hasan and others who remain very popular among the Indian people.

“Aman ki Asha can help in removing misunderstandings, as media can play a very constructive role in shaping opinion. The Times of India carries positive stories about Pakistan daily. Together, we can work for peace between our countries,” he said.

Unfortunately, for much of the media, “page 3 has become page 1” – that is, petty crime stories which previous got scarce attention now make the headlines. “I mean, Abishek Bachan making kheer was news in Pakistan. That’s not news,” he added. “Then, the media nearly caused a war after the Mumbai attacks. See, it is so clear that the people want peace. It just shows what a disconnect there is between the media and people, the media is just very far removed from reality.”

An ajrak for Bala, presented by Amir Latif of the Karachi Press Club

Earlier, at an informal meeting at the Karachi Press Club, he was presented with a Sindhi Ajrak. “We are children of the same mother – the Indus Valley Civilisation,” he said.

About the Sindhi community in India, he said his neighbourhood was fifty percent Sindhi-speaking. “Their contribution is immense, to business and commerce, to education, building institutions like hospitals and colleges… it’s a very self-reliant and productive community.”

India’s gain is clearly Pakistan’s loss here, as most of those Sindhis happen to be Hindus who left their native land reluctantly and quietly after 1947.

– Lubna Khalid and Beena Sarwar

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3 Responses

  1. Brilliant post. Again, thank you for sharing this. We need more interaction, and yes the visa rules need to be relaxed – a friend of mine who just married an Indian, in Pakistan, is unable to join her husband because her visa gets rejected repeatedly!

    I have a question for both you and Balaji though: You correctly note that the media almost created a war after 26/11 – but are you not part of the same media groups that stirred up jingoism? Did Geo television not feature foaming-at-the-mouth tirades against India? I am aware that you are quite busy, nevertheless it would be kind of you to reply.

    Thank you.

  2. Thank you for your comments. Agree totally with what you say.

    Regarding your question – yes we are both in the mainstream media – if you consider English language print mainstream, which it is in India more than in Pakistan (in Pakistan it often serves as ‘window dressing’ to show the world how liberal we are – much of what we write in the English language papers would not be published by Urdu ones.). Television by its very nature is less thoughtful, more superficial, more focused on events and therefore more sensational. That is the case everywhere.

    The short answer is: we are part of the media but we can and should be critical of it also. Here’s a link to a piece I wrote on Media and Nationalism after Mumbai: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/beena-issues/message/1018

  3. Agreed with regards to television’s inherent need to be sensational and capture eyeballs. which is a major problem I have with the medium. But it just seems so hypocritical of the Jang group to present a conspiracy theorist on one hand and then follow up with a cotton candy video. I mean, at least Fox (for example) remains rabidly right wing. At least they’re honest about what they represent. I’ve worked with the Jang group too (wrote articles for MAG a few years ago) and agree that it’s not like they’re a bunch of villains. But Geo as a brand and TV channel has lost most of its credibility for me-because I feel that they serve only commercial interests. That’s obviously true of most media around the world in most formats,but it’s so OBVIOUS in this case.

    Your article was very good, I missed it before-probably because I was having exams at the time. “Journalists may argue that they are just the messenger, reflecting official or public opinion.” That’s a statement I’d really like to explore, for I think the media does play a role in shaping opinion.

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