Pakistan and India have fought three overt wars — in 1948, 1965 and 1971 — and half a war that was Kargil, in 1999, which was a tad more covert than it was overt. But it is the more insidious and unceasing propaganda war that has been the world’s most populous neighbourhood’s forever war. It’s the war that never sleeps and it’s the war that’s conducted through the media.
This media has for about two decades now become a real time affair and has expanded its remit to the omnipotent internet, making sure most people remain hostage to its biases.
It is this propaganda war that was on full display in all its ugly transgressions of human dignity on December 25, 2017. It is the day when Pakistani and Indian media went willingly berserk, committing treason with the principles of professional journalism in service of an angry patriotism.
The occasion was a union of the mother and wife with the alleged Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav in Islamabad. This had come about after a secret Pakistani military court convicted Jadhav of spying and facilitating terrorist acts in the country and sentencing him to death. It suspended the sentence after being restrained by the International Court of Justice which was approached by India.
The meeting between a man certified as an enemy combatant and his mother and wife was an unusual display of bilateral diplomacy even by the sulky Indo-Pak standards. The gesture in itself was a refreshing expression of propriety and heart by Islamabad for catering to human values. For a moment it seemed like a thank you note from Pakistan to India for its many citizens receiving life-affirming heart surgeries in India. It was the moment pregnant with the promise of Pakistan actually winning hearts and minds in India.
It was not to be.
The carefully media-choreographed show by the state turned out to be just like any of the several other moments of peace overtures in bilateral history that threatened to deliver on their promise rather than merely serve as a ruse for one-upmanship. Astonishing photos and notes on the meeting started filling tv screens in Pakistan — almost immediately borrowed and flashed by their counterparts in India — within minutes the Jadhav family meeting started.
Even before the meeting that lasted only 43 minutes ended, real-time tv channels in both Pakistan and India were already deep into an opinionated analysis phase rather than first complete event reporting. The social media in both countries, in keeping with the high-octane mood of the moment, also exploded with public opinion in real-time with the Jadhav family union.
The Jadhav family was the latest pawn in the propaganda wars on both sides. This exposed the true nature of the moment for what it really was: a real-time media event to conduct propaganda and a security driven foreign policy.
None of this was more apparent from the boorish behaviour of the posse of journalists in the Foreign Office, situated to ensure they had at least two occasions to confront the mother and wife of Jadhav — on their arrival and departure. On both occasions it was made sure they would have some minutes before entering and exiting the building to face the media even though New Delhi had conveyed to Islamabad they would not talk to the media and turned down Pakistan’s invitation to the Indian media to cover the event.
Several of the journalists present bombarded the two women with questions that went beyond the remit of journalism — such as “How does it feel to be the mother of a terrorist?” “Did [Jadhav] tell you he was committing acts of terrorism in Pakistan and killing Pakistanis?” “Do you now finally understand Pakistan is a peaceful state and it is India that is a terrorist state?” Awful.
Journalists are guardians of public interest. Their professional remit is accountability of policymakers and the government. For journalists, being unbiased is not optional — it is mandatory. The Jadhav women are neither terrorists nor on trial, nor a party to the Indo-Pak rivalry, even if Jadhav is indeed guilty of killing Pakistani citizens.
The same goes for any Pakistani terrorist convicted and punished — their families are not to blame for their acts. If the Jadhav women did not want to speak, the Pakistani media should have respected that right as professional duty. The media’s silence — haranguing is not journalism — could have spoken out louder than anything else said on the subject of Pakistan’s good gesture of allowing the meeting. And yet, knowing that the Jadhav women would not talk to the media — the Indian deputy high commissioner accompanying them made sure of that — the Foreign Office briefing to the same set of journalists later was preceded by answers to the very same questions. A videotaped pre-meeting statement of Jadhav was played to them, reiterating his guilt and remorse, and praising Pakistan for arranging the meeting — answers to questions that were put to his mother and wife.
In the end, this otherwise human and beautiful gesture by Pakistan leaves in its wake a sense of despondency. It appears that even tangible human relationships and possible new beginnings using these human relationships to resolve the inhuman nature of states can’t be successful.
The problem between Pakistan and India is not just the entrenched political economy of conflict centred on security interests — it is also majorly the media on both sides. Conflict fills up the coffers of media profits. People’s perceptions of issues are largely based on media’s own perceptions of those issues.