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Images That Promote Fear

By Kalpana Sharma

The Hindu
12 September, 2003

When you tell people in India that you are travelling to Pakistan, the instant response is "be careful." Last week, when I travelled back by bus from Lahore to Delhi, one of the passengers was a young businessman from Karachi. He was travelling with his wife, mother and 10-month-old son, Saad. He has never been to India before. He had to undertake this journey because his son was scheduled to have a heart operation in Bangalore, much like the well-publicised case of Noor Fatima from Lahore. The question this young man asked me was, "Will it be safe for us in India?"

Why do we have this perception about each other's countries, that they are not safe for ordinary people? After a week in Pakistan, I am convinced that the media has played a big role in creating these perceptions. For instance, on any given day, in any of the leading newspapers in Pakistan, the main, and usually only, news about India consists of items on Kashmir, statements about Kashmir and statements about Pakistan made by Indian leaders. The situation is not very different at this end. Scan any of the newspapers and the only news you get of Pakistan is extreme statements by some leaders, what President Pervez Musharraf says or does, any new arms sales to Pakistan and sectarian violence in Karachi or other places.

People in Karachi's sister city, Mumbai, are unlikely to read reports about the devastating oil spill that has long-term environmental and health consequences. When an oil tanker, the Tasman Spirit, struck rock off the coast of Karachi, it spilled 30,000 tonnes of crude oil. Not only has this destroyed a popular beach and common open space of the city, akin to Chowpatty in Mumbai, but the gases released from the spilled oil have seeped into homes, schools and offices located near the beach. People have sore throats, children feel nauseous and parents worry about the long-term health consequences. Environmentalists are equally worried about the impact on mangroves and nearby turtle hatcheries. Lakhs of fishermen have been rendered unemployed as they cannot fish in the coastal waters. Such news hardly finds space in our papers.

Similarly, people I spoke to in Karachi — journalists, drivers, workers, trade unionists and politicians — had little knowledge of developments in India apart from the political. They did not know about drought and floods in India, about the recent Supreme Court ruling that affected the rights of trade unions, about civil society groups that were challenging the Government at every step on issues such as rewriting textbooks, about the dozens of independent reports on last year's Gujarat carnage, about the National Human Rights Commission's petition to the Supreme Court to reopen the Best Bakery Case, about Hindus and Muslims helping each other after the recent bomb blasts in Mumbai. What they did know was that the Archaeological Survey of India had claimed that a temple lay beneath the destroyed Babri Masjid, that Narendra Modi was being projected as a future Prime Minister of India, that perpetrators of the Gujarat violence had not been prosecuted, that there was daily violence in Kashmir, and that Bal Thackeray was against Pakistan and Pakistanis.

An event-driven media on both sides of the border does its job by reporting only the most sensational news. As a result, it fails to play a role in building greater understanding and nurturing a constituency for peace in both countries. By confining itself to reporting events, and not bothering to report a whole range of other issues that would interest the readers, it projects a partial and one-sided image of the other country.

We, in India, are led to believe that Pakistanis hate India, that they want to wage war against India — openly or covertly — and that increasingly, the majority of them are Islamic fundamentalists. They, in Pakistan, believe that India is becoming a Hindu fundamentalist country where Muslims are not safe, where Kashmiris are being butchered, where the press cannot report freely about the other side of the story in Kashmir or about what Indian Muslims feel, and where the majority of Indians would like to see an end to Pakistan.

In fact, Hindi films have also played a role in projecting this exaggerated image. Although Hindi cinema is popular in Pakistan and even in restaurants — local musicians playing Punjabi folk music, for instance, will burst into "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" — many Pakistanis you speak to ask why Hindi films continue to project Pakistanis as villains and murderers. "The only Pakistani you see in a Hindi film is a bad Pakistani," a driver said. "Why do you rake up so much hatred for us? We are ordinary people like you, we like the same music, the same food. Our Governments might fight but why should Hindi films, which could be a uniting factor between us, project all of us as bad?"

Representatives of the media from India and Pakistan meet frequently. Many of them know each other well, are even friends. However, there has to be a deeper introspection about the focus of reporting from both our countries and a real attempt made to present a fuller picture — a picture that reveals the shared concerns, the common problems faced by ordinary people, the challenges of dealing with poverty, illiteracy and social backwardness. Only when people on both sides understand these parallels, and accept that neither country is full of ogres and hostile hordes, can we ensure that a climate for peace is created.