I have been studiously following the mantra given by George Perkovich, and, accordingly, haven’t watched Indian TV news for a couple of years or more. I would advise my Pakistani friends to do the same with their TV. Switch it off.
The celebrated defence analyst, author of a seminal work on India’s nuclear policy, was in Delhi at the height of one of the avoidable military stand-offs between the South Asian rivals to promote a new book about their unending and fraught adversarial postures. He was asked if there was something that could be done to calm things down. “Unplug the TV,” he said.
The advice, let me assure friends on both sides of the border, has worked like magic. If the choice is between ultranationalist former army officers from both sides offering ways to start a nuclear war and listening to a delectable Mian ki Todi by the sarod maestro Narendra Nath Dhar on a Sunday morning at a private mehfil — choose the latter.
If the anchors are getting excited about insane advice about a Navy SEALS-like operation to pluck out a target from his foreign lair and Vinayak Torvi is singing at the India International Centre, a Bageshwari, followed by three compositions in Tilak Kamod, and ending with two Marathi abhangs, including one by the sage Tukaram, listen to Torvi.
Those going to a concert or a movie are not unaware of or inured to the horrific carnage of unsuspecting paramilitary men in Pulwama the other day. It’s simply that there are less demonstrative ways to share grief than to shout inanities at the top of your voice against a real or imagined foe. Amma and other women in their Lucknow neighbourhood quietly gave away their best jewellery to the national fund because Nehru asked for it during the brief 1962 war with China. Twenty-five years later, Rajiv Gandhi was shaking hands with Deng Xiaopeng. It was a historic handshake.
Exceptions apart, TV anchors are mostly lip-syncing the script handed by someone else. When the chips are down, as they are down these days, the ‘news’ becomes shrill advice. The Iraq invasion was carried out by the American deep state, and the justification for the mindless act was left to TV anchors to carry out. The Qatari-owned Al Jazeera channel staked its modest credibility by hawking the spurious narrative of religious zealots against a secular Syria, possibly the only such state left in the Middle East.
I was in Lahore on Aug 14, 1997, to shoot TV footage for a Saarc documentary that was sponsored by India’s Ministry of External Affairs. In the Gujral era, such ideas were possible, and surely enough India’s relations with all its neighbours had suddenly improved overnight.
It was a lean day in Lahore so I switched on a Pakistani entertainment channel in my hotel room. A TV drama on the country’s Independence Day was on. It showed lots of eager young students in fez caps celebrating a speech by Jinnah in 1945. The scene cut to the Congress party. A very villainous looking Congress worker was telling his khadi-clad colleague: “Lalaji, mera bas chaley to main woh bomb jo abhi Hiroshima pe gira hai, in Musalmanon ke sar pe phor doon”. (Lalaji, If I have my way, I would drop the atom bomb — the kind that recently destroyed Hiroshima — on the heads of these Muslims.” That was Pakistani state’s broadcast about the party headed by Gandhi, the man who wanted Jinnah to become prime minister if that could keep India united.
Upon returning to Delhi, I was watching a TV drama on Kashmir. It was state propaganda from the other side. The pretty young woman was cooing into the ears of her fiancé, a ‘reformed militant’, about how happy she was that he had given up arms, and how his drug addiction, induced by his evil minders, had nudged him to pick up the gun. “Now the government has given us this land to grow apples and lead a happy life.” Kashmir’s tryst with violence was the outcome of drug addiction, or so went the Indian propaganda in 1997.
I exaggerate a bit about not watching TV news. I did switch on the TV for exactly two minutes on Monday. On one channel, burqa-clad women were burning the Pakistani flag and urging Prime Minister Modi to avenge the carnage in Pulwama. Nothing wrong with being outraged. In fact, the women were clearly less confused than, say, Javed Akhtar or Shabana Azmi, the Indian movie couple, who called off their proposed visit to Karachi where they were to attend a literary event.
The actress was quoted as advocating curbs on all cultural ties over the Kashmir outrage. Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Sardar Jafri would be turning in their graves. Even Indian leaders in a moment of sanity had decided that acts of terror would not be allowed to derail bilateral talks for peace. That was potentially the most critical clause in their bilateral agreement.
Had it not been thrown into the dustbin, Messrs Narendra Modi and Imran Khan would be having a better grip on bilateral ties, and not letting non-state actors undermine relations between their two sovereign states. There is an alternate view that the TV channels are whipping up hysteria to influence the general elections on behalf of the ruling party. That’s a TV-like conclusion to draw.
The fact is that Manmohan Singh won the 2009 election without lifting a finger at Pakistan for the Mumbai carnage of November 2008. On the contrary, he went ahead with the Sharm el Shaikh summit with Pakistan. It is another matter that his party made a bonfire of the peace agreement. On the other hand, Atal Behari Vajpayee won the Kargil war but his vote percentage went down in the election that followed. That’s not TV news. That’s the reality.