Byline by M J Akbar : Peace is where the media is
The advertising is smart enough to be effective, although how long its effect will last could well depend on what appears on the front page of the Times of India rather than the page carrying this ad. The campaign is unique: a joint public service venture by the Times, India’s most powerful media group by a distance, and Jang, Pakistan’s most influential newspaper. The theme is unquestionably laudable: Aman ki Asha [Hope for Peace]. No region could possibly want peace more urgently than a subcontinent addled with angst and saddled with two nuclear powers.
This could not have happened without a quiet nod from governments in Delhi and Islamabad; and possibly three, if you want to add Washington. The purpose is surely to soften up the street for a deal brewing somewhere within the innards of government. Citizens, so far addicted to conflict at any cost, must slowly be retuned to the wavelength of peace at any cost. It is axiomatic that both countries will have to compromise on some elements of deeply-held positions to create the “give” that will get the solution. The process of selling the “give” to their own publics has begun, albeit through indirect methods. The choice of Jang is relevant. The true equivalent of the Times would be the Dawn group, but readers of Dawn are probably already amenable to the idea of a rational rapport with India. It is the Jang reader who needs to be turned.
The first advertisement had the kind of headline that makes copywriters give each other awards: Occasionally, peace deserves a war. The amplification in body copy was neo-Buddhist: peace is passive, serene, good; war is active, violent, destructive. It is obvious that we would not appreciate the value of peace if we did not know the price of war — just, I suppose, as Adam and Eve did not understand the worth of Paradise before they were banished to earth. One wonders, however, if anyone caught the double entendre. Jang means war, unlike, say, the Times of India, which created a newspaper to report on the times of India.
The official explanation is that Jang was launched in 1944, when the world was at war. I doubt if anyone wanted to start an Urdu paper on the subcontinent in order to support the liberation of France from Nazi Germany. 1944 was also the year of a Muslim League slogan: “Ladh ke lenge Pakistan! [We will win Pakistan with war!]” But this is good news. If Jang can reinvent itself as a warrior for peace, then something important and beneficial is happening, or has already happened, among opinion-builders in Pakistan.
The problem is with the front page. On 8 January, while its inner pages were pushing peace, the Times carried a front page story saying “700 Jihadis” had been let loose to spread mayhem in Jammu and Kashmir. On the morning of 9 January all papers published taped extracts of conversations between two terrorists who had entered a hotel in Srinagar and their handlers in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. When one of the terrorists said they were surrounded and trapped by Indian police, the reply was “Shahadat se pehle zyada se zyada policewalon ko maro, zyada se zyada nuksaan pahunchao [Before martyrdom kill as many policemen as possible, destroy as much as possible]”. After one terrorist was killed, the other sent a desperate message, “Khel khatm hone wala hai [The game is about to be over]”. The reply he got was “Daro mat, tumhe jaldi Rab mil jaayega [Do not be afraid, you will soon find God]”.
I do not know how Jang reported the incident; in the old days the terrorists would have been extolled as “freedom-fighters” and “martyrs”. The incident underlines the enormous difficulties in building a peace constituency. But this much is certain, if peace has to come then it will emerge from page one and not from pages carrying advertisements. One is not suggesting the false equation used all too often by those who have no interest in peace, that a solution can only be crafted after violence ends. A terrorist organisation, or even a maverick individual, can always sabotage such a counter-productive condition. But we need news that the government is not a silent agent provocateur, that it has been able to identify and imprison the masterminds of terrorism operating from Pakistan. This is not a specific Indian demand; it is the basic minimum that the international community expects in the global fight against terrorism. Islamabad’s compliance is a must.
We should not succumb to hopelessness when terrorists get through our defenses and inflict violence, as they did in Srinagar this week. There may not be unanimity in the Pak establishment on peace, but, as noted, the participation of Jang represents an important reappraisal and it would be extremely foolish to ignore any glimmer. The initiative taken by media groups also means that they must create a new culture of reporting in which honesty is not undermined by hysteria. The street listens to media in the hope that it is more credible than governments, a hope that is often belied.
Peace, like charity, begins at home, and peace is where media is.