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Giving peace a chance

April 23, 2012

Peace took centre stage in the Sunday Times of India of 22 April. A banner headline running right across the top of the full-page Special Report conveyed a clear message:  “Love thy neighbour.  It’s time.”

The lead story by Shobhan Saxena reviewed recent developments that suggest that “hope has replaced doubt,” including Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kayani’s unanticipated comments a few days ago in favour of the “demilitarisation” of the Siachen glacier and “peaceful co-existence” with India.  Saxena pointed out that the real mood-changer has been the exchange of singers, writers and actors, as well as interactions between business leaders and even army officers (the latter under the aegis of the India Pakistan Soldiers Initiative for Peace).

An interview with Pakistani parliamentarian Ayaz Amir by Sameer Arshad, headlined “India is no longer seen as enemy,” indicated that old mindsets have changed and the new mood is in favour of a less fractious, more cooperative relationship between the two nations.

The guest column by Pakistani journalist Beena Sarwar, headlined “In the air, a hope song,” paid tribute to the sustained groundwork done by peace-loving people on both sides of the border over many years.  According to her, the foundation laid by citizens and civil society groups strengthens and has in turn been strengthened by the Aman ki Asha Indo-Pak peace project jointly launched by a Pakistani media house (The Jang Group) and an Indian newspaper (The Times of India) on 1 January 2010.

While the brief interview with External Affairs Minister SM Krishna, headlined “We need to be patient,” was not particularly enlightening or enriching, a note of caution was added by the final piece, headlined “Peace on the horizon, but it’s a hard trek,” by Indrani Bagchi.

A column by Gurmeet Kanwal on another page of the Sunday Times of India also suggested that “It’s time to melt frost in Siachen.”

On Friday 20 April, too, the second edit in the TOI (with the Aman ki Asha logo inset in the text), headlined “Words of hope,”  proposed that it would be a good idea to build on General Kayani’s message.

Edits on the subject in other newspapers on Saturday 21 April were less positive:  “Is Kayani serious? Wait and watch”   (Deccan Chronicle), “Don’t buy peace at cost of national security” (The New Indian Express).

Interestingly, on Saturday the TOI’s global news page carried a report by Sameer Arshad, reviewing Pakistani media coverage of General Kayani’s remarks.  It was headlined “Pak media hails Kayani for his stand on Siachen.”

On Friday other newspapers were more preoccupied with the successful launch of the inter-continental ballistic missile, Agni-V, the previous day, with lead edits on the topic:  “The ‘game-changer’”   (The Hindu), “Agni success must propel self-reliance in defence” (The New Indian Express), “The Agni effect”  (DNA).  The TOI’s edit on the subject, which appeared only on Monday 23 April, seemed to view the success of Agni V as an “Insurance Policy”  and a boost for “India’s diplomatic depth.”

Interestingly, DNA obviously thought this particular event deserved editorial comment even though it has done away with the tradition of daily edits.  I found one sentence in the edit particularly intriguing:  “China, however, has not been able to inspire much confidence about its motives in an Indian population that is still to live down the humiliation of 1962 despite its great love of Chinese food and cheap Chinese products.”  Even I was only nine years old in 1962:  how real is that conflict to the vast majority of Indians today?  And if it is indeed a bone in the throats of some fellow citizens what roles have history teaching and media commentary played in keeping it stuck there?

What is puzzling about the Times of India’s stand on peace between India and Pakistan is that it seems rather inconsistent. First of all it appears significant that the Aman ki Asha project is restricted to its flagship newspaper whereas, across the border, it seems to have been embraced by the Jang group as a whole.  Perhaps this is at least partly why the campaign appears more active and sustained across the border (judging by the websites on either side).

Aman ki Asha related stories have so far not been regularly featured even in the daily. But the fact that the TOI devoted yet another full page to Aman ki Asha (“Destination Peace”) coverage on 23 April may indicate some change.  Of course, perhaps predictably, the page was almost entirely related to the possible peace dividend for business and trade.

Maybe the fact that the project is confined to the daily newspaper could also explain the contrast between coverage of Indo-Pak relations in the TOI, on the one hand, and Times Now, the Times group’s 24-hour news channel, which appears to offer a dedicated safe haven for Indian hawks.

For example, the Newshour “debate” on the question “Are Pakistan’s intentions malicious?”– triggered by General Kayani’s remarks on Siachen and anchored by Arnab Goswami in his inimitable fashion – featured the usual line-up of retired army officers nursing old wounds (not necessarily their own), defence analysts zealously guarding their possibly endangered territory and former diplomats who seem to have forgotten what diplomacy means.

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