Television anchors are more sinned against than sinners. And their perverse power is vastly exaggerated. In the past fortnight, we have been led to believe that the nightly war-mongering and the constant cries for revenge, retribution and to-teach-them-a-lesson-they-will-never-forget is the proximate and sole cause for the war clouds hovering over Islamabad and New Delhi. That, if it had not been for these gentlemen (and a few ladies), the nation would have been able to take Pakistan’s alleged barbarism on the chin and move on.
The presenters of television news are not idiots. They have an unerring finger on the pulse of the nation. They are mood detectors. And even if one accepts all that is attributed to them, they mostly tap into the existing public temper. They don’t create it. It is the chicken or the egg riddle—which came first? The war-mongering or the public outrage? I believe the latter.
The outrage did not burst forth because of a single act. It was the cumulative outcome of pent-up fury festering since the Kargil war in 1999 to flight IC 814 to the Parliament attack, to 26/11, to the current beheading. Besides, the alleged over-reaction to the events of January 8 presented the country with another example of the unchanging pattern in the response of our estranged neighbour: first, the categorical denial with the taunting reprimand, “look within your own borders for the culprits”, to eventually a grudging acceptance of the incident, but with a crucial caveat—non-state actors were involved, to Pakistani soil could have been used in the planning of the crime, but we knew nothing about it, to the possible collusion of rogue state actors, but please show us the evidence of the collusion—evidence which will “stand up in a court of law”. Since the crime was conceived, masterminded and financed on Pakistani soil, how can India provide the smoking gun?
I am the original starry-eyed, much-lampooned candle-lighter of Wagah. I yield to no one in my passion for India-Pakistan friendship. I consider myself to be a card-carrying dove. Over the years, however, my trust in the Pakistani establishment—the army, the bureaucracy, most of the politicians, retired generals, among others, as opposed to the common man on the streets of Lahore and elsewhere—has diminished considerably. They craftily exploit the guilt many peaceniks suffer from—of “Big Brother” having historically mistreated “Little Brother”. Moreover, the establishment lies through its teeth. I’ve had personal experience of this economy with the truth. Though I remain committed to the goal of good relations, I view the Pakistani power structure with mounting suspicion.
I have often pondered over the question: why does the Pakistan officialdom hate India so viscerally? If you put aside the conqueror’s arrogance, what infuriates our neighbour is the fact that India has survived (and, importantly, prospered) as a functioning, secular democracy, while the land of the pure has turned into the land not of all Muslims, but of Sunnis, simultaneously emerging as the “most dangerous place on earth”. The theory of a death through a thousand cuts has been a fiasco. They have failed to drag us down to their level—that is the reason for their angst.
I write these words with immense sadness and regret. At present, I see myself as 50 per cent dove and 50 per cent realist as far as Pakistan is concerned.
How then do we move forward? With great caution, undoubtedly. When domestic public opinion is not just vexed but enflamed thus, dialogue and other overtures will require a brief pause. No democratically elected government can ignore domestic public opinion. The pause must, of course, be short and people-to-people contacts should be halted for a still shorter period. Move on, we must. There is no other option. When dialogue resumes we need to remember that the aam aadmi in Pakistan is our friend—though the establishment is not.