Last night, I watched a familiar face from Pakistan vent bile on Indian news television. Self-styled political-military analyst Syed Tariq Pirzada has made it his professional calling to abuse India and the Indian military on our news channels. As a wave of competing jingoism sweeps the subcontinent, Pirzada is seen as an ideal guest representing the extreme Pakistani “viewpoint”.
He did not disappoint. Playing to the gallery, he did exactly what our hyper-ventilating news anchors wanted: he targeted the Indian military in offensive language, dared India to declare war and warned that as a nuclear state, Pakistan would teach India a lesson. His bellicose tone reminded me of that old Hindi song, “Aa dekhe zara kisme kitna hai dum”. The Indian side, represented by an ageing major general, responded with equal belligerence. The “tu tu main main” continued for half an hour until commercial pressures mercifully forced the anchor to take a break.
A sensitive issue calling for a mature response was reduced to the theatre of the absurd: a ridiculous exercise in allegations and denials with little attempt made to decode the rationale behind Pakistan’s murderous acts along the Line of Control. Forget the Line of Control, we had a “TV war” being played out on screen. (Only the onscreen “fire” was missing!)
Hyperbole sells in a Television Rating Point-driven news universe as does hyper-nationalism. Moderate voices are seen as signs of weakness, of political correctness in an age of unbridled machismo. And yet, we must press the pause button and ask: who do Pirzada and his ilk really represent? Or have we chosen to caricature the Pakistani in our collective mind to symbolise the Kalashnikov-wielding blood-thirsty terrorist who would like nothing more than to see India dismember?
Why is it that Indian news channels do not seek globally respected Pakistani experts such as Ahmed Rashid or senior editors such as Najam Sethi and Hameed Haroon to discuss issues like terrorism and Kashmir? Is it simply because they will not “sell” since they might actually make some sense?
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Are there no sensible voices in Pakistan who could give us a rational explanation as to why a supposedly professional Pakistan Army should resort to such barbaric acts as mutilating enemy soldiers? Or is theirs simply a society in permanent denial, so driven by hatred of the “other” that sanity is no longer an option even among serious Pakistani analysts? Why is it that Indian news channels do not seek globally respected Pakistani experts such as Ahmed Rashid or senior editors such as Najam Sethi and Hameed Haroon to discuss issues like terrorism and Kashmir? Is it simply because they will not “sell” since they might actually make some sense?
If we seek serious answers to the above questions, we will realise the grave disservice we in the television media are doing to future generations of Indians and Pakistanis. If a raving loony like Pirzada is routinely called to represent the common Pakistani view, is it any wonder that almost every young Indian I meet vows “revenge” against Pakistan, doesn’t want to see Pakistani cultural artists perform in this country or doesn’t want Pakistani cricketers to play in the Indian Premier League? This is perhaps exactly what Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence-army establishment wants: build an atmosphere of such hatred between Indians and Pakistanis that there is no chance of maintaining a normal relationship.
The sad truth is that we are playing into such pernicious designs by inviting rabid Pakistanis who are expected to perform a “role” on television. Like performers in a street play, they “act” as vicious Mogambo-like villains, loud and creepy. It would be almost comic if it were not so tragic and dangerous.
Is there a solution?
Yes, I believe there is. Despite a firm commitment to free speech, I earnestly believe that the time has come to isolate, even boycott, the war-mongering studio warriors on both sides of the border. In particular, we must avoid giving oxygen to anyone who comes on television to consciously call for violence against civilian populations as a nuclear engagement would entail. Free speech should never have space for those who incite violence against the unarmed.
I have decided to make a start. I will henceforth avoid bringing on any show I anchor a Pakistani like Pirzada who not only refuses to accept the perfidious role of the Pakistani army in terror activities but instead calls for a nuclear war against India. Yes, it will perhaps make a debate I anchor on television less noisy and contentious (and get way fewer eyeballs) but, over time, it probably will restore a measure of credibility amid the maddening chaos that the news whirl is now. Pirzada today, hopefully religious bigots in either country tomorrow. The time has come to switch off those who have made it a business to sell hatred and violence. Enough is enough.
Postscript: I distinctly noticed Pirzada chuckling as the programme was ending. I am not surprised at all. He must have appeared via Skype on half a dozen Indian news channels yesterday. Most of them pay him good money in American dollars, sent, I am reliably informed, to a bank account he has opened in Dubai. It is a pretty useful business model: get paid to abuse India on Indian news television and be shouted at in turn. And to think that those paying him the highest amounts are the channels that brand themselves as “nationalistic”!
God save this great republic from those whose pseudo-nationalism has been bartered at the altar of Television Rating Points.
This is a slightly edited version of Rajdeep Sardesai’s blog post.