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Other Columns

Keep the volume down
S. Akbar Zaidi
January 01, 2009
First Published: 21:29 IST(1/1/2009)
Last Updated: 21:34 IST(1/1/2009)

Given the nature, intensity and consequences of the Mumbai attacks, as a Pakistani it is perhaps a little difficult to be critical of India’s media and how it responded to the terrorist attacks. One understands India’s justified anger over the attacks.

However, while there has been unilateral condemnation of the attacks from all corners of the globe including Pakistan, what has been disturbing is the power of the Indian media to raise the tempo to the level that it did over the last few weeks. For Pakistanis who see a better future for all in South Asia only if there’s peace between India and Pakistan, it is not just the events of the Mumbai attacks which have put paid to all such hopes, but perhaps more so, the intensity of the media response in India following the attacks.

In contrast, for many Pakistanis, the response of the Indian government has been far more measured and perhaps, responsible. Not so that of India’s media. Given the huge anti-Pakistan and let’s-carpet-bomb-Pakistan response from India’s media, the reply from the Pakistani media has been threefold. The first response was one of shock, sympathy and condemnation. As soon as the siege was over, and the Indian media launched its attack against Pakistan, perhaps not so much directly against its government as much as against its agencies and banned terrorist and jihadi organisations, the Pakistan media responded in defence.

In this second stage, the Pakistani media was far more sensible than India’s. This was perhaps natural because it had to prove every single Indian allegation of Pakistani involvement wrong. To its credit, extensive investigative journalism in Pakistan showed that many of India’s claims may have been wrong or exaggerated, while at the same time, there were some, though perhaps few, journalists and commentators who did say that some Pakistani organisations may have been involved in the Mumbai attacks. However, importantly, most commentators in Pakistan did not think at all that the Zardari government was involved and nor were supra-State institutions involved either. The consensus on this side of the debate was that so-called ‘non-State’ actors, jihadi organisations and the like, could have been involved, and hence, the Indian response to Mumbai’s terrorist attacks had to be different from what the way it was being projected. The problems related to terrorism in India were seen to be very similar to terrorism in Pakistan, and hence, a different response was called for.

The third stage of the Pakistani media’s reaction was when India’s government threatened retaliation. In Pakistan, this has now taken away the focus from terrorism and dealing with the real issues under the surface, and become a diplomatic war leading to nationalistic and militaristic analyses and responses. The debate shifted to questions of ‘what would happen if India were to attack?’ and how well-equipped the Pakistani military is to deal with it. One must add, however, now that the chances of such a war have been eliminated, the Mumbai terrorist attacks and their consequences, for the moment at least, have shifted from prime-time viewing; it has now been replaced by more mundane issues that face and interest the Pakistani viewer.

What could have been a more sympathetic, and perhaps even a joint, approach to deal with terrorism in South Asia, was quickly replaced by sabre rattling and posturing by the militaries on both sides.

There is no doubt, that Pakistan has faced international condemnation for having some sort of role, whether imagined or real, in the Mumbai attacks. There has been international pressure put on the government to put its house in order, knowing fairly well that this is near impossible. The Mumbai attacks exposed not so much India’s inability to deal with terrorism in its own soil, but more so, the fact that the Pakistani government is unable to deal with this monster at home. Institutional and power structures and arrangements in Pakistan, make taking on all sorts of terrorists far more difficult than most people imagine. Moreover, despite a hugely popular victory for democratic forces in the last elections in Pakistan, the elected government has also failed in establishing its writ over all institutions in the country. Sadly, the media reaction in India to the Mumbai attacks may have actually weakened and exposed Pakistan’s nascent democracy further and perhaps even resurrected Pakistan’s military as the country’s saviour. The war cries of the Indian media have resulted in the Pakistani media and public looking towards the military as a response to all forms of Indian reaction to the attacks.

S. Akbar Zaidi is a Karachi-based social scientist.


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