Last night, I was watching a familiar face from Pakistan venting bile on Indian news television: a 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. Since a wave of competing jingoism sweeps the sub-continent, Pirzada was seen as the 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: 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 hour till commercial pressures mercifully forced the anchor to take a break. A sensitive issue calling for a mature response was reduced to a theatre of the absurd: a ridiculous exercise in allegations and denials with little attempt made at decoding the rationale behind the Pakistani murderous acts along the LOC. Forget the LOC, we had a 'tv war' being played out on the screen (only the on screen 'fire' was missing!)
Hyperbole sells in a TRP driven tv news universe as does hyper-nationalism. Moderate voices are seen as signs of weakness, of political correctness in an age which calls for unbridled machismo. And yet, we must press the pause button and ask: who do Tariq Pirzada and their ilk really represent? Or have we chosen to caricature the Pakistani in our collective mindset to symbolise AK47 wielding blood thirsty terrorists who would like to see nothing better than the dismembering of India? Is it true that there are no sensible voices in Pakistan who can give us a rational explanation as to why a supposedly professional Pakistani army should resort to barbaric acts like mutilating enemy soldiers? Or is this simply a neighbouring society in permanent denial, so driven by hatred of the 'other', that sanity is no longer an option even amongst serious Pakistani analysts? Why is it that Indian news channels don't seek globally respected Pakistani experts on terror like Ahmed Rashid or a senior editor like a Najam Sethi or Hameed Haroon when we discuss issues like terror and Kashmir? Or will they simply not 'sell' because they might actually make some sense?
If we sought serious answers to the above questions we would realise the grave disservice we in the television media are doing to the future generations of Indians and Pakistanis. If a raving loonie like Pirzada is to come to routinely represent the common Pakistani view, then 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 in the IPL? This is exactly what the Pakistani ISI-army establishment wants perhaps: build an atmosphere of such hatred between Indians and Pakistanis, that there is no chance of any normal relationship possible. 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' like angry and 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 do believe there is one. 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 involve. 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 any 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 yes, with way fewer eyeballs) but will probably over time restore a measure of credibility amidst the maddening chaos that the news whirl now is. 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.
Post-script: 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 dollars, sent I am reliably informed to a Dubai account which he has opened. It's 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 who pay him the highest amount are the channels which brand themselves as 'nationalistic'! God save this great republic from those whose pseudo-nationalism has been bartered at the altar of TRPs!