In order to get the best ratings in India and Pakistan, you have to be the loudest, the harshest and completely fearless in your condemnation of the utter vileness of your enemies across the border. This is not a complicated rule, one the media has been following for decades, long before the antics of Arnab Goswami on Times Now began. In fact, the first prime ministers of the two countries, Jawaharlal Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan, frequently complained about their remarks being sensationally mischaracterised in the press.
The early months of 1950 were dominated by confident predictions of an all-out war between India and Pakistan, and marked by grisly and sensational stories in the press about the miserable situation of minorities across the border.
The diplomatic animosity and political bickering were aided and abetted by newspapers and periodicals on both sides. They were only too happy to point out the terrible condition of minorities – Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs – in the two countries, as a way of criticising the weaknesses of their central leadership in dealing with threats from across the border.
A telegram of protest from India’s external affairs ministry to its counterpart in Pakistan in February 1950 asserted that “newspapers continue to indulge in fantastic statements about happenings across the border. In Pakistan, frequent references to ‘master plans,’ which exist only in the imagination of certain newspaper editors and others in Pakistan and scurrilous writings… cannot but cause excitement in Pakistan against the minority community.”
The telegram received a reply containing almost identical complaints about periodicals in India. They are a testimony to the fact that addressing the question of perception or, to use a current word, ‘atmospherics’, in the India-Pakistan relationship, is almost as important as the reality on the ground.
The flow of destitute refugees from across the border – often exacerbated by heightened threat perceptions for their security – allowed antagonistic chief ministers such as B.C. Roy of West Bengal and Gopinath Bardoloi of Assam to castigate Nehru for his ineptitude in dealing with Pakistan, as well as his weak grasp on the conditions of migrants in their states.
The heightened political challenges to the central governments’ authority from powerful premiers in the eastern provinces posed a common challenge to both Nehru and Khan. The role of the press in spreading this sense of anxiety was significant, and throughout this period, the papers carried harrowing stories about the plight of minorities from across the border.
Much of the newspaper coverage of the difficulties that minorities faced in both countries was not, in fact untrue. But there was a difference between portraying the harsh realities of the conditions of minorities on either side of the border and using this information to perpetuate a sense of war brinkmanship between the two countries. The prominence of these stories, coupled with the political challenges of relief and rehabilitation to the central governments’ authority in Delhi and Karachi, made them seem particularly dangerous.
Driven by an increasingly strident threat to their political position over this question – which was also propelled by powerful state-level politicians in the Bengal delta, whose treasuries could not afford to absorb the additional burden of incoming refugees, Nehru and Khan had brokered a pact on minorities called the Nehru-Liaquat Pact.
According to the pact, the two governments would be accountable to each other for the treatment of their minority citizens. Aimed at staunching the flow of migrants across the eastern sector, the pact offered one route to greater political stability to the central governments of India and Pakistan.
Particularly interesting in the wording of the agreement were the clauses relating to the press. The coverage of the pact was crucial to stabilising the number of refugees from across the border. To ensure a mechanism which could provide for the adherence to a particular line, the governments of both countries, as well as leading media houses on both sides, had to work in tandem.
Both prime ministers had an unerring grasp on the importance of perception in how the refugee question should be handled, and, in order to address this, Nehru invited a delegation of editors from Pakistan in the aftermath of the Nehru-Liaquat declaration.
After his interaction with the members of the Pakistan Newspapers Editors Conference, Nehru noted delightedly that, “It is evident that the Pakistan editors have been powerfully affected by their visit to Delhi. Their old conceptions have changed and they are going back full of the determination to preach peace and cooperation. I have no doubt of the sincerity of their present feeling.”
The aftermath of the Nehru-Liaquat Pact, for example, saw a flurry of activity on both sides to utilise the improvement in atmospherics to bring about some lasting changes in media portrayals of each other. What also comes across strongly is the impulse to utilise the limited machinery of the government in highlighting the achievements of the Nehru-Liaquat Pact:
“The following further action has been undertaken: one lakh copes in Bengali and 50,000 copies each in Urdu and Hindi of a booklet containing the agreement as well as extracts from the speeches of the prime minister in parliament and his broadcast to the nation, and of the prime minister of Pakistan’s speech in Pakistan parliament and his broadcast have been issued for wide distribution. State governments have also been requested to bring out regional language editions of this booklet.”
The agreement provided for the establishment of a joint press code, which was to be adhered to by the leading journalists and editors of both countries who could discuss matters about adverse press coverage on the issue of minorities across the border. The implementation of code was also supervised by members of the National Editors Conference of India and Pakistan, whose members would meet regularly to ensure that its objectives were met.
These newspaper editors, including several seasoned, shrewd and well-informed professionals such as Pir Ali Muhammad Rashidi of the Sindh Observer, T.K. Ghosh from the Amrita Bazaar Patrika and Durga Das from the Hindustan Times, all realised that the matter of dialling down the temperature on India-Pakistan issues could only have been done in synchrony. The agreement could only work if both sides observed it.
Their code was aimed at furthering the purposes of the Nehru-Liaquat Pact 1950, but, even if some seven decades old, many of the clauses make for startlingly relevant reading today:
… By refusing to give currency to mischievous opinion of individuals or organisations likely to rouse communal passions or create a sense of insecurity among the members of the minority community.
… By rigorously excluding from the press of each country opinion directed against the territorial sovereignty of the other or purporting to incite war.
… To not engage in broadcasting information that would threaten the peace of minorities across the border.
The members of the committee were journalists who were well connected, politically powerful and knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the routes to power in Delhi and Karachi. They would not have harboured any particularly sincere convictions about the efficacy of the Nehru-Liaquat Pact, or even about the additional security to minorities that it was meant to bring about.
Incidents of atrocities toward minority communities – institutionally entrenched, minute and frequently vindictive – would certainly have been known to all of them.
Nonetheless, the support of the journalists, substantially pushed and encouraged by the leadership of the central governments on both sides, afforded a semblance of calm to the heightened sense of uncertainty and fear on either side about the immediate future of the minorities.
This, in itself, was a major achievement. By toning down the impulse to flee in the face of revenge riots which contributed to the cycle of violence – and thus limiting the displacement on either side – was one of the principle reasons that the pact was negotiated in the first place.
The minutes of the meeting of the editors with the government representatives in May 1950 – in the immediate aftermath of the signing of the Nehru-Liaquat Pact – provide fascinating glimpses into the manufacturing of a consensus. The editors suggested that the two governments work more closely in the endeavour to manoeuvre the coverage on either side towards the desired ends.
Rashidi, for instance, also observed that the joint press code would work more effectively if it had two members from the ministry of information participate in its deliberations. In addition, the members argued, the ban on newspapers from across the border for faulting in their coverage of the minorities situation should be lifted. A better way to achieve the desired aim would be to consult members of the editors conference on both sides before imposing bans on newspapers from across the border. This would aid in their ability to manoeuvre the coverage on both sides towards the desired ends.
The committee was empowered to make other recommendations. The Nehru-Liaquat Pact also enabled both governments to bring to the other’s notice ‘objectionable’ movies, plays and books. Various blood-curdling titles like Hamara Kashmir and Dushman made it into the minutes of the meetings of the Information Consultation Committee – with its members promising to not broadcast its contents and to penalise those who did. Even more prescient was their recognition that school textbooks ought to be a part of their agendas and that much of the material in the state-level curricula ought to be revised so that a less hostile preconception of the other could be developed.
While the issues in the present-day agenda of India-Pakistan relations have obviously changed, the politics of how this pact was to be presented to the public is in many ways analogous to the present day realities. Obviously, there are differences – the most glaring being the further diversification of news outlets in the 21st century and the heightened sense of competition. However, what is remarkable about the twists and turns in this relationship is not the arrival of new storylines, but the rehashing of old ones.
When the leadership of India and Pakistan move towards an improvement of ties, it is worth noting that they have to move in tandem with the unanimity of a supportive press. The endeavours of Nehru and Khan continue to remain eerily relevant today. Regardless of the grimness of the circumstance, it has always been the intention behind discussing them, and the ways in which they should be portrayed, that have mattered the most.
Pallavi Raghavan in an Assistant Professor at the Jindal Global Law School. She is currently finalising a book manuscript on the early history of the India-Pakistan relationship.