By Komal Hiranandani
MUMBAI, September 6, 2010 - As Pakistan faces devastating floods inundating an area larger than the size of England, India's response, and Pakistan's response to India's response, reveals much about the state of international relations and the need to overcome historic tensions at a time of such desperate need.
Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper, compared the current situation to that of the partition between India and Pakistan, arguing that "This year's floods have brought more devastation to what is now Pakistan than any event since the mass migration and mass murder that accompanied partition in 1947. What happened 63 years ago shaped the fate of this country. So too could the current disaster." Dawn observed that the current floods should be transformative, in that they reveal to us things that we might hide from otherwise.
It is in this spirit that we explore the interactions between India and Pakistan on the sidelines of the Pakistan floods.
The Indian media have been derided for under-reporting the tragedy of the floods in Pakistan, and for focussing instead on more trivial issues that make a bigger "splash," like President Asif Ali Zardari getting a shoe hurled at him in Birmingham. Journalists and bloggers have documented the length and content of Indian news reports on the Pakistan floods compared to coverage in other countries.
For instance, Kalpana Sharma, columnist for The Hindu newspaper, accused the Indian media of ignoring a huge human tragedy and detailed how Indian news sources carried far less or negligible coverage on the Pakistan floods than international media like the BBC; and when Indian media did cover the floods, they emphasized political angles rather than human tragedies.
A blogger on Pakistan Painabad observed, "I checked out the latest issue of India Today, the country's leading news weekly. There was no story on the floods in its thick 152 pages. The last page, though, had a small anecdote on Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani being an admirer of Bollywood singer Lata Mangeshkar. The other reference, on page 22, had a weekly column by the magazine's Editor-at-Large, S. Prasannarajan, in which he blamed the ongoing Kashmir unrest being 'played out under the gaze of Pakistan, which has unarguably become the unofficial headquarters of jihad.'"
'It's Not About Pakistan'
On the other side, issues such as the floods' potential to strengthen terrorist groups would be of genuine concern to Indian readers, so it is understandable that Indian news presents those angles. Moreover, the region in general has been prone to natural disasters (India too is currently contending severe floods and droughts in several parts), which do not always get as much coverage in local news as they do abroad.
The editor-at-large of Hindustan Times newspaper, Samar Halarnkar, said in defense of the Indian press: "In Hindustan Times, we are carrying 7-8 column space daily on the floods. You can't do more because your readership doesn't care about calamities such as floods, unless it's happening in their own backyard. This is a modern media issue. It's not about Pakistan. How many people know that Bihar [an Indian state] is reeling under a severe drought currently?"
Either way, the accusation is a serious one—one that news publishers and newsreaders alike should be sensitive to.
Komal Hiranandani is a staff member of Asia Society India Centre. The opinions expressed in this piece are entirely his own and do not reflect the views of the Asia Society India Centre.