DAWN: Eshwar Sundaresan on June 3rd, 2011
Most Indians who want to know what’s happening in Pakistan and what Pakistanis are saying about India intuitively visit the Dawn website. We come here to consume secular, progressive and balanced opinions on Pak and Indo-Pak issues. In comparison, few Indians have heard about a veteran Pakistani journalist called Najam Sethi. Pity! I say that because it’s time Indians wonder why we don’t have an equivalent of Najam Sethi in our electronic media.
In case you haven’t heard about him, let me begin by telling you that Sethi has been imprisoned thrice by different Pakistani regimes. First, by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (for protesting against military action in Balochistan), then by General Zia ul Haq (for publishing a book by a former Chief Justice of the SC, Justice Mohammad Munir, in which he lamented his role in legitimizing the first martial government in Pakistan in 1958), and most recently, by the Nawaz Sharif government (on charges of treason).
Over the years, his critics have conferred many unflattering labels on Sethi. In the 70s or thereabouts, he was a “Russian agent” because he felt that Pakistan’s alliance with America was not in its best interests. Later, he was termed an “Indian agent” because he wanted peace with India and vociferously declared that India posed no security threat to Pakistan. In recent times, his views have made him an “American agent.”
A couple of years ago, Najam Sethi began appearing in a weekly dial-in Live television show in which all kinds of thorny issues are discussed. Which meant that, instead of writing for the English-speaking elite, he was now speaking in Urdu to millions of Pakistani citizens and expats. And what was he telling them?
Things, one would have thought, they did not want to hear, such as:
• The desire of the Balochis to secede from Pakistan; this one-hour program spoke about the usual problems thrust on regions experiencing insurgencies – like the unconstitutional means employed by the army, the connivance of the local elite with the army and the stark poverty of the local populace.
• The sheer dependence of Pakistan on American aid, without which Pakistanis will “eat grass” (ghaas khayenge).
• The reasons why the world romances with India, and not with Pakistan.
• The reasons why Kashmir will never become a part of Pakistan and how even the Pakistani establishment accepts this inevitability inside closed doors.
• The threat posed to Pakistan by the fundamentalists.
Sethi delivers these anti-populist opinions using his signature in-your-face style and backs them with indisputable facts or, in the very least, a lucid perspective. And somehow, he manages to combine the hawk’s mannerisms with the dove’s mission.
Some might be inclined to call Sethi outspoken, belligerent and opinionated. Incidentally, the same description fits most of the TV media mascots in India. But what distinguishes Sethi from our mascots is the simple fact that he doesn’t have lines that cannot be crossed.
He’s a patriot who is willing to attack nationalism when required, a secularist who will illuminate the transgressions made by secularists, and a pacifist who will support internal and external military agencies whenever he feels that they have a case.
The equivalent TV media personality in India would talk about human rights excesses in Kashmir, Nagaland, Mizoram et al without conjunctions, rejoinders or excuses. He or she will address the Naxalite issue without wanting to mention the law-and-order aspect every fifteen seconds. In short, he or she will not toe the government’s line just because it’s “nationalistic” to do so. His or her mission will be to ruffle our feathers and make us rethink our established outlooks on issues that matter. But in reality, such anti-populist stances are adopted only by our alternate media – publications such as the Economic and Political Weekly and (frequently enough) Tehelka – or personalities on the fringe such as Arundhati Roy.
Sethi is able to cover much ground in his show because of its format. He consumes most of the airtime while the anchor challenges his harsh verdicts with mainstream opinions.
Can we not emulate this format in India? If the argument is that our media mascots cannot take rigid stances, then my counterargument is that they already do. They’ve already made up their minds on all the topics being discussed. And by asking questions that take two minutes to deliver and demanding responses within thirty seconds, they end up dominating the conversation anyway. So maybe they could adopt Sethi’s format for one of their talk shows and grab the mike, as it were.
Personally, I’d love to watch a Sethi-like show featuring distinguished print journalists – the likes of MJ Akbar or P Sainath – who will voice nonconformist, anti-populist views to the mainstream. Surely the average Indian citizen is capable enough of receiving and assimilating disturbing information, no matter what form it takes?
At the moment, Pakistan is blessed with many stoic anti-populist voices such as Najam Sethi – people who, despite risk to life and limb, speak their mind and strive to restore normalcy in their country. Their presence makes me wonder whether Pakistan currently has a more evolved media.
Eshwar Sundaresan is a Bangalore-based writer, freelance journalist, ideator and entrepreneur. His works are Googlable.