On the night of December 9, 2001, at about 11 p.m. Pakistan Standard Time or about 11-30 p.m. Indian Standard Time, the Star News TV channel based in New Delhi telecast a special edition of "Star Talk". It was hosted by Mr. Vir Sanghvi and featured the Indian Information Minister, Ms. Sushma Swaraj. They faced 30 to 40 school children aged between 10 and 14 years. The special edition was recorded and telecast to mark UNICEF's observance of Universal Children's Day.
One expected a special programme like this to concentrate young and tender minds on subjects of shared human interest, of common global values so as to do justice to the true meaning and significance of Universal Children's Day. But going by about 80 per cent of the programme's content, it would have been more appropriate to telecast the show on a day specially invented to mark "Universal Hate Your Neighbour Day".
The school children looked intelligent and charming. They appeared capable of exercising their own minds quite independently on their own to the extent that children can do at their ages. However, judging by the content and tone of most of their questions put to the honourable Minister they had clearly been coached or primed in advance by a certain kind of adult mindset that seems to be soaring to new heights in India since the BJP took charge, and more specially since Kargil and September 11, 2001.
The very first question put by a child, if I recall correctly, posed the following profound thesis: "Since the U.S.A has begun bombing Afghanistan after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, why should not, or cannot, India apply the policy of `hot pursuit' and attack targets in Pakistan and/or Pakistan-occupied Kashmir?" This thoroughly adult opening proposition was virtually an echo of the line that is being assiduously promoted for the past few weeks by certain analysts on Indian TV talk shows. The obvious intent is to give popular currency to the concept and term `hot pursuit': so that even children begin using it as a perfectly acceptable option for India's conduct.
Succeeding questions sustained the direction set by the opening salvo. "Why should we wait (to use force)?" "Kashmir is just the start (by Pakistan)". "As Kashmir is legally a part of India, how many Indians will have to go on dying before the terrorism by Pakistan stops?"
Some children had either been given less abrasive suggestions or they themselves were assertive enough to pose questions of a different nature. For example: "Do you think the people of Kashmir care more for Pakistan than they do for India?" And, "Why are there so many terrorists?"
One innocent child narrated a hypothetical query posed by a teacher in school to the effect: "What will happen if Kashmir is given to Pakistan?" This was like throwing a full toss to the lady. She duly obliged by lifting it right out of the ground. Predictably, she spoke in capital letters to say "no" just in case some naive Pakistanis were expecting this gift to come true. But just to make sure such a heresy was not repeated, however hypothetical and well-intentioned it may be to provoke some sober reflection on the subject, the BJP leader emphasised that neither this aberrant teacher nor any other teacher for that matter should ever dare to pose such hypothetical questions again.
When Ms. Swaraj was not breathing fire and brimstone about Pakistan, she also pointed out that Indian Muslims have never sided with Pakistan on Kashmir. In any case, Indian Muslims have enough of other crises of survival, security and equity of opportunity to worry about instead of also joining the Kashmir issue to their lives. No one in Pakistan, including India's favourite Pakistani institution, the ISI, wants or expects Indian Muslims to take up the Kashmir issue.
There was also reference by the children to some other very adult reflections such as the need to do away with Article 370 of the Constitution that gives Jammu and Kashmir special status. As also a concern about how non-Kashmiri Indians are thus prevented from migrating into Jammu and Kashmir and owning property. The remaining portion of the programme dealt with children's views about the new laws being introduced in India to deal with terrorism and with other subjects.
Some of the children in their supplementary comments proved that they have an inherent ability to pose pertinent questions and comments. When one child referred to a recent visit to Pakistan by a group of Indian children and how friendly they found Pakistani children to be, Ms. Swaraj began to make the distinction between the people of Pakistan and the Government of Pakistan so as to presumably ascribe all that is bad to the Government. But at this critical moment, for some inexplicable reason, our TV screen went blank for a couple of minutes. So I cannot be sure about how she went on to stress the goodness of the people of Pakistan but I am sure that she did so.
Other answers by Ms. Swaraj either built upon the incendiary nature of the loaded questions put by the children or injected her own views about Pakistan to ensure that the hostile opening tone was maintained in the minds of children and others vulnerable to such insinuations. On a special occasion and at a time in history when the focus should have been, say, on the devastating effect of the Kashmir dispute on Kashmiri children's lives, their families, their education, their well- being, the entire emphasis was on villianising Pakistan and spewing vitriol. There was not a single reference to the children of that territory.
This TV programme seemed like an Indian madrassah of the airwaves for overt and covert indoctrination. In a country which rightly prides itself on its pluralism and diversity, this show was evidence of how, using the facade of freedom of speech, a blanket uniformity of opinion is sought to be imposed. Incidentally, not all madrassahs are centres of brain-washing - but that is another story! The shock one felt at this callous approach to children masked under homilies and tributes to their "intelligence" and "patriotism" gave way to a sense of pity and sadness for those who speak and act like this in India. They belong to a country so large, so rich in history and human talent. Yet they are blinkered, alas, with so limited a vision. To resort to exploiting children as intellectually bonded labour to state an untenable case is remorse extremis. Mr. Sanghvi made a vital contribution to ensure the pre- determined bias of the show. At one stage, he asked the children to show their hands to answer his question: "How many of you think war (with Pakistan) is inevitable?" When several put up their arms, he concluded that there was a fair number of hawks in the studio. With similar helpful nudges and shoves he made sure the war dragon huffed and puffed through the show.
Getting children to raise hands in response to one-liner questions on issues as solemn as war and peace, as life and death, epitomised the superficial yet potentially dangerous uses to which TV is put. This TV show symbolises the urgency of the need for the media leadership in Pakistan and India to conduct a critical introspection and replace such a poisonous, conceptual approach with a more humane and harmonious vision.
(Writer's note: The following comment was written just before the attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001. Predictably, one of the immediate consequences of the reprehensible terrorist incident is reiteration by certain elements in India of their conviction that Pakistan is responsible even though President Musharraf has immediately categorically condemned the attack because there can be no possible gain for Pakistan by sponsoring such actions. While the December 13 event requires separate comment, this writer is of the humble opinion that the TV programme with which this comment deals concerns an equally disturbing theme: the fostering of mistrust and hate between our two countries.)
(The writer is an eminent media commentator from Pakistan.)