Saturday, January 10, 2009

Beyond Borders In South Asia

I wrote this article two months before the terror attacks in Bombay for a publication of Liberal Youth South Asia released at their summit in New Delhi two days before the terrorists struck the city I love.

The hours of terror kept me indoors too as I blogged informing the world about events as I saw it. I may have made a few mistakes just as the mainstream media did yet it was something I felt I must do. I felt hurt. I still feel hurt.

I choose not to call it 26/11 because the media got that wrong in their desire to sound like 9/11. It is 11/26.

I feel hurt because the terrorists did what they did.

Hurt because they chose 11/26...the day India's Constitution was completed.

Hurt because 11/26 is my birthday. I do not celebrate my birthday but who knows I would be among those dining at the Taj that fateful night.

I would like to thank all those who have been reading this blog even when I have not been posting new articles. Your comments are appreciated, even the one's I may not agree with.


By Manuwant Choudhary

Not Iraq or even Israel, South Asia is the most dangerous place in the world.

So when the editor of Liberal Youth South Asia journal asked me to write a positive piece on media in a common South Asia, it hurt my journalistic sensibilities, and I asked her whether just writing on `A Common South Asia’, wasn’t positive enough.

So I write this story as I always have, at a risk of it being axed completely.

Journalists tell a story not because they are positive or negative, they tell a story because it is simply compelling enough to be told. Sometimes, the outcome may be positive.

In India, we are very complacent about us being the world’s largest democracy and so everything is going to be alright. So I too was amused when a friend once observed, “You know the best thing that’s happened to India and South Asia. It’s the invasion. The satellite invasion.”

Ironically, not an Indian but Rubert Murdoch opened up the Indian media from government controls simply because the government did not have laws to deal with new technologies.

And I got this opportunity to work with New Delhi Television as a reporter in Bihar, the news provider for Star News then.

There were caste massacres in Bihar even on the day I went for my interview so I knew my few years in Bihar would be a challenge.

Journalism is about such challenges but its not an ivory tower. Its about people and politics. Its about a gut feel.

For nearly five years I must have traveled on the worst roads in the world covering mostly the states of Bihar and Jharkhand and occasionally Nepal.

So roads were definitely on my agenda although mainstream TV still discussed caste as the only basis for politics in Bihar. But we succeeded in turning sadak, bijli, paanee as an electoral issue as well.

Soon we were covering stories during elections how an entire village is boycotting elections `Sadak nahin, to vote nahin’ (No Roads, No Votes).

So when the river Kosi breached an embankment in Nepal and flooded densely populated districts of north Bihar and the chief minister Nitish Kumar proclaimed, “It’s a pralaya.” (A catastrophe), I knew why.

In fact, as a journalist I had gone up right up to the origins of the river Kosi at Barah Kshetra in Nepal. And I can tell you getting there wasn’t easy. We still used a large Beta-camera and heavy tripods then but despite the huffs and puffs from the cameraman and assistants I did complete the 14 kms Himalayan trek.

And to our shock we found the weather warning station totally abandoned. We were hoping to stay at the Bihar Water Resources guest house but when we got there we found a ghost bungalow, with a guard who had retired four years ago!

I could do the story because Indian’s do not need visas to go to Nepal. Surely, attempting to enter Pakistan like this is impossible and visas are still difficult.

But thanks to the Friedrich Naumann Foundation I got an opportunity to attend the Kim Dae-jung Peace Foundation seminar on Young Leaders for Democracy in Asia, in August 2001 at Seoul, South Korea.

I have always wondered what is common about South Asia, except the fact that we are neighbours and share water amongst other things only because of geography?

And at this conference on democracy we wanted to condemn the military dictatorships in Asia, which includes Pakistan and Burma.

But even from liberals from Pakistan I recall there was a strong opposition to the resolution. Of course, from the Indian standpoint it suited it to have a resolution against Pakistan’s General Parvez Musharraf but I was only taking a stand as a liberal.

And I did get support from prominent liberals in Asia and finally we had a consensus on condemning military rules in Pakistan, Burma and other places.

After the heated debates we broke up for lunch and to our surprise suddenly we found South Asian delegates sitting at a single table…Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India…the reason being we did not eat pork and beef.

I joked over lunch, “Now lets solve Kashmir.”

And when we returned home within days on September 11 terrorists hijacked airplanes and crashed them into the New York Twin Towers.

But the warning for terror attacks started much before that. On December 24 1999 an Indian Airlines flight IC 814 was hijacked from Kathmandu and the government of India released three terrorists, including Mohammed Masood Azhar, in exchange of passengers.

From the murder of Wall Stree Journalist Daniel Pearl to the 9/11 Twin Tower attack, they all point to the terror outfits in Pakistan.

Closer now the attack on the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad even as the President Asif Ali Zardari says his government will fight not just against the terrorists but also to protect Pakistan’s sovereignty against US attacks.

As events unfold Pakistan is left with fewer choices.

Rather it has just one choice. It must fight the terrorists in Pakistan.

Time is running out for even politics.

But Pakistan’s leaders and media still do not see it.

The Pakistani media tell only their side of the story, the Indian media their own. Radio still remains under government control in India.

And there is no South Asia TV.

But recently I did see a South Asia TV hoarding in Kolkata. So hopefully, when people start thinking in terms of South Asia then a common South Asia may happen.

I am not religious but I do admire a speech of a seer-revolutionary Sri Aurobindo who on his own birthday and India’s birthday on August 15 in 1947 said that if our countries are to become great then the division between India and Pakistan must go, how it will go I cannot tell, what shape it will take I cannot say, but the division will go.

I feel we have already reached such a stage except India lacks the men with vision like Sri Aurobindo and liberals are absent.

I was listening to a radio documentary `Live, Die Kill’ by senior US journalist Karen Michel, recorded soon after the 9/11 attacks, when radio stations across the US were asked to make programs on American Democracy.

Karen refused to do any such thing. She got one radio station to agree to her idea of a documentary which would not use the word democracy.

She asked people just three questions.

What would you live for? (answers were as diverse from cheese, chocolates, sex, freedom)

What would you die for? (water, hunger)

And what would you kill for? (religion, family….)

These three questions will ultimately shape America and the world.

And I feel her three questions will shape us in South Asia as well.

Even when she asked the three questions across diverse groups she got amazing answers.

At a presentation at Centre for Documentary Studies at Duke University students finally ask her what would be her answers to the three questions. And Karen Michel gives her replies,

What would I live for?
A. `To ask questions.’

What would I die for?

A. `I would die if there were no questions to ask.’

What would I kill for?

`I wouldn’t kill. Not even a mosquito. I would just shoo it away.’

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