Pragmatic | From Potemkin to Pakistan

On Indian journalists being taken on a guided tour in Pakistan

So a bus carrying 50  foreign reporters took a wrong turn in North Korea –

and suddenly, everything changed in the official showcase of North Korean achievement.

A cloud of dust swirled down deeply potholed streets, past concrete apartment buildings crumbling at the edges. Elderly people trudged along the pavement, some with handmade backpacks crafted from canvas bags. Two men in wheelchairs waited at a bus stop. There were shops with no lights, and unsurfaced sidestreets.

“Perhaps this is an incorrect road?” mumbled one of the North Korean minders, well-dressed government officials who restrict reporters to meticulously staged presentations that inevitably centre on praise for the three generations of the Kim family, which has ruled the country since 1948.[Link]

Remember the tale of Potemkin villages in Russia. Catherine II, who ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796,  made her former lover Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin the governor-general of “New Russia” (southern Ukraine and the Crimea). Potemkin resolved to make Crimea the showpiece of Catherine’s empire. When Catherine made a grand tour of the Ukraine and the Crimea in 1787, Potemkin spruced things up in time for her arrival. He ordered the construction of entire pasteboard villages on the banks of the Dnieper (much of the royal progress was conducted via riverboat); imported peasants, flocks, and herds from a thousand other villages to make a show of prosperity, thereby triggering famine in the depopulated hinterlands; and, once the procession had passed, dismantled the entire meretricious apparatus and reconstructed it several miles downstream in order to deceive the imperial court anew.

If you think Potemkin villages are history or happen only  in Communist countries, think again. It will soon be repeated in Pakistan. As part of the Confidence Building Measures between India and Pakistan, Pakistan is sponsoring an Indian media delegation to that country. This media delegation “in a rare development will be taken to Chakoti (Azad Kashmir) and also to Swat for a visit.”

This is not a ‘rare development’. In June last year, Pakistan army had sponsored an Indian media delegation which was again taken to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and even briefed inside the ISI headquarters. This delegation was also taken to Swat, all on Pakistan army helicopters. After these guided tours, most of these journalists come with a rose-tinted view of the places they are taken too. So Pakistan-occupied Kashmir suddenly becomes Pakistani-Kashmir in their reportage and they find Pakistan to be just a mirror-image of India.

No one can deny that India and Pakistan are similar in many ways. But these similarities are merely superficial since the two countries chose separate paths in 1947. In fact, the two countries continue to move on divergent paths in polity, economy, society, education and culture, while their similarities in food, dressing and lifestyle reduce with each passing day. Highlighting similarities between the two wins these journalist many brownie points with their hosts but it does a great disservice to the bold Indian democratic experiment of the last 64 years. For many decades after 1947, India was seen as a democratic, secular laggard while a military-ruled Islamic Pakistan moved ahead on a path of high growth. Only in the last two decades has India really pulled ahead, and pulled ahead so well that any comparison with Pakistan is to contrast the two countries’ different trajectories.This Indian success must not be belittled.

In any case, you can still be polite and respectful about Pakistan without comparing it to India. Or as I said in a related context: Nationalism should not be an epithet for Indian commentators.

The current delegation will be no different. It will enjoy the hospitality of Pakistan army and sing its praises for the amazing ‘deradicalisation’ work it has done in Swat (read Marvi Sirmed on the reality behind deradicalisation in Swat). Of course, they won’t be taken to Gilgit-Baltistan or to Balochistan or to the tribal areas where Pakistan army is overseeing the massacre of Shias. Nor will they be taken to the sprawling complexes of the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Southern Punjab where assembly-line production of anti-India jehadis is in full flow. Yes, this is a propaganda campaign by Pakistan army — one it is fully entitled to undertake.

Should the Indian journalists then not accept such invitations to Pakistan? No, that would be pointless. Instead, the onus is upon the Indian journalists to be careful in their reportage — to differentiate between Potemkin villages and real villages. A disclosure in their reportage that it is from a ‘guided tour’ conducted by Pakistan army will allow the reader to draw the right conclusions. Such disclosures are common-place in many business journalists’ reports when their visits are sponsored by a commercial entity. These disclosures would at least partially negate the propaganda of Pakistan army.

But the danger is not only in the immediate. Many of these journalists, who go on sponsored trips, end up joining the merry-go-round of India-Pakistan Track-2 sojourns in exotic locales. They also write columns and op-eds in newspapers and magazines, parroting out Pakistan army’s line, even if it is couched in politically correct language of diplomacy and national interest. No one is suggesting that they are complicit in an anti-India conspiracy but it does raise suspicions. No one seems to have learnt nothing from l’affaire Fai. Many Indian scholars, journalists, activists and prominent public figures were identified by the ISI. They were then offered hospitality and air-tickets by the now-convicted ISI agent, Ghulam Nabi Fai to attend anti-India conferences on Kashmir in the US.

Better discretion exercised in accepting invitations from Fai, with full disclosures, would have saved many a people a lot of embarrassment. Using the same principle — of better discretion and full disclosure — while on a sponsored trip to Pakistan can prevent a similar embarrassment for many others in the future.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.