In the midst of accusations and counter-charges on Kashmir and Baluchistan, as well as the general skepticism that the language papers on both sides of the border displayed regards the peace talks, there was another major event: the opening of a rail link between Munabao and Khokrapar, across the Thar Desert. Significantly this was covered with greater frequency and depth in Pakistan than in India. The Daily Ibrat had 52 pieces related to the event and issues arising from it, Nawai-e-Waqt carried 21 articles, Amar Ujala 6 and Dainik Jagran 4, in the period under survey. Being a Sindhi daily Ibrat covered the opening of borders with greater interest and intensity, reflecting regional hopes and fears. It was generally more positive about the move than Nawai-e-Waqt. As a result of this concentration Ibrat was also less obsessed with Kashmir compared to Nawai.
Daily Ibrat coverage:
Articles of hope:
The new rail link was seen as an economic opportunity. 'The Chief Minister of Sindh [Arbab Ghulam Rahim] said that hundreds of youth of Thar would get jobs with the opening up of Khokrapar border, which would help remove unemployment from Thar' (January 31).
A similar hope was expressed in an article, 'Sound of Silence: Stubborn deer is still thinking!' by Sheharbanu: 'Sindhi people have been facing a lot of discrimination and exploitation since the past so many years. Now this oppression should end. ['] We have observed from the start that people from all the border areas of Sindh were suffering due to lack of facilities. ['] Now people of these areas should see prosperity, they should also be provided electricity, drinking water, roads and other basic amenities, so that when people of this area visit the other side, they should not feel deprived and develop an inferiority complex.'
While describing a sense of regional discrimination, the article also wished that the region would catch up with 'the other side'. There is a feeling of being left behind not only within Pakistan but with respect to India. Significantly Balochi leaders also expressed a similar sense of being exploited by the Pakistani state. This resentment is also visible in some regions in India, for diverse reasons.
Citing the idea that 'politics is the art of possibilities', Sheharbanu concludes by hoping to hold India to a promise of fuelling prosperity: 'Indian government has always been expressing its opinion that people of both the countries deserve prosperity. If it is truthful to this statement then it should also prove it.' This is a burden of hope and sincerity that may sit uneasily with India since it has its own problems of poverty and inequity to deal with. What is touching, however, is the faith reposed in Indian goodwill and that it is seen as a benevolent entity rather than as a bully.
Another piece, 'Khokro---Teasing People' by Jai Parkash Morani argued at length and in florid, rhetorical prose for the opening of the border in Sindh. It dwelt on the idea of Sindhi identity and rootedness and the ways in which 'outsiders' had entered the region: 'Where have these people come from? Who are they? Except for Karachi, the population of Sindh has increased because of illegal settlement of those powerful people who have no restriction on getting government lands allotted and live anywhere and the other are Afghans, who are digging roots of Sindh. The important thing of these settlers is that they not only do businesses, earn money, loot Sindh and Sindhis, but after earning money they send that entire amount to Waziristan, sometimes to Azad Mahmand or sometimes to Kabul, Kandahar or Ghazni or sometimes even further' (February 6, 2006).
Morani highlights the ways in which Sindhis have been ousted and looted by people from not only other parts of Pakistan but from Afghanistan as well. There is a clear sense of economic exploitation and subsequent deprivation of local people and a simultaneous creation of an indigenous Sindhi identity which is being violated by the 'outsiders'. One way of countering this fear of being swamped by 'others' is to open borders with India, so that Sindhi brethren from across the divide may express solidarity: 'We are supporters of Khokhro opening, so we say this on trumpet that there is no harm to Sindh with this decision. We have the same blood in this side and the other side.'
Morani is not too worried about illegal settlers from 'the other side': 'Everyone knows that how much difference is there in Rs. 80, 000 and Rs. 190, how much hardship is in a journey of half an hour and five days, or what is the strategy behind migration from a well off country to a country, which is backward and full of law and order problems. All this is known by the opponents.' He believes that the rail link will reunite families and lessen the hardships of the pre-Thar Express journey which took five days and cost Rs. 80, 000. The comparison highlights the absurdity of closed borders. At the same time Morani repeats the point of economic disparity between the two Sindhs and implicitly hopes that they will be lessened through interaction.
The former Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh's visit to the region was intimately linked to local politics and projected as a symbol of hope. Headlines on February 8 stated: '86 member delegation led by Jaswant Singh returns to India via Khokhrapar border, hundreds of people see them off with tears' and 'Pak-India friendship to last long, nothing exists but love in the Subcontinent.'
Jaswant Singh asserted that Indo-Pak relations could be cemented partly as a result of the opening of the rail link and more could be done: 'He suggested starting of a bus services from Umerkot, Mirpurkhas to Ajmer Sharif. He said Khokhrapar-Munabao route has been opened as a result of joint efforts by both the countries and this route will remain opened permanently. He said Pak-India friendship will last forever.' That the last statement was hyperbolic is proven by the general level of suspicion displayed in media and politics on both sides, as well as in other pieces dealing with the Sindh border issue.
Skeptical and critical articles:
Imdad Soomro in 'We, the forgetful of Khokrapar way,' dealt with some of the complexities surrounding the border issue rather than wax eloquent about everlasting peace. Unlike earlier articles, Soomro did not perceive the benefits percolating down to all sections of Sindhis: 'It is a matter of fact that the train will break the silence of the desert with its whistles, but the local people say they will not reap the fruits which they deserved. ['] The real people of Thar have been kept away from the festivities and dialogues on this historic occasion' (February 2).
The sense of disaffection is similar to the one expressed by Morani when he wrote of 'outsiders' looting the Sindhi community. There is further in Soomro's rhetorical question a concentration on how gestures of peace can so easily by hijacked by political elites: 'Jaswant Singh was also accompanied by one Sher Mohammad Nahri, a close relative of Sindh Chief Minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim, who also belongs to Thar, but how many people of Nahri community were seen welcoming him?'
That Jaswant Singh's visit was closely tied to local politics was evident. Soomro also referred to the old Pakistan bogey of 'Akhand Bharat' from the Sindhi point of view. 'Jaswant Singh also held a meeting with Pir Pagaro, in which the latter referred to unification like Europe. Almost the same statement was also issued by the Indian President Abdul Kalam in Singapore on the same day. ['] On that occasion, Pir Pagaro also hit hard at the nationalist elements, who are opposing the opening up of Khokrapar border. ['] When Pir Pagaro, in his meeting with Jaswant Singh at Kingri House was talking about the possibility of a union between India and Pakistan like the EU, at the same time Mumtaz Bhutto was expressing her apprehensions of the conversion of Sindhis into Red Indians [sic] because of the opening of Khokrapar border.'
Unlike other Pakistani leaders Pir Pagaro was not averse to a future state of union between India and Pakistan, but Sindhi solidarity across borders and Sindhi nationalism are not monolithic entities. This was evident not only in the above analysis but in some of the headlines that featured in Ibrat. 'With the opening of Khokrapar border, Hindus will migrate to India and more Mohajirs will come' (January 21), 'Sindhi nationalists led by Mumtaz Bhutto meet Jaswant Singh, reservations on Khokrapar border presented' (February 4), 'Those talking of India-Pakistan unity are traitors: Mujeeb Pirzado' (February 5). There was a fear repeatedly articulated that Sindhis would be swamped by their brethren and, worse, Mohajirs from across the border.
Soomro also dwelt on the ways in which the Sindhi elites, because of their internal dissensions, had let an opportunity for greater freedom and autonomy slip by: 'Earlier when the Pakistan army was deployed at the border with guns, ['] the Sindhi intelligentsia was under heavy pressure on charges of being friendly with India. And now when Pakistan government, its establishment and the blue eyed boy of Punjab are eager to develop new relations with India, our people are standing outside from this entire process.' Soomro implies that Sindhi solidarity has been fractured and the peace dividend hijacked by the ruling powers in Punjab. Soomro's analysis is important because it foregrounds the crucial ways in which local issues impact upon and often conflict with international relations. He is in favour of open borders but he laments Sindhi shortcomings. In his piece there is an interesting interplay between hopeful master narratives - that of Pira Pagaro and Singh - and local narrations of disaffection.
The latter was reflected in a piece carried by Ibrat on January 25. 'Chairman, Sindh Taraqi Passand Party, Dr Qadir Magsi has said that the decision to open Khokrapar-Munabao border is a conspiracy to convert the Sindhi nation into a minority and take away the power from the Sindhis. ['] With the opening of this route, Sindh would suffer a two-way loss - one, a large number of outsiders would settle down here and two, majority of Hindus living in Mirpurkhas region would migrate to India.' These are well-worn and oft expressed issues but their repetition points precisely to fears of being swamped by 'outsiders' and of losing that ineffable thing called Sindhi identity. Interestingly the fact that Hindus may migrate back to India is seen as a loss, undercutting Sindhi solidarity and reinforcing the strangle hold of 'outsiders'.
Nawai-e-Waqt on Munabao-Khokrapar:
While Nawai-e-Waqt carried less than half the number of pieces on the issue of rail links across the Thar, it was more balanced and less involved in the issue. A comment piece by Altaf Mujahid, 'Political parties in favour of or against the opening of Khokrapar border' was very balanced in its outlining of the pros and cons of the issue. 'Millions of devotees of Pir Pagaro are there in Rajasthan and similarly, Mehr, Rajar, Nahri, Rahmo, Rana, Kolhi, Bheel, Meghwar and other minorities have relations who live across the border. Economically it will be a viable option for the Urdu speaking or the Mohajir population living in Karachi, Hyderabad, Mirpurkhas and other cities to travel to India from this route other wise the travel from Karachi for the Indian visa is a very expensive option. Similarly for the people of Thar, Umarkot, Sanghar, Badin and Mirpurkhas district, the majority of whom could not go to India after the 1965 war, it will be very good. Due to these reasons, the Sindh Qaumi Mahaz has supported the opening of the border and their leadership has said that we have been very vocal about our stand' (February 5).
It then summarized the opposition to the opening: 'Politicians opposing the opening of the border, Dr. Qadir Magsi, Mumtaz Bhutto, Ibrahim Joyo and Abdul Khaliq say that there will be influx of people from across the border which will increase the economic burden on Sindh and the Sindhis will in fact become a minority in their own province.'
The article ended by questioning the motivations of the nay sayers: 'What are some people trying to prove by opposing the opening of the border? There is another point of view that says that these political parties are afraid of the increasing popularity of Pir Pagaro and the MQM and hence trying to oppose such ideas so that they remain politically active - this question requires an answer!' In representing the views of both sides - Pir Pagaro versus the Sindhi nationalists - and then casting doubts on the latter, Mujahid did take sides, but he did so with a degree of finesse often absent in articles carried by Nawai when the subject was Kashmir or Indian interference in Balochistan.
Its articles relating to Kashmir and Balochistan had varying degrees of immediacy and even, occasionally, a sense of hysteria. Ibrat was similarly involved in its coverage of the Munabao-Khokrapar links, although with a much lesser degree of anti-Indian feeling. The contrast between the two papers reveals the ways in which language - Urdu and Sindhi - relates to representations of regional and national interests, as well as international affairs. Thus Ibrat concentrated less on Kashmir and was less volatile in its representation of national interests in that region, as compared to Nawai. In fact the definition of 'national interest' shifts focus when one moves from an Urdu language paper to a Sindhi one, a difference not easily discernible in the coverage offered by the two Hindi papers being surveyed. Yet even among these differences underlying anxieties about Indian intentions and the future of peace remained whether they related to Kashmir or to Sindh.
A one month (January 15-February 15, 2006) survey of four papers from India and Pakistan in three languages reveals some startling consensus on issues related to Kashmir, Baluchistan, and the peace process between the two nations. Generally there was a mirroring of suspicion and stereotypes of the 'other' in most reportage. The exceptions to this straitjacketing of the 'other' as the perennial enemy were few and only seemed to bolster the rule. Of course, there were variations in focus as in Ibrat's extensive coverage of the Munabao-Khokrapar issue, and indeed, Ibrat was the least jingoistic of the four papers.
Language papers - particularly the two Hindi ones in India - have larger circulations than English language papers. Given their statistical reach they can notionally influence larger sections of the people about issues such as Kashmir, terrorism, Islam, or the peace process. By and large that influence would seem to negate hopes of mutual regard and peace between the two nations, as the old fears and anxieties continue to circulate. In fact, for Nawai-e-Waqt Baluchistan provided additional ammunition to nail India. If regional media provides some reflection of national consensus and if it is to be a force multiplier for goodwill, some major paradigm shifts are necessary. Till such time perhaps the only spaces for moderation and dialogue lie in some of the articles on cricket or Bollywood stars.