Month: March 2019

India and Bangladesh need to create a 20 year joint vision of growth and development

Samir Saran

Samir Saran, President of ORF, spoke to New Age’s Shahidul Islam Chowdhury about the various matters affecting India-Bangladesh relations, including the Rohingya crisis, the ongoing fourth industrial revolution and the Teesta Water Treaty.

Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, Teesta Water Treaty, Rohingya crisis, India, India-Bangladesh, Narendra Modi, PM Modi

New Age: How do you assess the need for the presence of strong and meaningful political, social and other institutions in ensuring benefits of the fourth industrial revolution?

Samir Saran: We require strong institutions and forward-looking policies in which the government’s role is light and one of enablement. Innovation succeeds when we allow individuals to create solutions, devise business models and unleash value. The government’s job is to move away from being omnipresent and to nurture an ecosystem that catalyses opportunities in this new industrial age. These are largely going to be centred around how people are able to create solutions to today’s problems with a clever deployment of new technology, evolving financing arrangements and efficient delivery mechanisms.
The government would essentially play an enabling role rather than a supervisory role — of a catalyst, instead of regulators. We are in a transition when better governance would have to be the mantra for the fourth industrial revolution.

NA: Do you think that effective human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are essential in creating an environment where people can adapt themselves to ever-changing technological and economic advances?

SS: Human rights, the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press should be protected irrespective of industrial or technological transformations. These essential human needs must be respected universally. I am, however, not convinced that these are base conditions for success in the fourth industrial revolution. The Chinese model tells us that you can be a controlled state; you can have disregard for certain kinds of rights, you may not support certain kinds of freedom and yet you produce robust economic models that are based on technology. That being said, the value of rights and freedom must be enshrined and cherished by all.

NA: You have mentioned the necessity of bringing in transformation in governance in preparation for the fourth industrial revolution. Is it possible to bring in effective transformation in governance without ensuring representative democracy in a country? Why?

SS: Democracy is a political choice. It is a political arrangement that people have chosen as a collective. It is not the only model. China is not a representative democracy. It is managed through a one-party system which is non-transparent and certainly non-representative and yet it has done remarkably well on the governance front. It has effectively provided its people with security, health benefits, pension, insurance and amenities such as water, electricity, roads etc. I don’t think governments are going to succeed just by being democratic. On the other hand, it does not mean that if you are not a democracy, you cannot deliver good governance. You have to view governance and democracy as two discrete yet interrelated facets of political arrangements. Although they implicate each other, they are not mutually dependent.

NA: When most of the experts give emphasis on changes in the thought process of bachelor’s students and re-skilling of professionals for multitasking, to what extent are primary and secondary education levels of education important in relation to technological changes to cater to the needs?

SS: The debate is not about the importance of foundational schooling, which is important for human minds. The question is what should be taught during this time? How should we create an educational ecosystem that is harnessing and developing abilities to allow the youth to succeed in a new technological age? These are important questions. Should we follow the old format, which privileges human capacity to assimilate and remember vast knowledge? Or should we privilege the creativity of the individual to deploy that knowledge for practical purposes. We live in a world where the internet offers each individual the ability to tap into vast pools of information. It is our capacity to use that knowledge in a manner that is unique and different that matters. I believe that in 10 years, we need to seriously rework and rethink all formats of education. Primary and secondary education will also have to respond to the demands of this age.

NA: How are cultural changes linked to the fourth industrial revolution?

SS: There are many changes. I will mention three of them. The first is the dislocation of human identity from workplaces. Earlier, people who worked on farms had specific identities. If you worked on a factory floor, you were a blue-collar worker. In a corporate office, you were a white-collar worker. Now everyone is working on a mobile. All of us are delivering goods and services using our personal devices. Now that the mobile is the office, how do we identify ourselves in a professional class system that is defined by the first industrial revolution? We need to rethink our social order. The factory and the farm are no longer very relevant in our social order. Individuals have to relocate their social identity.

The second is that technology and globalisation have enabled the aggregation and mobilisation of communities who may never have interacted otherwise. For example, there were protests in Europe against nuclear power. These are communities with large per capita income that were holding protests from ideological and ethical positions. Thousands of miles away, in a small village in Tamil Nadu, fisher folk also held protests against nuclear power. These communities belong to a very different economic stratum. Their realities were very different. In Europe, people get electricity for almost 24 hours a day, but in villages, access to electricity is erratic and uncertain. And yet the idea of protests against nuclear power appealed to both the communities. Was it the power of communications that allowed ideas to travel quickly to a different location and find appeal amongst different stakeholders? Or was it a coincidence?

The third is the emergence of a new collective identity. Consider, for example, the women’s march that happened after the election of Donald Trump. During the march, criticism of Donald Trump became the rallying point for women, religious minorities, LGBT activists and others that are marginalised from the mainstream. We begin to see a new collective emerging, courtesy the power of social media and the power of communications. In the gathering against Donald Trump, their identity was not defined by religion or gender. All of them were anti-Donald Trump. That was a single identity.
The relationship between identity formation and technologies is an evolving science. I do not think that we have sufficiently studied the implications of technology on society, on our communities and on how we engage. It is fast moving and it is very dynamic. We need to pay attention to this.

NA: Bangladesh and Indian authorities claim that the two countries have been enjoying all-weather friendship since 2009. What imbalances do you see in Bangladesh-India relations?

SS: I cannot speak for the [Indian] government. I speak as an academic. I clearly see three challenges. But these are also opportunities. The first is to completely re-conceptualise our border arrangement. There is no reason that India needs to have an eastern border that adheres to the same rigid and securitised conception of a boundary that we have on our western border. India’s eastern border is an opportunity for both of us to create arrangements that allow free movement of people, goods, ideas and culture. We have a very strong government-to-government relationship. We must now create more layers and more levels of engagement. A more porous border will help this.

The second is that both the governments are increasingly focused on internal challenges of growth and development. They serve their societies. However, If we are so self-obsessed, so inward-looking, do we have enough time, resources and capital to create a bilateral and regional architecture that is urgently needed? We must plan for the long term and create a 10- or 20-year joint vision. This must include areas of mutual importance: human development, trade and economic partnership, the maritime commons and the blue economy and the digital economy. This common long-term vision for the region and for our own individual growth and aspirations has not yet been conceptualised. We still see a rather one-sided conversation on the future of growth and development. We have to make it far more balanced. I think that India has a lot to learn from some of Bangladesh’s’ experiments in improving opportunities for women and using grass-roots communities to catalyse changes. Development processes have to be bidirectional. We have to share common experiences and create new knowledge pipelines that flow in both directions.

The third is that we must engage our youths. A half of our populations are under the age of 25. To ensure that our historic relationship is strengthened, our youths must be engaged with each other. Otherwise, they will forget our historic ties. The next two generations will not see or remember the relationship as we see it today. We will have to reinvent and rebrand our old relationship in ways that younger generations respond to. They must believe that it is worth sustaining, growing and serving. Our people-to-people ties are limited to an old-elite that are either angry with each other or romanticise. We have to unleash the power of youth to create a new constituency that believes, serves and strengthens the bilateral relationship.

NA: A good number of Bangladeshis believe that Bangladesh is the only friendly country to India in South Asia, addressing a plenty of strategic and security problems as well as extending transit and transshipment facilities connecting the north-eastern India to the mainland. Do you think India should reciprocate it? How?

SS: India should ensure that its single-most important foreign policy priority in the coming years is Bangladesh. I agree with the view that Bangladesh has truly been our friends and that India has sometimes not been as engaged as it should be. I do not think that it is the government’s fault alone. India is a country which is composed of multiple actors. We have to ensure that the corporate sector, civil society, academia and the media are more engaged with Bangladesh than they are today. From my interactions in Dhaka, it is clear that there are not enough opportunities to have conversations among the academic and strategic communities across the border. If there was a monthly conversation happening in Bangladesh with Indian visitors, we would understand each other better. Indian views cannot be represented only by its high commission and diplomats. Civil society, academia, cultural artistes and businesses need to do more and should be in this city more often. I think that we have been too obsessed with China, the United States, the European Union and Russia. We have sometimes neglected our most important friends and partners and Bangladesh is certainly on top of that list.

NA: Border killing has not stopped despite repeated assurance from the highest political level of India, and, none other than, the prime ministers, including the incumbent Narendra Modi. How do you see this?

SS: I am not in a position to comment on the security situation along the border. Having said that, we have to rethink our borders completely. I think that it is self-defeating to militarise and securitise borders with a friendly country. Borders should be a place to create economic values, not to create political tension. Friendly countries do not have rigid borders. Our security concerns along the western border are unfortunately projecting on our borders with Bangladesh. We must remove the barbed-wire fences and walls and create economic opportunities along the border. This requires political will from both the governments. But as the larger country, India must make more efforts to make it happen.

NA: Do you find anything wrong in India’s Bangladesh policy?

SS: First, India has to devote far more attention, resources and political capital into ensuring that Bangladesh is completely aware of India’s thinking on matters that implicate it. Bangladesh should never be surprised by our actions. Second, as India grows, our economic engagements must be favourable to Bangladesh. The United States has allowed India a favourable balance of trade. Our balance of trade should be in Bangladesh’s favour. As a bigger economy, we must ensure that our neighbours benefit from our growth and that we do not trap them in perverse economic dependencies. Third, India must see Bangladesh not just as a neighbour but as a partner in the Indo-Pacific. Bangladesh is a country of about 170 million people. How many countries have such a large population? Very few. Bangladesh is already nearly a $300-billion economy and will likely rank among the top 20 economies in the coming decade. Bangladesh has to be re-imagined as an important geopolitical actor that is going to be crucial for stability in the Indo-Pacific. The Quad, which includes the United States, Japan, Australia and India, is good for macro-stability. But the lasting and resilient arrangements will come out of partnership between India and Bangladesh and from engagements with Sri Lanka and through organisations such as SAARC and BIMSTEC.

NA: What actions should India take to settle disputes on shares of trans-boundary rivers, including the Teesta, at the earliest to uphold commitments made with Bangladesh at the highest political level?

SS: The next government in India must keep this on top of their agenda. They must create a favourable climate for conversations between the centre and state governments to ensure that this barrier is overcome. It must be the top priority of the new government.

NA: People in most of the neighbouring countries are unhappy about the hegemony of India, which is expected to emerge as a global power from at least strategic perspectives. Do you think that it is possible for India to achieve this fully, keeping its neighbours dissatisfied?

SS: I do not think that India is now articulating its vision in this manner. For the next 15 to 20 years, India’s priority will be to lift millions of its people out of poverty and then provide them with affordable health care and skills for new opportunities and invest in their future. If we do this correctly for the next 10 to 15 years, our goals will be achieved. The asymmetry of size always creates certain degrees of insecurity. Our problem is that many of the actions are in response to China’s rise. But our actions sometimes adversely affect smaller countries around us. We are in a unique situation where two large countries, each with billion-plus population and with 4,000 kilometres of disputed borders, are rising simultaneously. This is creating a complex political situation. Yes, sometimes our neighbours confront this complexity. We must be sensitive to it. India must go the extra mile to ensure the salience of our neighbours in our foreign policy.

NA:Do you think that the Indian government should mount pressure on Myanmar to take the Rohingyas back to their home in Rakhine State in a sustainable manner?

SS: India is very much aware of this crisis. Over a half a million people were made refugees in an already vulnerable and volatile region. It is in India’s interest that India should ensure that Myanmar and Bangladesh arrive at a fair and reasonable conclusion. I believe that India cannot play a big brother. We have to allow organic resolutions. Our governments must work together to ensure an equitable resolution to the crisis. The host country must push Myanmar to create that condition. And India must facilitate the return of the Rohingyas to Myanmar.

NA: Do you think that the perpetrators engaged in crimes against humanity against the Rohingya people in Rakhine should be brought to justice at the earliest?

SS: We should have zero tolerance towards this as people who believe in peace and pluralism. I think the global multilateral system and institutions that were responsible for preventing this from happening have failed to ensure the security of the Rohingya people. We must provide them with justice and relief.

NA: Anything you want to add?

SS: Bangladesh and India must respond to our legacy issues without losing sight of future opportunities. An India-Bangladesh relationship has a dual imperative. We must build on our past to ensure that we work towards the future together.


This interview originally appeared in New Age.

Communicating Kashmir: Where perception is reality

Samir Saran|Rohit Chopra

The Indian state’s repeated blunders in Jammu and Kashmir have often been chalked down to ineffective political governance and security policy choices. While this is true, it is also time to acknowledge the colossal Indian failure in articulating a coherent, viable narrative about Kashmir and disseminating it effectively. States seldom secure legitimacy if they are unable to shape opinions, perceptions and more importantly the diverse “assessments of existence” of those that they seek to serve and manage. This is not to endorse an “Orwellian order” in which power is maintained precariously through the threat of punitive action. Rather, it is to acknowledge that political legitimacy resides firmly within the rubric of a public sphere favorably disposed to the political regime. In other words, state legitimacy depends on an effective identification with the state, one that is reinforced by persuasive rhetoric through the channels of communication that traverse across political and public life.

The Indian government, however, has displayed remarkable and consistent ineptitude in communicating on Kashmir, with Kashmir and for Kashmir.

It has expended copious amount of resources talking to Kashmir, talking up some elements of Kashmir and talking down others, without any rational assessment of what must inform its priorities and emphases for the state. At its core, India’s communication on this vital subject feeds just one unintended imagery: the portrayal of a significant and growing distance between Srinagar and New Delhi.

Unsurprisingly, the Indian state is constantly at a disadvantage when it comes to narratives on Kashmir. Most international media outlets, for example, continue to juxtapose “Pakistan Administered Kashmir” with “Indian Administered Kashmir,” as if to suggest that there is some real historical equivalence between the two. Pakistan’s long history of employing state-sponsored militias first, and terrorists thereafter, has yet again been normalized as fact by much of the Western media. These same organizations have otherwise obsessed over the “war on terror” when Islamist groups, remarkably similar to those responsible for violence in Kashmir, have wrought their violence on Western targets from London to Paris. For instance, an article in the venerable New York Times, described the recent terrorist attack in Kashmir as a “bombing.” Similarly, internationally recognized terrorist groups have often been referred to as “militants”and their homegrown counterparts as “militias”.

Just to put this pattern of usage in context, the term “militia’ finds mention and a role in the constitution of the United States of America. While its usage in the South Asian context by certain media organizations and persons is a mischievous attempt to frame terrorists as the ‘resistance,’ it also clearly signals a failure of the Indian state in the realm of strategic communications.

Calling out the hypocrisy and bias of the Western media must not be the sum total of India’s response.

The knee-jerk outrage of the Indian state and citizens merely exposes and accentuates the core frailty of our ability to shape meaningful and abiding narratives in the marketplace of ideas. Therefore, it is time to ask how India can strategically reshape and influence the new ‘information sphere’ that is represented by a potent mix of legacy and new media.

There are a few crucial factors that will need be addressed as central to such an effort if it is seriously contemplated by mandarins on Raisina Hill.

Growing information flows in cyberspace negate size and resource asymmetry. Simplistic messages about India being a new “colonial power” go viral on social media—while the reality of a developing and pluralistic democratic state combating religiously motivated foreign terrorists and their local proxies is often lost at a time when even competent news organizations are increasingly Fox-like (and Fox-lite) in their headlines and reportage. Western audiences, who have appointed themselves as the arbiters of Asia’s post-colonial troubles, are more easily swayed by the former than the latter. And their near-theological affection towards an errant Pakistan only exacerbates India’s challenge. Bush Jr.’s approach to galvanize the media sphere by deploying a simple and emotive bumper sticker tag line like the “War on Terror” may not work in the Indian case. His was a distant war in a remote land that many, if not most, Americans were ignorant of; this is a conflict in which one’s own people, in many senses of the word, are implicated.

There is therefore an urgent need to create both sophisticated messaging and means of delivery. The inability of key Indian interlocutors to communicate the low threshold of provocation and unyielding aggression by Pakistan will have adverse implications on Kashmir and its location within larger debates about Indian politics, society, and culture.

The great epics and religious texts of the world, whether the Iliad, Mahabharata, or Bible, tell us that narratives shape external perceptions. And as the age of digital and virtual technologies reminds us so powerfully, they shape our imagined realities as well.

From the thinker Baudrillard we know that in our hyper-mediated age, the real and the virtual are not so much binary opposites as parts of the same continuum of perception. For instance, we must consider the fact that all strategic communication vis-a-vis Pakistan (as framed currently) affects the Kashmir debate. If we need to dislodge, dis-embed and decontextualize Kashmir from the India-Pakistan conflict (a stated Indian objective), our communications game needs to be radically overhauled. India must calibrate its doctrines, bureaucracies and human capital to operationalize an approach that survives the democratic cycles of the central and state government. The Indian state must be able to synchronize official messaging in a way that reaches both a general audience and selected ones. As it does so, it must be prepared to declutter three interrelated but overarching narrative strands.

For one thing, those advocating for Kashmiri independence often conflate the protection of Kashmiri identity with the notion of Kashmiri sovereignty. It is a failure of imagination that has allowed this thinking to flourish.

India has always been a syncretic society. Multiple ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural identities have flourished over time. The nature of political regimes in the Indian sub-continent could never alter the extent and texture of pluralism and this is unlikely to change now. Three states in the Indian northeast consist of Christian majority populations. There is no reason that citizens in a Muslim-majority state cannot exercise full political and religious freedoms under India’s constitutional setup. This is consistent with precedent in terms of the longuedurée of Indian history and with the spirit of pluralism that marks the reality and ethos of the Indian constitution. As a corollary, can a new narrative help create and revitalize this strong ‘Kashmiri Identity’ to negate the insurgency?

Second, the Kashmiri movement is not a call for “Azadi” in the way the Indian freedom movement envisioned the term. The Indian government would do well to employ counter-narratives to dispel this notion. India’s demands for self-determination were driven by the desire to secure full constitutional rights for every individual. There is little evidence that this is the reality in Kashmir. Every passing year, the demands are clearly driven by extremist fundamentalist impulses that are at complete odds with the notion of democratic freedoms. This is antithetical both to the spirit of India’s freedom movement and its democratic values today. Theological fundamentalism must not be allowed to displace or compete with the secular freedoms guaranteed by the Indian constitution, even if these are less than perfect in delivery.

Instead, all strategic communications must focus on the sustained determination of the Indian state to enhance ‘delivery of democracy”, implicitly recognizing past failure as a necessary precondition for reintegration of the people.

Finally, the Indian state must not allow terrorists to turn into martyrs and freedom fighters. There is little legitimacy to the claim that it is Indian violence that compels young Kashmiris to take up the gun. There is a reason global terrorist groups invest so heavily in multimedia teams and in using the internet as a tool for recruitment. As the examples of mass shooters in the US, terrorist recruits for Al Qaeda, and Western-raised Muslims seduced by the fantasies peddled by ISIS show, engaging stories and compelling narratives are incredibly effective at radicalizing susceptible individuals. This is not to suggest that the Indian state should ignore the real grievances of the Kashmiri people. Rather it is to point out that there is enormous value in communicating the truth about India’s investments in the economic prosperity and governance of Kashmir with a laser focus. This is true of the military as well, which is often the first responder in times of humanitarian or environmental emergencies. It is time to personalize and humanize the Indian state and its apparatus for the people of this geography, however flawed it may be at this time. This is a precondition for engagement.

A mature public diplomacy doctrine must form part of a comprehensive new framework for the state that includes deeper and wider political dialogue and visible economic investments.

India must learn to tell a story that is on point in its message and polysemic in reach. It must resonate with different constituencies across the political spectrum and be easily accessible for domestic and international audiences. The easiest part of all of this is that India has had an incredible story to tell since independence. Despite many hiccups along the way, India continues to deliver greater political and economic freedoms and personal security to its citizens than, arguably, most post-colonial states. And this objective, after all, is the principal motivation for organizing complex societies through democratic values.

Applying this story to Kashmir is complicated by both domestic and external factors. Nevertheless, it holds strong potential for appeal if it is capable of being communicated effectively. During the Cold War, the US established a special Information Agency whose only goal was to better explain American policies and the values that underpinned them. If India is serious about finding solutions in Kashmir, it must invest in institutions and actors that can streamline messaging about what those solutions are exactly.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

मीडिया पर परोसा जा रहा युद्ध — और मैं

Samir Saran

बालाकोट के सामरिक निहितार्थों की जांच करने वाले समस्त आयोगों और रिपोर्टों के बीच, यह महत्वपूर्ण है कि कथानकों और सूचना के प्रवाह के प्रश्न पर पर्याप्त ध्यान दिया जाए।

बालाकोट, वर्ल्ड, सोशल मीडिया, चोमस्की, हरमन, समाचार, सोशल मीडिया, युद्ध, सूचना युग, समीर सरन
स्रोत: Colin Anderson Productions/Getty

हालाँकि बालाकोट हवाई हमले का गुबार थम चुका है, लेकिन पाकिस्तान और भारत में जन भावनाओं का ज्वार थमने का नाम ही नहीं ले रहा है। जनमत को उकसाने के पीछे काफी हद तक पुराने और नए दोनों तरह के मीडिया की भूमिका जिम्मेदार है। यूं तो वियतनाम युद्ध टेलीविजन पर प्रसारित होने वाला पहला युद्ध था, लेकिन उसकी पहुंच सीमित अमेरिकी टीवी सेटों तक ही थी, भारत में आज हम जो देख रहे हैं, उसकी तुलना बड़ी आसानी से अभूतपूर्व ग्लोबल टेलिविजन कवरेज वाले 1990-91 के खाड़ी युद्ध की कवरेज से की जा सकती है। उस समय, और अब भी, हांफते हुए लोग मिसाइल हमलों और बटालियनों की गतिविधियों की प्राइम-टाइम रिपोर्टिंग से चिपके हुए हैं।

आज, भले ही समय, कर्ता-धर्ता और प्रौद्योगिकियों का स्वरूप बदल चुका है। 1990-91और उसके बाद दोबारा 2003 में, अमेरिकी मीडिया युद्ध को दुनिया भर के लोगों के घरों की बैठकों तक ले गया था। 2019 में, इंटरनेट पर सक्रिय उपयोगकर्ताओं के ग्लोबल नेटवर्क इसे हर एक स्मार्ट फोन तक ले आए हैं। प्राइम टाइम अब महज नौ बजे के समाचार नहीं हैं। अब जब कभी भी ‘सोशल मीडिया का प्रभावशाली शख्स’ वायरल सूचनाएं प्रसारित करता है, तो प्राइम टाइम होता है। इसके बावजूद मीडिया, राजनीति, सत्ता और युद्ध के बीच संबंध हमेशा की तरह परस्पर-निर्भर रहे हैं। और हमारे सार्वजनिक क्षेत्र में मौजूदा समय में मच रहा शोर-गुल हमें इस बात पर सवाल उठाने का बिल्कुल मुनासिब मौका देता है कि क्या बदल चुका है और क्या नहीं।

मीडिया हमेशा से मिलीभगत करके खुद को सरकार द्वारा शामिल किये जाने की इजाजत देता रहा है। उसने विदेश नीति और युद्ध के बारे में सरकार के कथानकों के लिए बार-बार ​अवसर उपलब्ध कराया है।

नोम चोमस्की और एडवर्ड हरमन ने अपनी अत्यंत प्रभावशाली पुस्तक ‘मैन्युफैक्चरिंग कन्सेंट’ में दलील दी है कि “आधिकारिक सूत्रों” और बीट रिपोटर्स के बीच हमेशा से सहजीवी संबंध रहे हैं। बीट रिपोर्टर्स की पहुंच जहां महत्वपूर्ण लीक्स और ब्रेकिंग न्यूज तक होती है, वहीं आधिकारिक सूत्र बिना कोई अतिरिक्त प्रयास किए एजेंडा सेट कर सकते हैं।

जब दर्शकों की संख्या पर व्यक्तियों का अधिकार हो और प्रभाव इतना व्यापक या अनेक परम्परागत न्यूज प्लेटफॉर्म्स से भी बड़ा होतो वे गवर्नमेंट लीक्स के सहज माध्यम बन जाते हैं। माध्यम भले ही बदल चुके हैंलेकिन प्रेरणा वही है।

दूसरा, सामरिक संचार या स्ट्रे​टेजिक कम्युनिकेशन्स की प्रकृति में महत्वपूर्ण बदलाव आ चुका है। 20वीं सदी में, मीडिया और दूरसंचार के बुनियादी ढांचों पर पूरी तरह अमेरिका का एकाधिकार था। उसका समाज बिना किसी तरह की प्रतिस्पर्धा के वैश्विक स्तर पर भावनाओं को प्रभावित कर सकता था। उन्होंने तय किया था कि दुनिया पहले इराक युद्ध (1990-91) को किस नजर से देखे। आज, किसी भी देश, एजेंसी या व्यक्ति के पास ऐसा एकाधिकार नहीं है। सूचना संचार प्रौद्योगिकियों के प्रसार ने क​थानक का लोकतांत्रिकरण कर दिया है। अब हर एक व्यक्ति मीडिया है। हर एक ​वीडियो, ब्लॉग या फोटो घटनाओं का रुख मोड़ सकता है और मोड़ेगा।

युद्ध के दौर में, वास्तविक घटनाक्रमों के बारे में सरकार के लिए आवश्यक है कि वह फुर्ती से और पहल करते हुए प्रतिक्रिया व्यक्त करे। वह कथानक निर्धारित करे और तो और चौबीसों घंटे के समाचारों में आगे रहे। सभी माध्यमों पर प्रसारित किए जा रहे संदेशों और अर्थों में तालमेल होना चाहिए। बालाकोट के हमलों के बाद, यह स्पष्ट है कि भारत सरकार ने ऐसा ही करने का प्रयास किया, जबकि पाकिस्तान सरकार ने मीडिया पर परोसे जा रहे ‘शासन कला’ के प्रभामंडल के भीतर अपनी दुर्भावनापूर्ण कहानियों फैलाने के लिए यहां उपजे खालीपन का फायदा उठाया।

तीसरा, दक्षिण एशिया ‘शांति चाहने वालों’ की पहचान अब नियमित रूप से सरकार और तथाकथित जनता के नए शत्रु के तौर पर कर रहा है। जिस तरह 20वीं सदी के अधिकांश भाग में साम्यवाद अमेरिकी मीडिया के लिए सीमा रेखा रहा, उसी तरह उपमहाद्वीप में शांति की वकालत करने वाले दक्षिण एशिया क्षेत्र में सीमा रेखा जैसे दिखाई दे रहे हैं। भारत और पाकिस्तान दोनों देशों में, हमने कुछ ‘अलग तरह के’ लोग देखे हैं, जो शांतिपूर्ण विकल्पों और समाधानों की पेशकश कर रहे हैं। चोमस्की और हरमन ने लिखा है कि “साम्यवाद-विरोध” की अवधारणा बड़ी आसानी से मतदाताओं को जुटा सकती है, क्येांकि यह अवधारणा अस्पष्ट है (और) इसका इस्तेमाल किसी के भी खिलाफ किया जा सकता है, जबकि साम्यवाद-विरोधी “कुछ भी कर सकता है और कुछ भी कह सकता है” वह भी बिना निगरानी के।

यही मूलभूत आधार वाक्य आज भारत और पाकिस्तान दोनों जगह फिट बैठ रहा है। और इसको केवल उन्हीं लोगों ने बिगाड़ा हैं, जो नैतिकता और जिम्मेदारी के बारे में सोचकर खुद को परेशान करने की जगह विवश समर्थकों को इकट्ठा करना ज्यादा पसंद करते हैं।

यूं तो शांति का निश्चित तौर पर दूर-दूर तक कोई नामो-निशां नहीं है — लेकिन हमारे मीडिया संस्थान और सोशल मीडिया के योद्धाओं ने शांति की संभावनाओं के बारे में विचार तक करना प्रामाणिक अपराध बना दिया है।

चौथा, सामाजिक मीडिया के दौर में, आवश्यकता के अनुरूप या टेलर्ड मैसेज बेअसर हो चुके हैं। उदाहरण के लिए, हॉलीवुड की सफलता का नाता दर्शकों के बड़े समूहों को साथ जोड़ने के लिए उसके द्वारा अत्याधुनिक कम्युनिकेशन्स का इस्तेमाल करने की योग्यता से भी जुड़ा है। दूसरे शब्दों में कहें, तो हॉलीवुड की कहानियों ने बड़ी तादाद में लोगों को आकर्षित किया है। प्रभावी संदेशों में भी ऐसा ही गुण होना चाहिए वे भी अनेकार्थी होने चाहिए।

अक्सर, राजनीतिज्ञ राजनीतिक ताकत हासिल करने की कोशिश में अपने सीमित निर्वाचक वर्गों को आकर्षित करना चाहते हैं। निश्चित तौर पर, जो भी इस बात पर यकीन करता है कि यह लोकतांत्रिक राजनीतिक का सहज परिणाम नहीं है, वह भोला-भाला है। हालांकि, भारतीय सरकारों और राजनीतिज्ञों (विपक्ष में बैठे राजनीतिज्ञों सहित) को यह सीख लेना चाहिए कि सार्वभौमिक स्तर और अपने मूलभूत क्षेत्र में किस तरह संवाद करें। यदि ये दोनों, खासतौर पर संघर्ष के दौरान, एक दूसरे के विपरीत हैं, तो यह राष्ट्रीय ब्रांड है और हित के सा​थ बहुत ज्यादा समझौता किया गया है। या स्ट्रे​टेजिक कम्युनिकेशन्स उभरता हुआ क्षेत्र है और भारत में अनेक लोगों के लिए अच्छा होगा कि इसकी नई जटिलताओं को समझने के लिए वह मूलभूत स्तर से शुरूआत करें।

अंत में, युद्धकाल के दौरान, खामोशी कोई विकल्प नहीं है — लेकिन डींगे हांकना भी कोई विकल्प नहीं है। उदाहरण के लिए, यह बेहद निराशाजनक है कि बहुत से लोग भारत की आधिकारिक प्रेस ब्रीफिंग्स के दौरान दिए गए साधारण संदेशों में अपने संदेश और अर्थ शामिल कर रहे हैं। अनेकार्थी संदेश सहज तौर पर अटकलों और छल-कपट में उलझ जाएंगे। संघर्ष के दौरान संचार या कम्युनिकेशन्स में स्पष्टता और एकरूपता होना बहुत आवश्यक है। किसी भी तरह की अस्पष्टता पर रोक होनी चाहिए, क्योंकि आसमान में मौजूद आंखें यानी निगरानी के लिए लगाए गए कैमरे और सेल-फोन के कैमरे सारा हाल बयां कर देंगे।

बालाकोट के सामरिक निहितार्थों की जांच करने वाले समस्त आयोगों और रिपोर्टों के बीच, यह महत्वपूर्ण है कि कथानकों और सूचना के प्रवाह के प्रश्न पर भी पर्याप्त ध्यान दिया जाए। स्टीफन ल्यूक्स ने पॉवर: अ रेडिकल व्यू में तर्क दिया है कि “शक्ति का सबसे कपट भरा इस्तेमाल” यह है कि “लोगों को.. अपनी धारणाओं, अनुभूतियों को आकार देकर तकलीफ उठाने से रोका जाए और उनकी प्राथमिकताएं ऐसी बनाई जाएं कि वे मौजूदा व्यवस्था में अपनी भूमिका को मंजूर कर लें।” इस बात पर हैरानी हो सकती है कि अगर बेअसर राजनीतिक और सरकारी संचार या कम्युनिकेशन्स, मीडिया के गरजने वाले एंकर और सोशल मीडिया के तीखे प्रभावकर्ताओं का मिलाजुला असर अगर ऐसा न हो। क्या हम, एक समाज के नाते, अपने इस पश्चिमी पड़ोसी के साथ मौजदू जोखिमों और अवसरों के बारे में तर्कसंगत रूप से विचार करने में समर्थ हैं? या हम उन्हें जाने बगैर ही अपने ही बनाए कथानकों से लाचार हैं?

इसलिए, यहां कुछ अहम सवाल हैं, जिनका हल जरूरी है। इस सूचना युग में सरकार को अपनी विश्वासनीयता और प्रामाणिकता कैसे बरकरार रखनी चाहिए? तेजी से ​घटित हो रहे भू-राजनीतिक घटनाक्रमों के बारे में सोशल मीडिया प्लेटफार्म्स को किस तरह प्रतिक्रिया व्यक्त करनी चाहिए? संघर्ष के दौर में मीडिया को किस तरह की नैतिकता और उत्तरदायित्वों का पालन करना चाहिए? और शायद सबसे महत्वपूर्ण बात यह है कि नए मीडिया की भूमिका क्या है: ऐसे व्यक्ति जो इस प्रभाव और ताकत का उपयोग करते हैं? लोकतंत्र के रूप में हमारी परिपक्वता के लिए इन सवालों के जवाब महत्वपूर्ण हैं।

ये लेखक के निजी विचार हैं।

We cannot have a vibrant democracy without strong media

Samir Saran

Samir Saran, President of ORF, in an interview to The Asian Age spoke about different issues including democracy, good governance, communal harmony and international affairs with Mahfuz Ul Hasib Chowdhury.

Samir Saran, Bangladesh, Asian Age, India-Bangladesh, ASEAN, India Ocean Rim, Kashmir, EU, BNP

 

The Asian Age (AA): Thanks for coming to The Asian Age. How would you evaluate the current status of India-Bangladesh relationship?

Samir Saran (SS): At the level of the two governments the relationship between India and Bangladesh is stronger than ever before. Bangladesh has very sound political engagement with India. However, the people-to-people relationship needs to be catalyzed and strengthened. We need to do more in terms of trade, connectivity, climate change and regional industrial clusters that create value for our people.

The region can learn from Bangladesh as far as inclusive growth, health, education and grassroots interventions are concerned. Can the two countries work together in showcasing solutions and experiences in these vital sectors for the benefit of others? India and Bangladesh also have an opportunity to play a leadership role in connecting the wider region — for example, South Asia with ASEAN — and harnessing the potential of the Indian Ocean Rim Association. Can we together shape the politics and economics of the Indo-Pacific in the coming decade?

AA: What is the condition of democracy in South Asia in your assessment?

SS: Democracy is under threat globally. Sections of the young populations and those that are marginalized or have lost out are disenchanted. We as individuals and communities need to do more to ensure its sustenance. We have to demand more of our leadership in these times.

Democracy also must not be viewed only from the perspective of electing leaders. It is also as much about building and sustaining institutions that serve all citizens and protect their rights.

Therefore, the quality of governance and equitable outcomes will also implicate the health of democracy. In my view democracy is the most pragmatic political arrangement for the people of South Asia. The diversity within the region can only sustainably aggregate under plural political systems.

AA: What is your opinion about the Kashmir conflict?

SS: The Jammu & Kashmir dispute is certainly a legacy of the partition of the sub-continent and also stems from a viewpoint that religion must be the sole determinant of political unions. India rejects this perspective and as a secular country it has successfully demonstrated over the last seven decades that syncretic and plural nations are viable and desirable. Pakistan, on the other hand, does not hold this view and has fanned organic unrest and incubated terrorist organizations that destabilize the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir and indeed the wider region.

Jammu & Kashmir as a conflict zone also suits the military leadership in Pakistan as it helps them control the society, politics and economics of their country. The Pakistani Army sequesters a huge amount of the country’s annual budget and diverts funds that could be used productively for the development of the country. All disputes must be resolved through dialogue and no country must ever bow down to terror which has become the favored instrument of the Pakistani state.

It is for Pakistan to halt cross-border terrorism and create the right conditions for any meaningful bilateral dialogue. Till that happens, India will exercise all options to protect its territorial integrity and national security interest.

AA: Please share with us your views on freedom of press.

SS: We cannot have a vibrant democracy and a fair society without a strong media. News and information cannot be censored in this Information Age when social media is a reality, nor can the circulation of fake news be entirely prevented. Engaging with and responding to emerging narratives and headlines is the only option. Media can play a role in promoting accountable governance and preserving democracy.

AA: We often see that communal violence breaks out in South Asian countries. What should South Asian countries do to preserve communal harmony?

SS: Preserving communal harmony is a vital challenge for our region. Globalization and technology have made it easy for the transmission of radical ideologies across the world. Radical religious groups adeptly use social networks to propagate their propositions.

Just law and order is not enough to fight communal forces. We need a new awareness, a new coalition of people and governments, and an international resolve to purge this menace. Political parties should desist from fanning hatred. Also, families have an important role to play in guiding the youth and the vulnerable.

AA: Bangladesh has recently held its eleventh parliamentary election. What is your appraisal of these polls?

SS: The process of electing the political leadership is crucial. All democracies must constantly strive to enhance this process and ensure that wider participation and vibrant politics are part of it. All societies and countries organically discover their own pathways and as a young nation Bangladesh is striving to do the same. The political leadership in India has already welcomed the democratic process that was followed in Bangladesh in the recent elections.

AA: Euro is the common currency for all the countries belonging to the European Union (EU). The member countries of EU also have visa free entry facilities for each other. For what reasons do you think the South Asian countries could not do so?

SS: Unfortunately the partition of 1947 has created rigid walls and boundaries between the South Asian countries. We are disappointingly one of the least integrated regions of the world. Ideally we must dispense with such rigidity and should work towards soft borders through sub-regional arrangements.

It is difficult, but not impossible. In the coming days we need to create robust physical infrastructure that connects us, create soft infrastructure that allows information and data to be shared across jurisdictions, and create a regional growth and development plan that responds to the aspirations of all. We share a common future and therefore we must coordinate our individual efforts with greater intensity.

AA: How can Bangladesh become more democratic? Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has rejected the results of the latest parliamentary polls. BNP Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia has been inside jail for more than one year. How can Bangladeshi political parties overcome the existing   divides with each other?

SS: Legacy battles between parties are not unique to Bangladesh. Like elsewhere, differences are not easy to reconcile. However, what national political parties can do is to create a consensus on a grand vision for the country even as they choose different paths to achieve that. They can also agree on creating, sustaining and strengthening institutions and processes that are important for the evolution of democracy.

AA: The opposition parties of India like Trinamool Congress, Congress and Communist Party of India have complained that dalits and religious minorities have been subjected to a great deal of torment under the present Indian government. What are your views on this?

SS: As per political theory, one of the founding principles of democracy is that while the majority will invariably elect governments, the prime responsibility of these governments is to protect the rights of the minorities. India has always adhered to this as an article of faith and any deviation has seen substantial intervention by the institutions and people that make up the Indian state.

AA: Rabindranath Tagore is equally loved and honored in India and Bangladesh. How can Bangladesh further strengthen its cultural bonds with India?

SS: Rabindranath Tagore is an icon in both countries. To honour his legacy it would be fitting if Bangladesh and India can work to create a cultural bridge that helps nurture more talent that transcends geographical borders. The present Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Riva

Ganguly Das is someone who can do this. I believe she will play a significant role in the growth of cultural ties between Bangladesh and India. India and Bangladesh should provide more opportunities, scholarships and arenas to artists and youth in both countries to harness our common creative heritage and potentialities.


This interview originally appeared in Dailyasianage.

Babel as narrative: The media, a mediated war and I

Samir Saran

Even as the dust settles on the Balakot airstrikes, public sentiment in Pakistan and India is anything but settled. The aggravation of public opinion is in no small part attributable to the role of the media—both old and new. While Vietnam was the first televised war, though limited to American TV, what we are seeing today in India is more easily comparable to the unprecedented global television coverage of the Gulf War of 1990-91. Then, as now, a breathless public was glued to live prime-time reporting of missile strikes and battalion movements.

Today, of course, the times, the actors and the technologies are different. In 1990-91, and then again in 2003, the American media took war to living rooms around the world. In 2019, a global network of netizens took it to every smartphone. Prime time is no longer just the nine o’clock news. Instead, prime time is whenever a ‘social media influencer’ disseminates viral information. Still, the relationship between media, politics, power and war is just as interdependent as ever before. And the current cacophony in our public sphere gives us the perfect opportunity to interrogate what has changed and what hasn’t.

Media has always been complicit in allowing itself to be co-opted by the state. Time and again it has provided outlets for the government’s narrative on foreign policy and war.

In their seminal book ‘Manufacturing Consent,’ Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman argue that “official sources” and beat reporters have always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. The latter obtains access to strategic leaks and breaking news, while the former can set the agenda with no extra effort.

It is not surprising that we see this dynamic playing out on social media as well.

When individuals possess viewership and influence that are as large, or even larger, than many traditional news platforms, they become natural outlets for government leaks. The medium may have evolved, but the motivations stay the same.

Second, the nature of strategic communications has altered dramatically. In the 20th century, America had an absolute monopoly over media and telecommunications infrastructure. Its society could influence sentiment at a global scale with no competition. They decided how the world perceived the first Iraq war (1990-91). Today, no country, agency or actor enjoys this monopoly. The diffusion of information communication technologies has democratised story-telling. Every individual is the media. A single video, blog or photo can and will alter the course of events.

In times of war, it is essential for the state to respond nimbly and proactively to real time events. It must set the narrative and even stay ahead of the news cycle. There must be consistency in message and meaning across mediums. After the Balakot strikes, it was clear that the Indian government had struggled to achieve this, even as the Pakistani state leveraged the void to relocate its malevolent designs within the mediated halo of ‘statesmanship’.

Third, South Asia now regularly identifies ‘peaceniks’ as the new enemy of the state and the purported masses. Just as communism was a red line for American media over much of the 20th century, advocating peace in the subcontinent appears to be the South Asian red line. In both India and Pakistan, we witness a certain ‘othering’ of those who would propose peaceful options and solutions. Chomsky and Herman write that the concept of “anti-communism” could easily mobilise electorates because “the concept is fuzzy [and] it can be used against anybody” even as the anti-communists can “do and say anything” without oversight.

This basic premise holds true in both India and Pakistan today. And it has only been aggravated by those who would rather collect followers than constrain themselves by considerations of ethics and responsibility.

While peace is certainly not on the horizon, our media establishments and social media warriors have made it a veritable crime to even consider the prospect of peace.

Fourth, in the age of social media, tailored messaging is ineffective. The success of Hollywood, for example, was also tied to its ability to employ sophisticated communications to engage large constituencies. In other words, its stories enjoyed a large appeal. Effective messaging must share this virtue—it must be polysemic.

Too often, politicians tend to appeal to their narrow electorates in pursuit of political power. Of course, anyone who believes that this is not a natural consequence of democratic politics is naïve. Nevertheless, Indian governments and political actors (including those in the opposition) must learn how to communicate both universally and to their base. If these are at odds with each other, especially during conflict, it is the national brand and interest that is compromised most. Strategic communications is an evolving arena and many in India would do well to go back to school to appreciate its new intricacies.

Finally, in wartime, silence is not an option – but neither is bluster. It was disappointing, for example, to see multiple actors embedding their own messages and meanings in India’s predictably mundane official press briefing(s). Ambiguous messages will naturally lend themselves to speculation and manipulation. Clarity and uniformity must be the defining feature of conflict communications. Blank spaces must be taboo as eyes in the sky and cell-phone cameras will reveal all.

Amidst all the commissions and reports that will dissect the strategic implications of Balakot, it is crucial that sufficient attention also be paid to the question of narratives and information flows. In ‘Power: A Radical View’, Steven Lukes argues that the most “insidious use of power” is to “prevent people … from having grievances by shaping their perceptions, cognitions, and preferences in such a way that they accept their role in the existing order of things.” One wonders if the cumulative effect of ineffective political and government communications, thunderous media anchors and shrill social media influencers is not just this. Are we, as a society, capable of being clear-headed about the risks and opportunities that lie with our western neighbour? Or are we constrained by the narratives of our own making without even knowing it?

There are, therefore, some important questions that require resolution. How should the government preserve its reliability and authenticity in the information age? How should social media platforms react to rapidly evolving geopolitical events? What ethics and responsibilities must the media abide by in times of conflict? And, perhaps most importantly, what is the role of the new media: the individual who now wields such influence and power? The answers will be crucial to our maturing as a democracy.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

Nations make choices based on self-interest, this is true for India and Bangladesh as well

Samir Saran

Samir Saran, President of ORF, spoke to Dhaka Tribune’s Humayun Kabir Bhuiyan about different aspects of the India-Bangladesh bilateral relationship, exploring areas of potential collaborations and conflicts.

SAAF, Bangladesh, India, Teesta Water Treaty, Teesta, Dhaka, BIMSTEC,BJP, Narendra Modi, Awami League, Indo-Pacific, Indian Ocean Rim Association, Indo-Bangla Cooperation, Rohingya, Sheikh Hasina
Source: Graham Crouch/Getty Images

Dhaka Tribune: How do you describe the current relationship between Bangladesh and India? Do you find any irritants in the relationship? If so, what are those and how could those be overcome?

Samir Saran: Both India and Bangladesh have in recent years strived to overcome many of the legacy issues in their relationship. Today, we have an opportunity to strengthen our engagement even further. This requires the polity and people of the two countries to achieve closure on some irritants that continue to fester, especially the Teesta water sharing arrangement. New Delhi will need to make an extra effort to resolve India’s internal contradictions and move ahead with the agreement that is a real and an emotive issue for the people of Bangladesh. A fresh approach to bilateral trade relations is also needed. Bangladesh businesses and society need to see tangible gains from India’s rise and trade terms need to be more favorable to ensure equity on this front.

DT: You said on Wednesday (March 13) that the relationship between Dhaka and Delhi is at its best. Do you think that there are areas where both countries can work to further the relationship?

SS: I had remarked that the government to government relationship between the two countries were strong and robust and had achieved a new high in the recent past. I had also mentioned that for a truly sustainable and strong relationship, it is necessary to invest in creating new constituencies that can take the relationship forward. We have to ensure that our businesses, media and research institutions collaborate with greater intensity and conviction and provide a new impetus to this very important bilateral. The two countries must also support purposeful conversations on trade and infrastructure connectivity in the region, within and outside regional institutions such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the BIMSTEC. The common determination of the two countries to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offers a possibility for them to collaborate in this journey. Our homegrown solutions can be shared with each other and also with the larger developing world. Technology sector, smart cities, rural transformations and the blue economy potential of the region, all offer new opportunities for partnership.

DT: Many people in Bangladesh tend to believe that India tries to dominate over Bangladesh and makes effort to intervene into the internal affairs of the country. Are they right? Do you think the relationship is based on mutual respect and interest?

SS: India has and always will respect equality in international relations and respect for sovereignty. It does not interfere in the internal affairs of others and has always adhered to international law and norms of state behaviour in its relationship with other countries. This is true of Bangladesh as well. When India lost a maritime dispute to Bangladesh in 2014, under a dispute resolution proceeding, it respected that verdict in contrast to some other countries in the region which have rejected such processes when they have gone against them. The relationship is certainly built on trust and mutual respect as can be seen in the process followed to resolve the border issue as well. All nations make choices based on their self-interest and this is true for India and Bangladesh as well.

DT: Do you agree with those people who suggest that if the Teesta water sharing agreement is signed, border killing is brought to zero and the trade imbalance that is heavily in favour of India are addressed, Bangladesh-India ties will be further strengthened?

SS: Without responding to the subjective allegations, let me first put on record that the India-Bangladesh ties are indeed strong. This is not to say that issues do not remain. The solutions are more often hindered because of domestic politics in India and Bangladesh, and less so for the lack of political will at the level of the leadership of the two countries. I am sure that we will see a new momentum in Delhi to address all outstanding issues after the general elections in May. I have always favoured soft borders, they should be a location that enhances commerce and value creation. Hard boundaries are a tragic consequence of old mindsets. Trade issues and Teesta water sharing arrangement must be addressed at the earliest to the satisfaction of all.

DT: What are the areas both the neighbours should work on in the coming days for the benefits of their peoples?

SS: Both India and Bangladesh seek development and economic growth for their large and young populations. We must do this at a time when new technologies are changing the way we work and live, and we must do this in a carbon constrained world. These are new challenges for both of us. With similar demographics and development outlooks, these should be the key area of cooperation going forward. On the regional front, India and Bangladesh should also now start imagining a political and economic order for the Indo-Pacific. Both countries have an interest in sustaining a rules based order in the region, both have increasing stakes in a favourable and stable external environment.

DT: There is a perception in Bangladesh that the Indian government favours Awami League. Should it be the case? Should Delhi not work with the government of the day?

SS: India and Indians respect the democratic choices of the people of Bangladesh. While Delhi will maintain good relations with all political parties, it will naturally work with the government in charge of the country. Having said this, it is time that we engage with Bangladesh and its citizens and institutions more robustly. Diplomacy today is also about engaging with individual and communities effectively.

This interview originally appeared in Dhaka Tribune.