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March 22, 2000
Family Feuds: South Asians and The Sopranos
American Broadcasting Corporation aired a full-hour program late last night titled, The Dark Horizon: India, Pakistan and the Bomb. The program was a network special produced by ABC's news division. It was anchored by Peter Jennings, its prime-time news anchor, and broadcast on the eve of President Clinton's visit to India. Although this documentary was produced and packaged in advance of its broadcast, Jennings presented it live from India, lending it added significance.
Viewer ratings for this show are not yet available, but viewers who stayed up late on a Monday night to watch this special (broadcast at 10 pm on the East Coast) certainly had many other competing attractions. For example, at the same hour, National Basketball Association's top teams were pitched in important games and The Sopranos was on at the Home Box Office cable channel. The Sopranos is the critically acclaimed serial drama depicting the personal foibles of a fictional mafia family.
Most South Asians have followed the decades old India-Pakistan conflict closely. Some may have even become numbed into accepting the social and financial toll as the subcontinent's inevitable destiny. For Americans, the Kashmir conflict has been a distant noise. Most Americans are not knowledgeable about the history or the depth of the rivalry between the two major South Asian siblings. For Americans, then, The Dark Horizon was an instructive, if dramatic, introduction to a potential disaster begging for world attention.
The most bloodcurdling moment of The Dark Horizon was a single-sentence statement by George Fernandes, the Indian defense minister. No, I'm not referring to his jingoistic "India can beat Pakistan, anytime, anywhere" statement made during the Kargil crisis last year. On this ABC program, Fernandes delivered what seems to be a calculated and covert threat to Pakistan. He was answering a question from Jennings about the possible consequences of a nuclear war. Fernandes appeared extraordinarily cool and precise as he made the following statement: "It's going to be the end for those who, ...shall I say....., fool about with the Bomb."
With statements like these from senior government officials of both Pakistan and India, the ominous title of the ABC special seems justified.
I thought the program had a glaring omission: there was no direct quote from, or interview with, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee! I asked Richard Robbins of ABC, who was intimately involved in producing this program for an explanation. Robbins says ABC tried its best to get an interview with the prime minister, but did not succeed. "Perhaps, the prime minister is not comfortable with an interview ..... in English," says Robbins. If the Indian government wanted to orchestrate its views on American television, this would have been a rare chance. Instead, we were left with Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh's platitudes and Fernandes's penchant for controversy.
On the Pakistani side, views alternating between diplomacy and bravado were provided by Ambassador Lodhi and General Quereshi. Pakistanis interviewed for the program made repeated reminders to the American newsman and his audience of America's role in the region. After all, it was America's arming of Afghan freedom fighters that flooded this region with weapons and zealots. Now, is it not fair to expect America to help eradicate the region's brewing anarchy?
America, these days, is distracted by prosperity although numerous crises lurk in various nooks. Kashmir must compete with Kosovo and Chechens must vie with the Taiwanese for the world's lone-ranging superpower's attention.
Americans relate more easily to the history and conflicts in Southeast Asia than those in South Asia. The US has had a far more direct involvement in Philippines, Korea and Taiwan. To enter the Yankee radar screen, India and Pakistan have had to earn the dubious distinction of becoming nuclear powers.
Even now, South Asia remains a mere flicker on the screen. That is why this special program is so timely.
Partisan viewers of The Dark Horizon might quibble with a few details. Early in the program, referring to Kashmiri Muslims, Jennings said they want to be free of a Hindu India and referred to "this struggle for freedom" as the cause of violence. The remark was unqualified, although he later explained the role of Pakistani-backed insurgents in Kashmir and how Kashmir has become a "matter of pride" for both sides.
The program made no mention about possible avenues for peace. Could the growing commercial links between India and the US possibly lead to a better rapprochement between the two democracies? Economic interests often lead to strategic alliances. Could India's own economic self-interest perhaps persuade its people and leaders to see wisdom and seek peace with its neighbor?
Peter Jennings's assessment was grim. He declared, "the situation in this part of the world is pretty bleak." This should make us all sit up and take note.
The program ended on a light note with a clip showing the ritualistic daily military ceremonies at the border gates between India and Pakistan and with Jennings' final statement: "India and Pakistan are family."
Trouble is, families are not always the most harmonious units among human configurations. I don't mean just the Sopranos family. I mean most families.
Next: Indian all set to head Citibank
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