Lahore and Brussels: a study in contrasts and similarities

For Brussels, we wept. But when there was a bomb blast in Lahore, Indian newspapers responded differently

WrittenBy:Sandip Roy
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The contrast could not have been clearer.

The day after the Brussels attack, the front page of Kolkata-based The Telegraph had a banner headline:“TINTIN’S TEARS”.  Below it was a picture of Hergé’s beloved young reporter weeping black, yellow and red tears in the colours of the Belgian flag.

The day after the Lahore bomb blast, it was a different story. India had won against Australia the night before and the hero of the night, Virat Kohli, was splashed across the front page, finger pointing to heaven above. Beside it, under the section “In Brief”, it said “Children killed in Pak park blast. For more details turn to Foreign, P 2”.

Cricket is India’s official religion, and Virat Kohli was in smashing form — all of which makes for front-page news. But “Foreign” and page two for a suicide bomb attack that kills at least 65 and injures over 300, mostly women and children, in a public park in a neighbouring country?

Admittedly, this is not true of all newspapers in the country.  But that it’s true at all, anywhere in this region, should give pause. We are quick to blame the West for double standards when we see the wall-to-wall coverage of Brussels while a suicide bomber in Istanbul, a blast in a mosque in Maiduguri, Nigeria, a car bomb in Ankara and a beach attack in Abidjan are little more than footnotes. Western lives matter more, we say accusingly, and then end up proving exactly that with our own editorial choices.

We can find arguments to justify this. Carnage is still a stranger to the streets and subways of Brussels (or Paris) in a way it is not in Pakistan. This month itself, before the suicide bomber decided to blow himself up in that park on Easter Sunday, Pakistan had seen other terrible attacks. A suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance of sub-district courts in the Pashtun town of Shabqadar on March 7.On March 16, a blast killed at least 15 and injured 30 in a bus in Peshawar. A terror attack in Pakistan is just not news in the way a terror attack in Brussels is.

Let’s make #MainHoonLahore trend pleaded some on social media after the grisly attack. But however much we #PrayforPakistan, the sight of thousands rallying to honour the assassin of governor Salman Taseer and demanding the execution of the Christian woman whom Taseer defended and who is now on death row, leads one to fear that #MainHoonLahore would just give way to #MainHoonPeshawar, which would lead to #MainHoonIslamabad.The hashtags would follow with such depressing regularity that they would all be rendered meaningless from overuse.

The hashtag-ification of terror attacks has only underscored our ultimate helplessness in the face of sheer butchery. If #JeSuisCharlie was a heartfelt expression of solidarity,  #JeSuisWhatever has now become the knee-jerk response to tragedy, almost as shorn of meaning as that AIDS red ribbon that had for a while been the default accouterment of politically-correct celebrities in Hollywood. With dozens of JeSuis imitators and wannabes (even a JeSuisBeefEater) following in Charlie Hebdo’s wake, it has now acquired a slight mocking tone. “No JeSuis for Lahore, what?”  It is pointless to wear our shock in a hashtag or play a game of hashtagwhataboutery and just as futile to try and make #MainHoonLahore trend as if a hashtag matters in the end.

But editorial choices, whatever their rationale, still mean something that hashtags do not. Lahore was in India’s backyard.  India worries all the time about terror imported from Pakistan. By sheer geopolitical factors, Lahore should matter more than Brussels. Lahore was horrific by all measures of horror. Like Brussels, it happened in a public place. Like Brussels, it wreaked havoc on ordinary civilians and came with terrible loss of life. Like Brussels, it was an attack that came, it seems, from within. Like Brussels, it was meant to send a message.

But the larger message being sent out by the media in response is one attack was ordinarywhile the other was extraordinary. Therefore, one was worth banner headlines, the other: Foreign P2. One will have an image that will become the symbol of the tragedy and go viral and the other will be indistinguishable from sundry bomb blasts in other parts of that country.

The attacks will stand out in stark contrast to each other despite so much commonality. Pakistan is keenly aware of this if the recent advisory from PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) is any indicator. It advises its media covering the attacks to “follow the example of professional handling of Brussels attacks by international media rather than following in the footsteps of Indian media that is driven by crass commercialization”.

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PEMRA’s exhortation for “media’s responsibility to play a positive role” can be also read as a veiled warning, and an anxiety to do damage control with some reflex Indian-bashing rather than face up to hard questions about how the Pakistan Taliban turned into such a Frankenstein’s monster.  But the underlying basis is clear. PEMRA knows no matter what the common linkages, Brussels and Lahore will occupy very different slots in the public imagination of victimhood and suffering.

Chances are we will know far more about the brothers who are alleged to have become the bombers of Brussels than the man whose head was recovered from the park in Lahore.  All that inevitably will lead to the conclusion, even if it’s erroneous, that in the eyes of the world one loss of lives matters more than the other, which will in turn feed into the alienation and self-serving anger that finds a home in the blind ideology that actually links both acts of terror.

This linkage could have spawned a different kind of kinship. Put another way, March 22 in Brussels was when that city understood for one day what it meant to live in Peshawar or Baghdad or Damascus every other day. Just as 9/11 was the day when the big bad dangerous world crashed into America. Even as the world said JeSuisBrussels, Brussels it turns out was learning to say JeSuisLahore or JeSuisAnkara instead.


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