Media Reception

Playing to the gallery

Print edition : March 29, 2019
Post Balakot, jingoism and knee-jerk bellicosity have dominated the media discourse. With the narrative having shifted to “either you are with us or with them”, there has been little scope for the expression of any rational point of view even by sections of the liberal media.

One agency that played a crucial role in shaping perceptions in the saga that began with the terror attack in Pulwama, Kashmir, and ended with the air strike in Balakot, Pakistan, has been the media. While the bellicosity of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies in the aftermath of the air strikes was expected, it was sections of the media, especially the television media, that took everyone by surprise by constructing a continuous narrative that screamed revenge and bloodletting after the terror attack. “When will India take revenge” was the constant refrain. If anyone within the establishment had questions on how and why the security breach occurred, they were drowned in the din of kitsch nationalism.

Desh ko chahiye badla [the nation wants revenge]”; “Kab hoga jawanon ke khoon ka hisaab [when will the blood of our soldiers be avenged]”; “tum kitne sipahi maroge, har ghar se sipahi niklega [each time you kill our soldiers, more soldiers will emerge from each home]” were some of the incendiary slogans. Then there were Kashmir-specific ones on home-grown terror: “Isi mitti se Burhan Wani jaise gaddar paida hote hain, Aurangzeb bhi paida hote hain (this is the same soil that birthed a traitor like Burhan Wani, and Aurangzeb as well),” screamed the ticker on a Hindi channel known for its jingoism, referring to the “good Muslim, bad Muslim” binary.

This atmosphere helped shape public perception and sharpened biases against certain communities within India as well as towards Pakistan, with ugly consequences. A leading columnist, known for her ideological proximity to the ruling National Democratic Alliance, declared in her column in a national daily known for its liberal views on February 17 that “this is war, not terrorism”. With members of the intellectual elite holding such incendiary views, what could be expected of the general public who were subjected to jingoistic bombardment on a regular basis through radio, television and the web media? The patriotic pitch was raised to such levels that none dared to say anything that questioned the actions of the government. Similarly, none dared to raise the issue of a possible security lapse that had led to the killing of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel for fear of being labelled an anti-national and a Pakistan apologist.

The day after the Pulwama attack, the government issued an advisory to the media to refrain from showing the families of the slain CRPF personnel. On the face of it, this advisory seemed sensible. But there was no restraint in the Viking-like war cries on television channels. Kashmiris living outside Jammu and Kashmir were targeted, even as persons such as Meghalaya Governor Tathagata Roy tweeted an appeal from a retired colonel of the Indian Army exhorting a social boycott of Kashmiris. The attacks on minorities continue unabated. Such was the impact and effect of the propaganda machinery unleashed through television and social media that on March 7 five Kashmiri dry fruit sellers were assaulted in Lucknow.

War as business

The air strike on Balakot was enough to throw the media into a frenzy, as there is no business like the business of a potential war, especially between India and Pakistan. “Ghar mein ghus ke maara” (we entered their domain and thrashed them) was the leading war cry heard across Hindi television channels, with rare exceptions. “Do you support the Balakot attack or not?”, “Shouldn’t India be responding to Pakistan? How long can we turn the other cheek?” and “How long can we tolerate the lies of Pakistan?” were some of the lines that television anchors were heard badgering panellists with. In one particular channel, the anchor wore battle gear like an Indian soldier and simulated a war-like situation. The need for a political dialogue was simply not on the anvil in these discussions. Muscular jingoism was at its worst; it was so overwhelming that even sections of the liberal media hailed the Indian intervention, described as pre-emptive by the government, lest they be seen as supporting the enemy.

Rabble-rousing

With the narrative having shifted to “either you are with us or with them”, a phrase attributable to George W. Bush, there was little scope for the expression of any rational point of view. People who spoke of peace and the futility of war between two neighbouring countries were simply told to “go to Pakistan”. The opposition parties were accused of being soft on the enemy when they questioned the BJP for reaping electoral benefits from the Pulwama tragedy and the Balakot air strike.

There was no inkling of the impact such rabble-rousing could have on the general public. If the BJP sought to gain electoral and political mileage from the strikes, described as “payload” by Pakistani officialdom, the Indian media were certainly helping them achieve this objective. Television anchors, including women, outdid one another in raising decibel levels and the level of aggression. A possible confrontation with Pakistan with multiple imaginary war scenarios was the best bet in terms of TRP ratings.

The level of bellicosity in the print media was palpable. One newspaper was pilloried by apologists of the government for using the term “killed” instead of “martyred” for the slain CRPF personnel. The headline of a leading pink paper read: “India has crossed just one battle line—but many more lie ahead”. The Balakot strike was ingenuously referred to in print and television in phrases such as “Payback for Pulwama”, “Pulwama Avenged”, “Pulwama Revenge”, “Success story: Surgical Strike 2”, “Retaliation of the Pulwama attack”, and so on. Radio was not far behind, with radio jockeys repeatedly reminding the nation how India should seek its revenge. The word “dialogue” was distinctly missing. Pacifists were marginalised as knee-jerk bellicosity reigned. An appeal for peace by leading academics was pushed to the inside pages in some newspapers; much of the print media did not carry the statement at all.

The release of the captured pilot was exploited equally by both sides. The Pakistan authorities attempted to show to the world that they had been humane to their captive and followed the Geneva Convention protocols, while the Indian media, especially the visual media, repeatedly flashed pictures of his capture and assault by villagers before he was rescued by Pakistani soldiers, and the bruises on his face. Anyone who had a word of appreciation for the Pakistani gesture or even made a casual remark in that direction was in danger of being called a Pakistani agent or a supporter of terror. The unspoken tyranny of kitsch nationalism was at its peak, with the visual media adding to the frenzy.

The main attempt through all this nationalistic fervour through the media was to project the impression that only one political party and one man in that party could protect Indians and India. The motto of “one nation, one people, one leader”, deployed in Nazi propaganda and epitomising the Fuhrer could easily be extrapolated to the Indian context. It was no different from what the Congress used to propagate about Indira Gandhi: “India is Indira and Indira is India”. The rest of the political parties were, by this logic, incompetent and unfit to lead the country to glory. This, despite the fact that no real war had been fought; no real victories had been gained; in fact, the lives of ordinary CRPF personnel had been lost in vain with no real solution to the Kashmir problem in sight.

And again, no one dared ask the government about its Kashmir policy or seek proof of the dead Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorists bombed by the Indian Air Force. Columns and editorials in almost all leading newspapers were careful not to sound overly critical of anything the Indian government was doing. The self-censorship was all too visible, suiting as it did the BJP’s narrative of aggressive and populist nationalism. “The nation has to stand united and speak in one voice” was repeatedly echoed on radio and in the print and visual media. Where was the scope to ask any questions at all?

In December 2014, the Australian journalist and documentary film-maker John Pilger delivered a lecture on “Building an alliance against secrecy, surveillance and censorship” at the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London, where he observed that there was “a need to call to account an unaccountable media that services power and psychosis that threatens world war”. He was referring to the Western media that had become a tool of propaganda with their governments. Pilger’s description of the deceptiveness, censorship and distortion in the Western media could equally apply to the Indian context.

Quoting Edward Louis Bernays, considered the “father of public relations”, who said that propaganda was “an invisible government”, Pilger said instead “it is the government” as “it rules directly without fear of contradiction and the principal aim is the conquest of us; our sense of the world, our ability to separate truth from the lies”. He said that what was needed was a Fifth Estate, a journalism that monitored, deconstructed and countered propaganda, teaching the youth to be agents of people, not of power.

For almost two weeks, nothing relating to the performance of the government was discussed in most of the mainstream media as military action against Pakistan dominated media discourse. Every “thinking person” has been forced to censor his/her thought in this period. Decades ago, Bertolt Brecht, the Marxist German poet, playwright and theatre practitioner who lived through two World Wars and survived the Weimar period, wrote very presciently about war: “General, man is very useful; he can fly and he can kill, but He has one defect: he can think.” During a war, Goebbels famously said, news should be given out for instruction, not information. Even though it is not a war situation in the country, news is nonetheless being given in the form of an “instruction”, faithfully purveyed by most in the mass media.

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