India-Pakistan Conflict: When War Reporting Takes Sides
(COMMENTARY) On Feb. 14, a 20-year-old Indian Kashmiri drove a van filled with explosives and rammed into a bus of Indian soldiers in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir, 500 miles north of India’s capital New Delhi. Forty-nine paramilitary policemen died in the worst attack on security forces in the territory, disputed with Pakistan, since the turn of the century.
The bomber’s parents, who live just five miles from the bomb site, told Reuters that he joined a militant group after Indian police stopped him on his way home from school three years ago, beating and humiliating him and his friends.
The impact was so severe that the young man’s body was never found for a decent burial. And the impact was also felt in the corridors of powers in Delhi, resulting in an equally-fitting response by the Indian military some days later.
As soon as the Pakistan-based Muslim terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed credit for the attack, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi blamed Pakistan for the attack and said India’s military could justifiably retaliate.
The US National Security Adviser John Bolton reportedly told his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval that America supports India’s right to self-defense. Bolton reiterated that the US has asked Pakistan to end its support to terrorist havens and even offered India support to fight terrorism.
On Feb. 26, the Indian government’s foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale announced that the Indian Air Force (IAF) avenged the Pulwama massacre with a “surgical strike” in Balakot, Muzaffarabad and Chakothi in Pakistan: a dozen French-made jet planes dropped Israeli laser-guided bombs on Jaish-e-Mohammed's (JeM) jungle camps, he said.
“In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated,” he said at a press conference, claiming victory.
For the most part, foreign outlets and India’s liberal media were skeptical.
India’s home minister Rajnath Singh pooh-poohed the naysayers by saying that an internal surveillance agency called National Technical Research Organization, working directly under the Prime Minister, had detected 300 active mobile phones where the fighter jets landed the deadly bombs. Singh thumped hard the poll rhetoric at an election rally: “Some people are asking how many were killed… our surveillance system has said that before Indian pilots dropped the bombs, 300 mobile phones were active there. There's no need to tell you how many were killed."
BJP chief Amit Shah gave it a figure: 250 dead.
Some Indian media coverage was quick to parrot the ruling party, claiming 250 to 300 lives in Pakistan, but it quickly became apparent that the Indian bombs had likely not destroyed more than forest areas. Satellite images obtained by Reuters show that the JeM camp that Modi and Indian government officials said their air force decimated looks unchanged since April 2018.
And while pro-government media was quick to point out Pakistani fake news (one Pakistani channel broadcasted a 2016 photo of a crashed Indian jet), the same Indian channels also spread propaganda— many Indian outlets published a video clip purportedly showing the Indian air force strike against Pakistan, but it was later shown that the clip was first posted in 2017 and may show Pakistani jets during a military exercise. Social media users posted photos of war-torn Iraq and Syria to show how India had supposedly decimated Pakistan.
War statistics on both sides of the fence are a matter of conjecture. As Modi criss-crosses the country on his election campaign to earn a second term as Prime Minister it is but natural for his public relations honchos to keep the focus on the meta-narrative of the high-impact air attack. Almost 900 million voters are expected to cast ballots in a seven-phase poll spread over 36 days in the next two months.
The independent body Election Commission of India has barred politicians from using photos of the military in its campaigns but that has not prevented some Modi supporters from harnessing the perceived successful air strikes to strike an emotional chord with the voters; an entrepreneur in Bhilwara, 300 miles east of New Delhi in Rajasthan state, is draping women with sarees that feature pictures of the Balakot air strike and a beaming photo of the Prime Minister.
Modi has worked hard to get the image of an Iron Man with a knack of making quick and far-reaching decisions in the mold of Sardar Vallabhai Patel, India’s first home affairs minister and an “iron man” who helped unite nearly 550 kingdoms into one India. The ruling party, BJP, has always maintained that its rival Congress party that helmed India for nearly 70 years has never honored the memory of Patel, who they say should have been made India’s first prime minister, not Jawaharlal Nehru whose timidity over the Kashmir conflict, they claim, has cost India over 70,000 lives so far in the region. In addition, half a million army men are currently deployed to ensure the tinderbox doesn’t flare up into a violent volcano.
Considering that Indian war planes crossed the line of control towards northeast Pakistan for the first time in 40 years in what the Indian foreign secretary called “non-military pre-emptive action" the Indian media by and large went with the version given by the government.
Many TV anchors have been yelling at each other over how the anti-India media is trying to obfuscate the real issue by blacklisting the Indian government’s version of the events. At the end of the day, for many of the local media it is an issue of love of one’s country, especially when the line between nationalism, patriotism and belief in government press handouts is very thin.
One reason why even the US decided to play umpire between the two South Asian neighbors is because of the increasingly close rapport that the Indian leader shares with President Trump. Russia’s arms export to India, the world's second largest importer of major arms, fell by a huge 42 per cent between 2014-18 and 2009-2013, according to a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Israel, the USA and France all increased their arms exports to India in 2014-18.
And while the US seemed to step up business with India, SIPRI reported that US arms exports to Pakistan fell by 81 per cent between 2009-13 and 2014-18.
In the theater of war, the reporting dynamics change. There are some things that are best left for the government spokesman to issue in public interest. And whether you call it a press release or a propaganda’s paraphernalia, in the highly crowded and chaotic news rooms of the day, it is a challenge to sift the wheat from the chaff.