Is a war between India and Pakistan inevitable? The mainstream news media in India certainly seems to be suggesting so. Even entertaining the possibility that such a war may be ill-advised would cast aspersions on the patriotic zeal of these news organisations. So, the answer must be yes.
For some, it is a more resounding affirmative than others. For others, such as The Quint, a digital news platform, India is already at war with Pakistan, and winning. On 22 September 2016, The Quint published a report titled, ‘Exclusive: Uri Avenged As Spl Forces Cross LoC, Kill 20 Terrorists’ by Chandan Nandy. Nandy, the opinion editor at The Quint, has previously worked with publications such as The Times of India, and describes himself as a “hardcore reporter by training.” The story claimed that two units from the elite 2 Paras, consisting of around 18 to 20 soldiers, had flown across the Line of Control (LoC) in Uri in the intervening hours between 20 and 21 September, and conducted an operation that killed at least 20 suspected terrorists in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). The report, based entirely on the accounts of anonymous sources, has been denied by military officials. An editorial note that was added to the story after it was published, states, “In light of the reactions to this article, The Quint decided to reconfirm the information from its sources. We stand by our story.”
It all began in the early hours of 18 September, when a group of four armed militants entered the administrative buildings and store complex of an infantry battalion in Uri, located near the LoC in Kashmir, and killed 18 soldiers. The Indian armed forces suffered its heaviest casualties ever in a single strike. Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the national outrage and announced on the same day, “Those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished”. Since then, the media has assumed that an effective response can only be articulated through military means, and in the immediate future. Subsequently, most news outlets in print, television and on the internet have taken upon themselves the mantle of strategising this ostensibly imminent war, on a daily basis.
A day after the attack in Uri, on 19 September, The Times of India ran a story titled, “Army to turn on heat, asks govt to consider cross-border strikes,” by Rajat Pandit. The report spoke of cross-border strikes that the Indian military could use to “‘bleed’ the Pakistani troops without crossing the LoC.” Attributed anonymously to “government sources” and “security establishment officials”, it stated, “The Army is going to turn the heat on Pakistan along the 778-km Line of Control (LoC) with concentrated artillery barrages, sniping and other operations, even as a section of the Indian security establishment wants the government to also consider ‘limited but punitive cross-border strikes’ to send an unequivocal message to Pakistan.”
That day, the headline on the front page of The Telegraph simply screamed, “RAGE,” as though being angry absolves the world of news from the sobering exercise of discussing policy options.
By 20 September, the Times of India had decided that war was inevitable. The lead story on its front page bore the headline, ‘PM clears effective response, Army says it’s ready & willing to hit back.’ “Amid rising calls for retribution after an audacious jihadi strike on an Army camp in Uri,” The Times News Network story began, “PM Narendra Modi authorised the Army to deliver an effective response to the latest terror believed to have been engineered by Pakistan.” That nothing of the sort actually happened was never acknowledged. The prime minister gave no direct order to the armed forces, nor is he authorised to do this. The Cabinet Committee on Security clears armed action and the president of India, as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces signs off on it. India’s largest newspaper appeared to have skirted past these procedural details. Since the story did not have a by-line, save for the generic Times News Network credit-line, it would be difficult to hold a particular reporter accountable as well. This is a practice that is becoming increasingly rampant in Indian newsrooms covering national security news.
The unabashedly partisan reporting that has followed the attack in Uri is rooted in the belief that the time is ripe for an Indian offensive because Pakistan has now been isolated diplomatically. This penchant for concocting a binary narrative, within which a war appears to be the only logical end, seems to have made its way even into The Indian Express, otherwise known for its balanced reporting. The front pages of the paper’s editions on both 19 and 20 September focussed solely on the Uri attack. On 20 September, the paper carried a broad grid right below its masthead, labelled “The Martyrs.” The panels of the grid consisted of the names and images of the 18 soldiers who had died at Uri. While publishing pictures of the soldiers killed at Uri is valid journalism in itself, the sensational display of all the images on the front page, under the headline of “The Martyrs,” clearly displayed a tone and tenor uncharacteristic of a measured newspaper. Under this grid was an evocative picture of Samudra Devi—the mother of Sepoy Rakesh Singh, who had died in the attack—as she held her head in her hands. A story by Santosh Singh titled, “In Bihar, blind father loses his second son,” was laid out adjacent to this image. The report highlighted the suffering of Jagnaraian Singh, a 78-year-old man whose son, Havildar Ashok Kumar Singh, had died in the attack at Uri. “I still have some strength left in me to fight Pakistan alongside the Indian Army to avenge my son’s death,” Jagnarain told the Santosh Singh, “The way terrorists slayed our soldiers, we should do the same.”
Pages six, seven and nine of the paper’s edition that day contained similar stories on the grieving family members of the soldiers who had died. All of them framed the plight of these families against an urgent need for the government to “act” and avenge the deaths of those who had been killed. On 22 September, the paper published an article by the Bharatiya Janata Party leader Yashwant Sinha, titled, “Limits of Restraint.” Sinha, who has previously served as the union minister for external affairs, argued for an “appropriate military response to Pakistan.” He wrote, “I suggest that the nature of military response and its timing should be left to the armed forces, but it should not be indefinitely postponed.”
Such pronouncements have only grown shriller in the din of the television media in India. News anchors across television channels looked angry and revengeful as they donned the amplified versions of their usual, quarrelsome selves. On India Today TV, Gaurav C Sawant, the channel’s executive editor and one of its anchors, held court on the prime-time show “To the Point.” Dressed in a pair of cargo khakis and a brown vest that would befit a reporter covering a war on the ground, Sawant had abandoned the sleek suits that anchors usually opt for. During the charged discussion he hosted, Sawant dismissed KK Nayyar, the former vice-chief of the Indian Navy, for trying to suggest that the government had not yet used all the diplomatic and political options available to it. Nayyar began, “Basically, an immediate thing that can have lasting impact on Pakistan apart from war, is economic measures, diplomatic measures.” Sawant shook his head furiously in response, “Diplomatic measures are already happening.” “This war room, “ he continued, referring to the news room, “is specifically referring to military steps.”
Since the attack, Times Now has been issuing the clarion call for a war with Pakistan every evening. The channel, convinced that India has already secured itself a diplomatic victory over its neighbour, is now fiercely advocating a strategic push. NewsX followed a line that was starkly similar with headlines that announced “India will punish Pak’’, and “India to diplomatically isolate Pakistan.” On 24 September, a Zee News report indicated that Pakistan has already selected targets in India, insinuating that India had no choice but to move now. On NDTV, Shankar Roychowdhury, a former chief of the army staff, recommended that India form its own squad of fidayeen to take the battle to Pakistan. The vernacular press has been persistent in its pursuit of conflict as well. On 26 September, two days after Modi expressed his reservations about going to war during a speech at Kozhikode, Dainik Jagran claimed that India would to withdraw from The Indus Waters Treaty.
The paranoia generated by the media would be less disturbing if it were based on ground reportage. Instead, large sections of the media are running propaganda as news and spinning events to make India look more diplomatically and militarily muscular than it is. After the strike in Uri, several news publications and channels reported that Russia had cancelled its joint military drill with Pakistan, scheduled for 24 September, in response to a letter from Indian Ministry of External Affairs. Within days, by 21 September, the government in Pakistan refuted these claims. The Nation, a Pakistani paper, was among the first to break the story. The joint military exercise is being held as scheduled.
Not to be outdone by facts, publications such as the Hindustan Times then attempted damage control by declaring that while Russia was proceeding with the joint military drill, the exercise would not be held in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. This completely glossed over the diplomatic defeat that India had been dealt because its oldest and strongest ally was holding its first-ever military training exercise with India’s oldest enemy, days after a terrorist strike in Kashmir.
Meanwhile, on 23 September, reports across various papers also asserted that John Kerry, the US secretary of state, had slammed Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, on the side lines of the seventy-first session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. While Kerry may have said something to this effect in private, the readout of the meeting suggested no deviation from the US stance to claim any diplomatic victory: that India and Pakistan must resolve their disputes through dialogue.
John Kirby, US State Department Spokesperson says:
Secretary Kerry met with Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif to discuss our strong, long-term bilateral partnership and to build upon the U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue. The Secretary commended the Prime Minister for restoring macroeconomic stability to Pakistan over the last three years and expressed appreciation for Pakistan’s cooperation on climate change priorities.
The Secretary reiterated the need for Pakistan to prevent all terrorists from using Pakistani territory as safe havens, while commending recent efforts by Pakistani security forces to counter extremist violence. They also spoke about regional issues, including recent developments with regard to Afghanistan. The Prime Minister and Secretary Kerry expressed strong concern with recent violence in Kashmir — particularly the army base attack — and the need for all sides to reduce tensions.
Secretary Kerry also stressed the need for restraint in nuclear weapons programs. The Secretary praised Pakistan for hosting Afghan refugees for over 40 years and highlighted the importance of continued respect for humanitarian principles.
This statement does not blame Pakistan for anything, least of all for cross-border terrorism. In fact, Kerry expressed concern about the recent violence in Kashmir, which included, but was not limited to the attack in Uri. Kerry took this stance alongside Sharif, and not, as the Indian media suggested, against him.
Yet, the media seems intent on convincing the people of this country that India is ready for a war and that the world is backing it. After declaring an imagined victory of winning the US over to the Indian side, news reports speculated on the possibility of the European Union applying sanctions on Pakistan. Every editorial effort was deployed through creative use of headlines to make it appear that the EU was chastising Pakistan because of the terror attack on India, when in fact, the EU was referring to Pakistan’s domestic turbulence in Balochistan.
The sentiment that has echoed through all of these reports is that retribution for Pakistan must be swift and decisive. Various options to this end have been vigourously debated and discussed on news channels and in the print media. These were summarised by the Business Standard through a graphic that was carried on 21 September, which illustrated the escalatory ladder up to a full-scale war.
Reports in the press have ranged from covering the Indian military’s preparations for an operational strike on Pakistan to considering the question of India playing cricket with the neighbouring country. The hostility is unrestrained and barely veiled. Several reports have also touted the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s demand for Pakistani artists to leave the country. There are obviously many ways to deal with Pakistan. But, if the media is to be believed, none of them appear to be advancing peace.
As the Indian media raises its relentless war cry, the government may find itself trapped between public demand for action and no viable military options. In such an event, how will the government dismount the tiger it is riding? The media could now force what Lawrence Freedman, the Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College in London, refers to as “symbolic security politics.” The term implies a situation in which military operations, understood to be ineffectual, are undertaken largely as a public spectacle. This leads to the media distorting foreign policy by first forcing military intervention, and then calling for limiting its use as casualties begin to increase.
The ferocity of the call for punitive action in Kashmir has now worked itself up to a frenzy so feverish that reporting on the ongoing unrest in the state is no longer important. Kashmir, the Indian media’s slant appears to indicate, may well be the reason that India and Pakistan should go to war, but that is still not enough for the situation in the region to warrant ground reportage. Shouting war-mongering slogans is far easier.
This incessant coverage of a war that hasn’t been fought yet is creating a dangerous expectation: that the war must start soon.
Compare the current media landscape in India to the pre-Iraq war reportage in the US. In August 2003, a poll conducted by the Washington Post found that 69 percent of the Americans who participated in the survey, thought it was either “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that Saddam Hussein had been involved in the attacks on 11 September 2001. Eighty percent of the viewers of Fox News believed that Iraq and al Qaeda were closely linked, or that the US had found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or that the global community was in favour of the war. As the findings of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States—constituted in November 2002 after a congressional legislation—proved, none of these claims were true.
In May 2004, The New York Times issued an apology for not being more sceptical of the government’s position on Iraq. The media in India finds itself in a similar situation, but it has not proved to be as self-aware. While Modi made a case against pursuing a war during his speech in Kozhikode on 24 September, the media is yet to display an appetite for any restraint.
Sonia Trikha Shukla is a strategic affairs analyst and an Adjunct Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies in Delhi