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India’s Media Is War-Crazy
Journalism is taking a back seat to jingoism.
If India and Pakistan ever resolve their conflict, it won’t be thanks to the Indian media.
Ever since a suicide attack in Pulwama, Kashmir, killed more than 40 paramilitary Indian soldiers on Feb. 14, India’s television news networks have been baying for blood, as have ordinary citizens on social media. The attack was carried out by a suicide bomber from the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group, which India blames Pakistan for harboring and sponsoring.
“We want revenge, not condemnation. … It is time for blood, the enemy’s blood,” thundered Arnab Goswami, a famously aggressive news anchor, the day after the attack. Even the wife of one of the slain soldiers, Mita Santra, was attacked online when she questioned the failure to prevent the attack and advocated peaceful dialogue with Pakistan. Some called her a coward. Others suggested she didn’t love her husband.
Yet the retired generals and diplomats commenting on the issue have been nowhere near as bellicose—proving that it’s usually those with no experience of war who are most enthusiastic about it. It’s been a long time since India actually fought a full-on war, instead of dealing with insurgencies and terrorist strikes, and the lack of experience seems to have left a generation of Indians with dangerously misplaced ideas about the glories of battle and victory.
Those responses were of a piece with the armchair jingoism that routinely takes over public discourse in India, stoking tension while obscuring larger issues of military intelligence, strategy, and resources. Across the border in Pakistan, similar dynamics are playing out. But it’s India that has the military whip hand—and where jingoism could prove exceptionally dangerous.
For the last two weeks, hashtags like #AvengePulwama and #surgicalstrike2—the latter referring to the last skirmish between the two countries in 2016—have dominated social media feeds in India, crescendoing as the two sides’ air forces skirmished this week. Television news anchors were not far behind with their competitive beating of the war drum—one even donned army fatigues and brandished a toy gun—and their labeling of more temperate voices as “anti-national.” In India, that phrase is often used to question someone’s patriotism or allegiance, especially targeting leftists or peace activists. One commentator on Twitter suggested that those who didn’t support the Indian government’s moves were “traitors.”
Absent from this is any sense of skin in the game, as the widow Mita Santra was quick to point out. As in the United States and other countries without conscription, the percentage of Indians who have served in the armed forces is small and among the elite is even smaller, especially as the economy has boomed in recent decades. Today’s pugnacious social media warriors and TV news anchors have seen devastating acts of terrorism in their lifetime, but few of them are of an age to remember the country’s last real wars with Pakistan: the 22-day skirmish in 1965, which cost 11,500 casualties, and the 1971 war that led to the creation of Bangladesh.
Apart from the loss of life, those conflicts had very real effects on everyday life and commerce even in the rest of the country. In 1965 there was rationing in southern India, far from the borders with Pakistan. During both wars there were blackouts and curfews, sirens and drills, as newspaper reports from the time show. “Underneath that boyish bravado, we were all terribly frightened,” writes one Indian who was a schoolboy at the time of the ’71 war.
High emotion after a terrorist attack is understandable, especially on the free-for-all public sphere of social media. And the anger is not unjustified: Pakistan’s sheltering of terrorist groups is an enormous problem for India. But unrestrained rhetoric can have dangerous consequences: Kashmiris in other parts of the country have been facing threats, for one. The rhetoric also put pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s already hawkish government to retaliate in some way, especially with elections around the corner.
Especially alarming has been the way in which Indian news media, especially television, contributed to that pressure, trading journalistic responsibility for tabloid hysterics. High-profile journalists ditched any pretense of objectivity, tweeting their support of India’s retaliatory strike. One TV news anchor, Gaurav Sawant, tweeted that India should “Strike again & again.”
Meanwhile, independent fact-checking groups have struggled to keep pace with the spate of fake videos and images doing the rounds. (This is not the first time Indian television news has behaved irresponsibly—during the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, channels live broadcast commandos in action, endangering the operation.)
The high media drama has been equaled only by the depressing dearth of reliable information. India’s retaliatory attack was first communicated in a briefing by a senior official who shared few details and took no questions. Yet unconfirmed details, presumably leaked by so-called highly placed sources, poured out all day from the networks and even newspapers, including casualty numbers that varied anywhere from 300 to 600. A Reuters report from the ground in Pakistan now suggests the Indian attack on Balakot did not do much damage. As one media commentator noted, journalists were too willing to “reproduce unverified, contradictory and speculative information” that suited the government. Anchors and pundits seemed too excited by the conflict to question the establishment.
Here are some of the questions that much of the Indian media failed to ask in the past fortnight: Where are the pictures of the strike on Balakot? Who exactly was taken out? Was Pakistan prepared for the airstrike, as some reports have suggested? What is the retaliatory strategy at work? Was it appropriate for the prime minister to address a campaign rally the day after the strike? And how did over 40 soldiers die in the Feb. 14 suicide bombing: Was there a failure of intelligence or communication?
Cheering for war, the Indian media left the important questions to a young soldier’s widow.