Fanning the flames in Pakistan and India

When nuclear-armed rivals Pakistan and India exchange fire, world leaders rush to make peace. But within these two countries the media pushes the countries closer to the brink.

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

An electric fence demarcates a portion of the Line of Control between Pakistan and India.

Asif Akhtar Asif Akhtar is a PhD Candidate in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. @e_scape_artist

As Pakistan and India exhanged fire, both country's media houses also mobilized to pound war drums in an effort to undermine their respective adversaries.

The hostilities flared up after Indian armed forces claimed they carried out what they termed a “surgical strike” across the Pakistani side of Kashmir in response to an attack on an Indian military camp at Uri, for which India blames Pakistan. While heavy shelling and exchange of fire was reported from both sides during the early hours of September 29th, the Pakistani Army claims that no violation of the Line of Control took place and that Indian claims of a “surgical strike” have been trumped up.

This situation brings a unique twist to the age old territorial dispute as the recent claims of infraction have become a major media event. Although cross-border fire is a typical feature of the dynamics around the LoC, this is the first time India has both initiated military action and has made a public claim of having done so, claiming unreleased drone footage as evidence.

The situation became murkier when soon after the Indian announcement of surgical strikes, the Pakistani side denied that any such event had taken place.

To outside observers trying to make sense of the diametrically opposed claims, in the two distinct mediatic ‘truth regimes’ it would appear that these surgical strikes’ occurred inside Schrödinger's box: they both took place, yet they did not take place at the same time. In this skewed reality the belligerent party is claiming itself to be the aggressor violating ceasefire, while the victim is claiming no such violation took place. This can be understood as an inversion of situations - like terror attacks in Mumbai or Pathankot - where India claims Pakistan to be the aggressor, yet Pakistan denies any infraction on its part.

Meanwhile, media professionals and inspired social media users alike are waging an intensifying propaganda war further fueling the flames of discord in an already delicate and escalating situation.

One Indian political analyst told me that this proactive strategy from India made sense to the government because the domestic media has become “thoroughly beholden to its basest, right-wing underbelly”.

While the two countries media systems, heralded by their boisterous set of 24-hour news channels, have taken it upon themselves to defend their respective Army’s narratives, very little is still known of what actually transpired. On Sunday, Pakistan Army’s Inter-Service Public Relations countered the Indian media hype by flying in journalists and foreign correspondents to forward points on the LoC to show lack of evidence corroborating Indian claims.

A foreign correspondent reporting from Pakistan, who could not be named without his agency’s permission, said the military-guided tour had its own limitations rushing from one spot to another in a helicopter. However he appeared convinced by what was presented to him by the Pakistan Army and what he was able to glean through interviews with the local villagers.

The next day Pakistan’s largest circulating Urdu daily, Jang, ran the headline “India’s drama exposed.” Meanwhile the English daily, Dawn, synthesizing facts from the same ISPR press conference, ran the headline “Escalation not in anyone’s interest”.

The correspondent mentioned above believes there is more room for dissent in Pakistan’s English press, while the Pakistani TV channels remain more sensationalist and hardline – though there is equal polarization on both sides of the border.

Tensions have also been rife in a different way at the Wagah border in Punjab where the famous changing of the guards takes place. The fantastical military ritual is famous for the two sides engaging in an over-the-top dramatized drill routine complete with battle cries and war posturing in outlandish gestures that are mirrored by both sides. This spectacle has often been compared to Monty Python's famous “The Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch. 

It seems both the countries have embarked on a ‘silly walk’ of their own, and their respective media houses have, like a many-headed pied piper, taken the masses along for the ride into this hypnotic parade like sentiment. Pakistani TV channels have been uncharacteristically airing the whole hour-long ceremony to beam the martial tone of the border into homes across the nation.

The tension on the borders, as portrayed by news channels on both sides, has also spilt over into the public consciousness through social media in a very polarized way. Pakistani and Indian users took to Twitter and Facebook to back the patriotic line being towed by their respective governments, military and media.

“The situation is getting dangerous because people keep buying into this rhetoric that the government and the country are one and the same,” says Nahim Abdullah, social media manager at Buzzfeed India. Nahim says that any criticism of the government is seen as criticism of the country and that this notion spills over on the internet as well, where people are actively rooting for a war, however unlikely and dangerous that might be.

Although voices of dissent do exist on both sides, they appear to be muffled by the louder hardline voices on the right.

When the Pakistani cricket star, Shahid Afridi, made a statement on Twitter stressing peace and neighborly relations, India Today ran a news story claiming, “Afridi scared of Indian Army…begs for peace.”

The fact that mainstream media as well as social media are nationally mobilized appears to contradict conventional wisdom. Ideally, independent media is a forum for critical debate and informed discussion and are meant to question the official truth through journalism and investigative reporting.

An anchor for Pakistan’s state broadcaster, Babar Gorsi says that during times of turmoil, the private news channels start behaving like state television while retaining the tendency to be even more sensational and propagandistic, to one up the rival country’s media with the hype they generate.

Social media is thought to be a counterweight to conventional media, however, the views on both sides tilt towards extremes as Pakistani and Indian users on Twitter and Facebook feud with each other.

“Though there are some rational voices on social media, many have been parroting war talk from the news media,” says Abdullah, “to be honest they're even more hawkish.”

On Pakistani social media, users unleashed on celebrity Adnan Sami, equating his sudden weight loss to a surgical strike, after the singer who expatriated to India in the 1990s tweeted in support of India.

The media has been a constant feature in this conflict, starting with the Indian Army’s own publicity campaign, and the Pakistan Army’s counter claim that the Indians have simply “rebranded” LoC crossfire marking a new theater of war. On the other hand, the media on both sides of the border have mobilized against each other, taking it upon themselves to dispute each others’ claims rather than seeking out the facts, pointing to a kind of ‘weaponization’ of media.

This leaves the discursive void of balanced journalism and investigative reporting, which is the media’s responsibility in times of peace and especially in times of war.

The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.