With 17 soldiers slain in the terror attack in Uri, certain arcs were certain to play out. Public anger, outrage and debate over response were chiefly visible amongst them. Justifiably so; no country’s government, media or civil society should take such mass-murder, whether of civilians or troops, lying down. Largely absent, though, from the larger discourse, was introspection. Inward-looking queries about tactical follies, preparedness, intelligence and root causes seemed sidelined by emotion. What necessitated, in part, a hard look in the mirror, has ended up on a trampoline for our highest fancies of military might.
This nuance-free whirlwind, fortified by the subsequent surgical strikes and jubilation, has brought some of our baser tendencies to the fore. What defines this behaviour is the ability to be supremely confident and vague at the same time. And as a safeguard, it presents itself as a hybrid spokesperson of the armed forces, patriotism, the government, common public and all things Indian. From online comments sections to Mumbai studios, this behaviour is manifesting itself in comfortable calls-to-arms and cheerleading.
Vacuous war-mongering and grave-dancing-jingoism is pervading a collective psyche. It is a chronic and dangerous phenomenon, especially since it is getting all the help it needs.
Last year, Indian commandos stepped into Myanmar and conducted an operation, in response to an NSCN-K ambush in Chandel, Manipur that left 18 troops dead. At least 38 insurgents were reportedly killed in the strike. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar immediately hailed ‘changed mindsets’ and a neighbouring ‘fear of India’s new posture’, even though numerous defence analysts asserted that these strikes were nothing new.
This sharp departure from a previously tighter-lipped defence policy had an embarrassing effect; it elicited a face-saving statement from Myanmar, denying any violation of its territory, which threw more questions India’s way. Junior information minister Rajyavardhan Rathore’s use of hashtags such as #56inRocks – in reference to the PM’s much-acclaimed chest, also injected a reverential, celebratory pitch to the proceedings. Such a self-congratulatory approach to security seemed bizarre and also ran the risk of politicising national defence.
Now, in the wake of the Uri attack and the Indian counter, it has been more of the same gloating – but much more. Like #56inRocks, Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu found a sly way of tying covert military action to the government by declaring the LoC ‘swachh‘. In an interview with ABP News, BJP MP Subramanian Swamy said that war between India and Pakistan has begun, it just hasn’t been announced. He went on to state in the same interview that 10 crore Indians will perish if Pakistan launches a nuclear attack. This, according to Swamy, was a nominal figure with regards to India’s total population and he claimed that Pakistan would be completely flattened in the aftermath.
Parrikar was at it again. “Indian troops were like Hanuman who did not quite know their prowess before the surgical strikes,” he declared. He likened Pakistan to a clueless surgery patient still recovering from the anaesthesia, and congratulated the Army for administering, in his own words, ‘Unke gaal pe paanch thappad’ (five blows on their face).
Apart from how unbecoming it is of a Cabinet member to thump his chest so cheaply, this jingoism is emblematic of a larger shift in geopolitical attitude. There is a new outspoken tendency, bordering on the provocative. With a gladiatorial sense of patriotism and the comfort of counting amongst civilians, politicians from the ruling party are fiddling needlessly with danger. This recent treatment of national security as a soapbox to exult or bay for blood, of airing sharp views better left to a private conversation, may cause unforeseeable diplomatic damage. It also sets a bad precedent for the public, sections of which are likely to take cues from our aggressive, verbose netas, who are quite aware of the potential electoral reward for this shrillness.
That Indian TV media is reducing us to our worst and is, by and large, still ploughing deeper pits to fall into, is not a new notion. Here again, a section of the media was presented a ripe chance to display the kind of presumption and embroidery it had with the JNU situation in February.
Zee News’ Sudhir Chaudhary used his popular pulpit to openly stoke public rage: “Krodh ko gale lagane ki zaroorat hai. Krodh pe thanda paani daal diya toh shaheedon ka apman karenge,’ (We need to embrace our anger and not put it out with cold water. We’ll be insulting the martyrs if we do that.), he insisted. “Ye sirf ek aatankwadi hamla nahin, Bharat ke khilaaf ek yudh hai aur yudh kabhi shanti ki bhavnao ke saath lada nahin jaa sakta.” (This [Uri] is not just a terrorist attack but a war that has been declared against India. And a war can never be fought peacefully.)
Deepak Chaurasia, Editor and Anchor at India News, mirrored this hyperbole with the air of having personally conducted a census: “Bacche bacche ka khoon khaul raha hai, Pakistan ko sabak sikhane ki maang lagatar tez hoti ja rahi hai,” (Each and every child in India is angry. Demands to teach Pakistan a lesson is growing everyday.), declared Chaurasia.
Sudharshan News Chief Suresh Chavhanke pitched in with the sort of talk normally seen in extremist videos on YouTube: “Kutte ki dum Pakistan kabhi seedha nahin ho sakta, ye jab pata hai, toh ham Pakistan ka naam-o-nishan mitane ki ghoshna ham kab karenge?” (When we know that Pakistan never learns from or acts on its mistakes, why haven’t we already declared a war against them already?) Then, as a video package took over from where Chavhanke left, a voiceover said, “… Pakistan ko chaar hisso mein todne ka plan turant taiyar ho.” (…We must plan at once, to destroy Pakistan.)
On the English side of things, of course, Times Now’s Arnab Goswami surprised nobody. Off the heels of the Uri attack, he said, “We have to retaliate, we have to punish. There is no time to wait! There is no time to deliberate!” Is it the job of a journalist to decide whether or not deliberation is needed on delicate matters of security? If so, then it would lend a redundancy to the high offices of the defence ministry and the Army’s top brass. If not, then Goswami is simply saying whatever he wishes to whip up a military-laced nationalist sentiment – regardless of the social confusion, damage or dumbed-down either/or binaries it creates.
“We will get you in ways you cannot imagine!” he thundered, before literally claiming that “seeking for nuance out there, we lose the meaning of our own actions”; a bizarre statement even Fox News might steer clear of.
There is a stronger case than ever that a number of channels belong to the entertainment section of television rather than news. That, post-Uri, our broadcast media near-unanimously started howling for blood is just the latest example of a long and disturbing trend. For a long time, media houses such as those mentioned above have brought a ‘Rottweiler mentality’ to news, ready to ambush anything with the force of a thousand jerked knees.
Presented with any stimulus which deviates from their narrow narrative, these anchors scream, shame, bully and will attempt to pass off the worst folly as a self-assured fact. This kind of manufactured rage always needs an identifying of the ‘other’. In the current case, an education on the Army’s sacrifice and discussion on the historical, geographic and economic roots of the issue were needed; a sober look at Pakistan and our own options.
Instead, the presentations snowballed into incoherent chants of war, nuclear posturing and potential death tolls. In the melee, the ‘other’ was created: the ‘apologists’, ‘pro-Pakistan doves’ and ‘pseudo-liberals’ – basically any person who touted a studied approach instead of prematurely whining for heads to roll. This occurs because hate cannot exist in a vacuum; it needs a foe to hurl things at.
Arnab Goswami, dissatisfied with Pakistan as the sole target, found a way to weave into the narrative the ‘enemy within’. This injects further heat into the show as now, there are two targets. It is a fast, disorienting affair and is meant to be so. None of it is accidental. These are TRP-gleaning techniques, borrowed in large part from Fox News, and they seem to be working.
In ideal circumstances, the variety of agenda-driven, unsubstantiated talk heard on these channels would not be worthy of being addressed. However, it cannot be so. This, after all, is broadcast nationally. These shows shape a huge slice of public opinion. These anchors are influential, widely-watched and enough of their audiences are willing to accept their rantings as gospel. That is the problem; that so many people do tune in to follow the trail of hate and nonsense. There is an element of viewer choice at play here, and it reflects a vicarious mentality.
Social media is a neutral entity. When used for good, for example, to bring original, local news to people, it can deliver well. When used in a negative direction, it can become a surprisingly efficient agent of hate.
Much like propaganda masquerading as news, negative sentiment on social media succeeds in spreading due to its quality of instant gratification. Even more so than TV, the world of messages and hate memes on WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter can condense issues into the tiniest format. By trapping an issue into a one-size-fits-all, easily digestible form, this new media appeals to the lowest common denominator and the lowest attention span. It completely dispenses the need to analyse. It can be easily concocted by anybody at home and relies on loaded hashtags and buzzwords to distill complex situations into ignorance and aggression.
After the terror attack last month, all manner of toxic material began circulating on social media. In the first instance, it was based on the notion of revenge, and, after the surgical strikes, on bravado. In the discreet, anonymous realm of the Internet, all gloves are off. Nothing is being held back in the expletive-ridden targeting of Kashmiris, Muslims, all Pakistanis, leftists and liberals which are circulating on mobile phones all over India. When anybody with an Internet connection can have a platform, the floodgates are thrown open. It’s what we see now. By this time, it is a phenomenon hard to de-escalate.
What the whipping up of divisive sentiment does, even in an international situation such as this, is train that sentiment inwardly in the long run. When a politician, journalist or anyone else incites hostility, it eventually finds its way to minorities, ideological opponents and the like. Even if diplomatically redundant, spreading hatred in an age of instant connectivity has consequences. It causes social unrest, indoctrination and brings out the ugliness in society – from the creation and advocacy of rumours of a direct fund for Army weaponry to make India ‘Asia’s Boss’ to fast food joints offering discounts if customers use a hate-mongering code of their invention.
It is vital to understand that to bring to light internal shortcomings is not the same as endorsing Pakistan. It is also necessary to know the difference between Pakistan’s Army, the government, and people. Pakistan’s Army and successive governments’ attitude to security and terrorism is well-documented. There is jingoism and immaturity on the other side of the border, reflective of the Islamic republic’s insecurity and crumbling institutions.
For India, a serious note of Pakistan’s activities must be taken, but there is another issue at play here – that we compare. As screenwriter Javed Akhtar said at an event last year, those who point to examples of intolerance and violent rhetoric in other countries to justify internal ongoings are shortchanging a unique ethos. The vast difference that India’s constitutional, secular democracy brings, puts us in stark contrast with our neighbour. To excuse needless rabidity and hate by saying there is an even worse variety available elsewhere is to set very lax standards indeed. For Indian anchors, retired Army generals, legislators and larger civil society to mirror the bluster of some of their Pakistani counterparts (and use the same as justification) is simply convenient. And, in that vein, a careless call to arms is disrespectful to the troops.
The term ‘befitting reply’ is used surprisingly often to describe comeuppance with regards to Indo-Pak warfare, skirmishes and strikes. Perhaps drawing inspiration from the Battle of Asal Uttar in the 1965 war, the jargon has fully seeped into military, journalistic and political discourse. Even in the past twenty days, BJP leaders Rajnath Singh and Nirmal Singh, IAF chief Arup Raha and Pakistan Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif have all used this old terminology. It represents a historical tit-for-tat with no end in sight.
In threat or in action, an endless game of befitting replies can satisfy nobody, except those who like to cheer and jeer from the sidelines. Actual fighting sounds like a far-off proposition in the comfort of a home or TV studio, which enables individuals to demand for it on others’ behalf. This is the vicarious tendency, devoid of all self-awareness. It takes for granted somebody else’s valour and life.
At least, it should rid itself of the hypocrisy; if the old indeed dream for wars for the young to die in, perhaps it should come with the caveat of leading by example.