War and peace: how the media covered the Uri attack

BY SHUMA RAHA| IN Media Practice | 20/09/2016
TV and social media went to war. But newspapers and news portals brought sanity and balance to Indian media’s response to the Uri attack.
Kashmir’s press was sceptical of the govt narrative adds SHUMA RAHA

 

Television and print media are very different animals. But there are times when the difference between the way they cover a big news story becomes particularly stark. Sunday’s terror attack on an army camp in Uri in Jammu & Kashmir was one such occasion. It brought into sharp relief the fact that Indian television studios are fast becoming mirror images of frenzied social media rants even as print — and sections of online news portals — continue to offer some measure of reasoned analysis and calm.

No sooner had the Indian Army announced that the four slain militants were foreign operatives, possibly belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammad in Pakistan, the television channels streaked off on a flaming warpath. Sunday through to Monday, most of the anchors were steering talk shows whose sole purpose seemed to be to make the case for launching retaliatory military strikes against Pakistan. “Payback Time”, “War Not Peace”, “Time to Teach Pakistan a Lesson”, “Pakistan’s ‘K’ game is over”, “Should we, a nuclear nation, sit with our hands tied? (the last is a translation from Hindi)” — such were the headlines of the high decibel TV debates playing on Times Now, India Today TV, CNN News 18, Zee News and so on.  

Politicians added their own bit of sabre-rattling. BJP leader Ram Madhav declared grandly: “for a tooth a complete jaw”. It was the perfect slogan, high-blown and muscular, and it was picked up and repeated by the TV channels that throbbed with avenging fury and whipped up the war cry. That the two nations are nuclear powers seemed irrelevant — with one commentator, a retired army general with fierce facial hair, proclaiming that Pakistan wouldn’t dare to nuke us because they knew we’d nuke them back and then “not a grain of rice would grow in the Punjab for the next 800 years.”

The small matter of nuclear devastation on our side of Punjab and elsewhere was not mentioned.

Amidst this supercharged, hyper-nationalist  bluster — which is TRP gold, by the way — it was left to the newspapers and some of the news portals to bring a sense of sanity and balance to Indian media’s response to the Uri attack.

 

"The small matter of nuclear devastation on our side of Punjab and elsewhere was not mentioned."

 

Leading English dailies such as The Times of India, The Indian Express, Hindustan Times and The Hindu, took into account the fact that the Indian government was probably considering all options, including limited military strikes on terror training camps across the Line of Control in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. On Monday the director general of military operations, Lt Gen. Ranbir Singh, stated: “We reserve the right to respond to any act of the adversary at a time and place of our choosing.”

However, even as they dwelt on the various military options available to the country to “inflict costs on Pakistan”, each of these papers counseled caution and restraint. The Times of India, which had by far the most extensive coverage of the Uri attack, was also the most jingoistic of the lot in terms of headlines: “PM clears effective response, Army says it’s ready & willing to hit back” screamed TOI’s Page One lead on Tuesday. It also took a leaf out of the insta polls and spot judgments on social media and in TV studios and published an online survey conducted by TimesOfIndia.com. According to the survey, 67% of the respondents felt that India must hit back at Pakistan with all its military might. 

Even so, TOI had enough in the package not make its response to the Uri attack into a one-way ticket to Valhalla. A report titled “There’s no good military option’’ listed the reasons as to why surgical strikes could be counter productive, a comment piece by G. Parthasarathy, former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, opined that “isolating Pakistan in South Asia should be our major priority” and Tuesday’s editorial too said: “As far as formulating an appropriate strategic response to Pakistan is concerned, government needs to think  things through… any military response needs to be carefully calibrated.”

As far as headlines go, The Indian Express, Hindustan Times and The Hindu were much more restrained than the TOI. “Govt treads with caution towards next step” said The Express on Tuesday, along with a report by senior journalist Praveen Swamy titled “Avoid rash military action, commanders advise Govt”. Hindustan Times led with a report headlined “India to isolate Pak globally as it readies response to Uri attack”. The Hindu echoed the same line — in a muted, five column headline, it said: “India sticks to diplomatic offensive”. 

The editorials and opinion pieces too pointed out that Uri hadn’t changed anything: India’s best bet to contain Pak-sponsored terror was to stifle the country diplomatically rather than play into its hands by rushing headlong into some kind of retaliatory military offensive. Writing in HT, senior journalist Prem Shankar Jha said that India’s response to Uri must not be a “punitive counterattack on Pakistan. For that will free Islamabad’s hands to send huge numbers of terrorists into Kashmir.” Again, as Praveen Swamy wrote in The Express: “Pakistan could hit back, targeting Indian industrial infrastructure, which is much more expensive than tent-and- donkey cart training camps. India could, of course, hit back again — but this course is fraught. Every step up the escalation ladder … has to be carefully thought through when nuclear weapons are involved.”

The editorials reflected a similar line of thought, and argued that military strikes would achieve little. The Express editorial put it thus: “How might Pakistan be deterred from sponsoring terrorism, without ending up in a conflict that jeopardises India’s big strategic aim, high economic growth? The easy-reach answers — cross-border shelling, or raids on Pakistani forward pickets — will achieve little…Full-scale conflict, of course, is possible — but the outcomes are always uncertain, more so in a nuclear battlefield. The choices are hard, the stakes are high. Reason rather than rage should mark the road ahead. 

 

"Voices of sanity emanated from some of the news portals as well. "

 

And an Hindustan Times’s editorial, headlined “Military action is not an option” was unequivocal in its view that the “Centre’s best bet lies in embarrassing Pakistan at international platforms and isolating it”.

Voices of sanity emanated from some of the news portals as well. Writing in The Wire, the websites’s co-founder and editor Siddharth Varadarajan said, “Every course of action we hear about – artillery fire along the Line of Control, special forces operations against a terrorist camp across the LoC, air strikes, one former army chief even wants India to raise its own suicide squad – will bring with it attendant risks at the tactical level as well as the danger of escalation, even if limited to conventional means.

What is essential is that all options be evaluated professionally and not politically, so that the diplomatic advantage India has is not squandered in a denouement that Pakistan fully expects and wants.”

Scroll.in too had an important story, setting the record straight that Pakistan defence minister Khawaja M. Asif’s statement that his country would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons if necessary, did not come as a retort to Indian home minister Rajnath Singh calling Pakistan a “terrorist state” in the wake of Uri. Asif’s statement, which was much bandied about on social media and amped up the let’s-go-to-war rhetoric, had actually been made the day before, in an interview he gave to Geo TV. 

While the national media — and the TV channels — shaped the public discourse in their own way, what of the media in Jammu & Kashmir?

A fellow journalist from the Valley, which has witnessed huge unrest and severe crackdowns ever since Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was shot dead by security forces on July 8, made a surprising revelation. She told me that the talk on the streets is that India engineered the Uri atrocity, ie, killed her own soldiers, to malign Pakistan. This is exactly the kind of wild accusations that the more rabid elements of the Pakistani establishment like to advance. For example, an opinion piece in the Pakistani newspaper, The News International, said on Monday that Uri was a “Pathankot-like Indian-staged drama to trumpet its terrorism mantra against Pakistan.”

If such deranged assertions are finding currency among the common folk in the Valley, that’s disturbing news indeed. Thankfully, Kashmir’s print media — at least the English language papers that one scanned — do not seem to have bought into this bizarre spiel. However, none of the papers covered the Uri attack— and its possible ramifications — with anywhere near the zeal with which the national media have been covering it. Greater Kashmir and Rising Kashmir did not even carry an editorial on the subject. It was almost as if Uri was a relatively minor blip in the 70 plus-day-long orgy of violence and curfew and untold suffering that the people in the Valley had been going through.

Interestingly, on September 19, Greater Kashmir’s report showed some tell tale signs of scepticism about the Indian government’s narrative on the Uri attack. GK put fidayeen in quotes, did not mention the involvement of Pakistan even once, and omitted any reference to the Army’s statement that the militants were carrying munitions and medicines with “Pakistan” markings. 

The Jammu-based Kashmir Times, which had a more comprehensive coverage than the other two papers reviewed, did run an editorial on September 19, where it said:  “The knee jerk response to the attack has been neither wise diplomatically, nor militarily. Uri being a border area, there are adequate and strong suspicions that the attack was the doing of militants who infiltrated from across the borders and thus, Pakistan hand cannot be ruled out. Maturity lies in first investigating all aspects of the attack before indulging in Pakistan bashing or amplifying the revenge and war cries.” 

The takeaway from this editorial is not Kashmir Times’s uncertain position on Pakistan’s culpability. The takeaway is in the larger point that it goes on to make — that “prolonged and unaddressed unrest in Kashmir creates conducive conditions for such attacks”. 

In the wake of Uri, and as the families of 18 martyred soldiers grieve their loss, perhaps this is what needs to be front and centre of the national discourse.

Shuma Raha is a senior journalist based in Delhi.
 Twitter: @ShumaRaha

 

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