Has India Lost the International Propaganda War on 'Surgical Strikes'?
NEW DELHI: At the Agra summit in 2001journalists from both India and Pakistan were hungrily waiting out the seemingly never ending deliberations between then Prime Minister Atal Bihar Vajpayee and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. There was complete silence for hours, no sign of the Foreign Office spokespersons so when Pakistan sent out its officials into the media area there was a virtual rush towards them. The first word thus on the crucial dialogue that of course followed its own twists and turns, came from the Pakistanis.
New Delhi created a buzz when it announced now that its Special Forces had gone across the Line of Control, hit seven ‘terror launch pads’, and inflicted massive casualties in Pakistan. The mood of those who had been advocating war since the terror attack in Uri changed dramatically to euphoria, as the drums were rolled, and eulogies on the government and more specifically Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Pakistan’s immediate response was of denial that was taken lightly by India with a ‘what else do you expect’ from military officers and ‘sources’ speaking to sections of the media. The surgical strikes have not taken place, there was intense firing along the Line of Control in which two Pakistan soldiers were killed, but no India troops crossed the line, was the initial Pakistan position that those associated with the establishment here insisted was a reflection of Islamabad’s ‘weakness’ and reluctance to escalate the issue further.
The government basked in the euphoric media spotlights, with PM Modi earning kudos from all across the opposition spectrum as well for walking the talk.
It took New Delhi a few more days to realise that while domestically the BJP and PM Modi had gained in the constituency that was advocating war, and had been feeling demoralised since the terror attack on Pathankot, internationally there seemed to be a major problem. In that the space outside the region was being filled by Pakistan propaganda, with an aggressive outreach launched by the military.
The first signs (that still did not ring any alarm bells in New Delhi) came predictably from the Pakistani media that matched the New Delhi media in decibles, well almost, in propagating that the surgical strikes had not taken place. This was while Indian TV anchors were thumping their chests, joined in victory by ‘experts’ across the border. Similar experts appeared on Pakistan TV to insist that no such strikes could have happened, and their Army had to be believed. Nationalism thus was evoked by both sides to insist that their respective governments and militaries were right.
Pakistan took a second step rather quickly. It organised a visit by a huge contingent of international reporters to one of the locations that India said it had hit. And just as ‘sources’ here were dismissing this as ‘the usual propaganda by the Pakistanis’ the big international media started coming out with stories and reports almost supporting Islamabad’s claims.
A CNN report insisted that it had spoken to villagers at the spot and no such strikes were reported.
This was followed by a detailed report by a journalist who carries considerable credibility in New Delhi, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan Pamela Constable who wrote for the Washington Post: Villagers in three areas along the de facto border between Indian- and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir said this past week that they had fled their homes in fear after intense shelling and firing from the Indian side but that they did not believe India’s claim Thursday that it had sent armed troops to conduct late-night “surgical strikes” on militant targets there.
In several dozen interviews, residents of the Bhimber, Chamb and Sahmani districts adjoining the Line of Control said they had been jarred from sleep by the barrage of firepower Wednesday. But none said they had seen or heard anything that supported India’s claim that it carried out cross-border strikes on several staging areas for militant groups that left “double digits” of militants dead.”
These reports in the international media have been brought the Indian narrative of the cross border surgical strikes into question in what appears to be a snowball impact. In fact The Diplomat in an article by Shawn Snow has carried a report questioning India’s military capabilities with the headline “Is India Capable of a Surgical Strike in Pakistan Controlled Kashmir? A surgical strike operation by Indian forces begs the question of the military’s capability to launch such an attack.”
Constable further added in her report based largely on interviews with villagers in the area, “Under domestic pressure to retaliate, the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced it had conducted a five-hour overnight paramilitary attack on several suspected terrorist camps, killing scores. Pakistan’s military claimed that it killed eight Indian soldiers in retaliatory fire and that two of its men had died when India shelled a border post in Sahmani.
A cross-border strike by India would be the first major breach of the Line of Control it has publicly acknowledged in years of hostile but cautious relations with Pakistan. In the past it has avoided an overt provocation that could risk a wider conflict, while accusing Pakistan of harboring and supporting terrorist groups.”
New Delhi at the first briefings had made it clear that it would be releasing a video of the strikes very soon. More recently Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh had reiterated this maintaining that all speculation would be set to rest with the videos of the surgical strikes in Pakistan territory. However, the videos have still to be released with now members of the Opposition urging the government to counter the Pakistan propaganda and release the evidence as soon as possible.
Former Congress Minister P.Chidambaram and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal have asked the government to give the evidence. Kejriwal released a video (embed video here) saluting PM Modi for the action, but insisting that given the “dirty” propaganda by Pakistan it was essential the government provide the evidence the ‘no strikes’ claim.
Interestingly, these comments led the BJP to unleash Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on the two opposition leaders. At a press briefing Prasad said, “I want to ask Arvind Kejriwal whether he believes in the extraordinary valour of our Army or not in conducting surgical strikes." He further added, "Under the garb of seeking proof, don't belittle great leadership, courage and sacrifice of our armed forces. Why are you getting influenced by propaganda of Pakistan?” He said that Kejriwal’s comments had become headlines in the Pakistan media.
The Minister also questioned Chidambaram asking why he too had joined the bandwagon of those doubting the Indian jawans capability in conducting surgical strikes. He asked the Congress to explain its former Home Ministers comments.
An environment has sought to be created where any kind of comment even by opposition leaders is being questioned. Journalists and independent commentators are being trolled for asking valid questions arising from the surgical strikes, with the term anti national being attached to bonafide Indian citizens. More so on the social media where the effort to stamp out debate and discussion is being led largely by those without proof of identity but all who claim to be PM Modi’s supporters, or BJP voters. As a senior journalist writing on the state of the media said, “it seems as if for these people India is no longer a large, vibrant democracy, secure and big, but a small nation where to raise questions becomes rebellion, or as they insist anti-national.”