The Kargil conflict of 1999 - which belied the claim that the acquisition of the Bomb by India and Pakistan had banished the prospect of even a conventional war between them - saw the media playing their flag-waving, drum-beating role with gusto
Less than two months after India's nuclear-weapon tests of May 1998, even as the country's media was singing hosannas to the "historic achievement", a group of us in the southern city of Chennai set up a Journalists Against Nuclear Weapons (JANW). Recalling the event in an article in the Lahore-based Daily Times on July 31, 2009, I talked about "one of the first tasks we took up -- a review of Indian media responses to Pokharan II as we christened the tests (Pokharan I being the so-titled “peaceful nuclear explosion” or PNE of 1974).
Our aim was two-fold. As I put it in the article, "...we wanted to show how the media, even of the elite variety, placed itself at the service of nuclear nationalism and militarism. The JANW’s review was also intended to demonstrate the fact that the state-manipulated, management-dictated coverage of the event did not represent a 'media consensus', as it excluded the views of dissenters within the media."
Our slender publication titled The Media Bomb (available athttp://www.pppindia.com/janw/1998/index.html) linked it all to the larger world-view of the media barons and bosses or the classes they represent. One of their techniques was to identify opposition to the nuclear program with the Left and then damn the Left. Another trick, tried even more often, was to identify the opposition with the Non-Alignment Movement and damn the NAM.
The end of India’s days as a front-line leader of nations seeking global nuclear disarmament was greeted with cries of elation. A leading newspaper lauded the country for leaving the “delightful club of the destitute” at long last. The applause for the nuclear tests and program, it was made clear, was part of a package of ultra-nationalism, with its religious-communal and rabid-militarist components.
Nothing much has changed since then.
The article was a review of a book by Indian academician Teresa Joseph on Reporting Nuclear Pakistan: Security Perceptions and the Indian Press. The author speaks of the dominant media's adoption of a state-centric, state-dictated security paradigm. She sums it up thus: “The major source of threats to the country has been projected as that arising from outside its borders. These threats often call for military responses, by way of enhanced capabilities. In the process, given the historical circumstances of the region, Pakistan has been projected as the major source of threats to the country in terms of external aggression as well as inciting trouble within.”
She cites several illustrations of the way the paradigm flavors the media fare on subjects as far afield as culture and sports. My own favorite, quoted in the Daily Times article, is a report from a respected “national” (or New Delhi-based) daily, which "combines sports with security and compounds foul-play allegations with foreign policy apprehensions." The story on an India-Pakistan cricket series sports the headline: “Can Saurav [Ganguly] and his men fulfill every Indian’s ultimate dream?”
The intro says: “When Ian Botham stated that Pakistan is the place to send your mother-in-law for an all-expenses-paid holiday, he was not kidding. It is that sort of place...Ball-tampering, reverse swing, match-fixing, territorial strikes, bomb blasts, boycotts, threats, anything goes in Pakistan.”
This is one of the many instances of cricket as conduct of war by other means. The media, however, has played no less provocative a role in real war situations. The Kargil conflict of 1999 - which belied the claim that the acquisition of the Bomb by India and Pakistan had banished the prospect of even a conventional war between them - saw the media playing their flag-waving, drum-beating role with gusto.
It was not just the media of the Indian medium that jumped into the fray. The elite, English-language publications and channels did not lag behind. A leading (some would call it the leading) channel kept up the country's morale by visiting the villages of some of the "martyrs." It outdid itself when covering the episode where the Pakistan army had reportedly returned the "mutilated" bodies of some Indian soldiers.
The editor-in-chief of a prominent English-language newspaper chain, in a subsequent seminar, admitted that he had a similar story about "mutilated" Pakistani soldiers. Presumably in a fit of patriotism, however, he had decided to "spike" the story, as they say in newspaper offices.
For an even more fervent a display of patriotism, we must fast-forward to the last week of November 2008, when Mumbai witnessed a terrorist strike that claimed hundreds of lives. The electronic media made sure that the whole of India, too, was a witness to their own version of the tragedy.
For three days, the drama went on. And, from dawn to dusk, on every day, television-viewer watched the war, amidst running commentaries that were not exactly calculated to ensure sub-continental peace. The commentaries were interspersed with rousing footage of celeb reactions, with a former movie star even calling for a "pre-emptive" strike on a "cross-border" terror camp.
This particular "war on terror" continued after the capture of one of the alleged terrorists, Ajmal Qasab of Pakistani origin and through his months-long trial. The coverage of the open-court trial made a hero of public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam, who ended up with a media-conferred halo as he asked for a death sentence for 20-year-old Qasab as "an agent of the Devil."
The media has not stood up for Qasab's fight of appeal, which "patriots" want to be denied. It has not stood seriously in the way of the far right opposing resumption of the India-Pakistan peace process and "composite dialogue."
Reverting to sports, the sub-continent's most popular game is not going to play a role in the peace process anytime soon - after the "spot-fixing" scam in which some on both sides see another opportunity to convert the playing field into a battle-ground. Another game, however, seemed to offer a glimmer of hope.
The media only tried to make tennis star Sania Mirza's marriage with Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik an unpleasant memory for her. It could have made up by seeing the extra-sport significance of the performance of the India-Pakistan tennis pair of Rohan Bopanna and Aisam Quershi in the just concluded US Open. They made it to the men's doubles final, wearing T-shirts that said, "Stop war, start tennis."
The "mainstream" media gave the event less space than Sania's pre-marital problems claimed in their columns and shows. They were - and are - not the voice of the many who cheered the pair from the stands or the millions in the two countries who wished them success as both players and ambassadors of peace.
J. Sri Raman is a freelance journalist and a peace activist, based in Chennai, India. He writes regularly for US web journal Truthout. He also contributes to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Chicago, US and the Japanese newspaper Chugoku Shimbun, Hiroshima.
He likes to think of himself as an India-Pakistan journalist. He contributes a fortnightly column to the Daily Times, Lahore, Pakistan. He also writes for the Tribune, Chandigarh, The Hindu, Chennai and The Hindustan Times, Delhi, India. He is also author of the book Flashpoint published by Common Courage Press, USA.
He is the convener of the Journalists Against Nuclear Weapons and the Movement Against Nuclear Weapons, Chennai. He is a member of the National Coordination Committee of India’s Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace.