For the last few days the criticism of the Indian mainstream media — particularly the Hindi media — has been oscillating between China and the opposition parties. While earlier the media narrative trained guns at China for killing 20 Indian soldiers, the later narrative — synchronizing with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s refusal of the Chinese incursion into the Indian side — zeroed in on the opposition parties that have been seeking clarification from the Modi Government over the Galwan valley skirmish.
First the media’s attack on China. Soon after the killings of Indian soldiers around Galwan valley in Ladakh, the media launched a scathing attack on China. “In a bloody clash with China, 20 brave soldiers martyred” [Chin se khooni sangharsh men bis janbaz shahid] — was the lead story of Dainik Hindustan (New Delhi, June 17, 2020, p. 1]. On the same day, Hindi daily Haribhoomi (New Delhi, p. 1) blamed China for “ambush”. “While being involved in talk, China goes for an ambush” (Baat bhi…aur, ghat bhi) — was its heading. Dainik Jagran (National) ran an eight-column heading on the front page: “After four decades a bloody clash between India and China broke out” (Bharat-Chin ke beech char dashak baad seema par khooni sangharsh). “The gall of China: 20 Indian soldiers martyred, 43 Chinese soldiers killed” (China ka dussahas: Jhadap men Bharat ke 20 jawan Shaheed, 43 Chini sainik bhi dher) — was the headline of Punjab Kesari.
Unlike the Hindi dailies, the Urdu newspapers on Wednesday made a much-guarded response. “Tension in India-China relations” (Hind-Chin ke darmiyan kashidgi) — was the headline of Roznama Rashtriya Sahara. Munsif (Hyderabad) wrote “Clashes between India and China: 20 Indian soldiers martyred”, while Kashmir Uzma (Kashmir) said, “Colonel along with 20 India soldiers killed”. Note that the Urdu dailies — unlike the Hindi newspapers — largely avoided claiming that 43 Chinese soldiers were killed too. A credible fact-checking website has called the claim of the deaths of 43 Chinese soldiers as “misleading”.
Many of the English dailies gave sensational headlines too. For example, The Pioneer (New Delhi) ran a headline, as follows “China stabs India in back, 20 soldiers martyred”. The Times of India (New Delhi) wrote that “China crosses Line, will attract actions”. The India Express ran this headline, “20 army men killed fighting back China”.
Among them, The Telegraph was an exception. It raised the issue of the failure of the Government for the tragedy. “Deadly price for denial” — was its headline that puts the government in dock for its failure to let the nation know about what has been happening in the Galwan Valley. It accuses the Modi Government of maintaining a “deceptive calm” and making the nation believe that “all’s well”.
After the clash in the Galwan valley on the night of 15/16 June, at least two major narratives were peddled. The dominant narrative was set by the ruling classes that the Chinese attack was a “stab” in the back of India and the country is capable of giving a befitting reply to China. The media uncritically accepted the establishment’s version as the truth. Next, it began to promote the ruling class agenda from its platform.
Working with the establishment’s narrative, the media kept giving sensational headlines and penned one-sided editorials. It failed to look at issues holistically. Neither did it adequately incorporate the concerns of the opposition parties. For example, the editorial of Dainik Jagran (June 17) titled “China’s treachery” (Chin ki dhokhebazi) contends that China, by its act in the Galwan valley, has stabbed India’s back. The editorial further says that the act of China leaves no option for India than to believe China as “most cunning” (shatir) and its “biggest enemy”. In order to contain China, the editorial has offered some suggestions to the Government. Prominent among them are (a) limiting the import from China, (b) rethinking policy towards Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, (c) strengthening ties with the USA, Japan, and Australia, (d) utilizing the current opportunity at a time when the anti-China sentiment is strong in the post-Corona world and finally (e) opting out of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
Another Hindi daily Navbharat Times — in its editorial (June 17) titled “Martyrdom at LOC (LOC par shahadat) — did not offer such impractical suggestions but it, nevertheless, prodded the Government to teach China a “lesson” if its behaviour does not improve soon. In its editorial (June 17) with the title “The conspiracy (chal) of the Dragon”, Amar Ujala laid blame on China and asked the Indian Government to build up diplomatic pressure on it to end the tension.
Interestingly, the editorial (June 17) of The Times of India shared several suggestions offered by Dainik Jagran. The title of the editorial “Gloves are off”, suggests the hyper-nationalist tone of The Times of India: “If this is the case then India, as a proud nation, should do exactly what the Chinese don’t want and undertake diplomatic countermeasures against Beijing. It could denounce the revocation of Hong Kong’s autonomy, and criticise human rights violations in Xinjiang and Tibet. It could rapidly raise official diplomatic engagements with Taipei. And it must work more closely with Indo-Pacific democracies trying to balance Chinese power across the region.”
The tone of The Indian Express was less aggressive but it, too, operated within the nationalist framework. Though its editorial (June 17) suggested that the Indian Government should “keep a clear and determined head”, it drew India’s attention to “China’s growing assertiveness in the territorial disputes with its neighbours”. A few days back, C. Raja Mohan (The Indian Express, June 16) wrote an article, attributing “China’s assertion in Ladakh” to the shifting “military balance” “in the PLA’s favour”. Buy giving such an argument, Raja Mohan wants India to buy more and more arms. How could India compete with China, a much bigger economy, in the arms race? As a strategic affairs expert, Raja Mohan does not touch this question in his article.
Unlike them, The Telegraph took a critical line. While it called the death of 20 soldiers as “deeply tragic”, it was bold enough to pose several questions to the power. Unlike other newspapers, it does not externalise the crisis, ending up squarely blaming China. It has courage to ask the establishment questions about what has led to the tragic incident. Its editorial (June 18) exposes the Government’s failure: “The prime minister, characteristically, chose to stay mum even as the crisis simmered. The Union defence minister confessed to Chinese incursions, while the Indian army chief assured the nation that the situation at the border was under control. These conflicting signals are unwarranted. This is not the hour of opacity. It is the time for resolve, cool-headedness, and unity. It is also the time for Narendra Modi and his government to apprise the nation of the cause of the conflagration as well as the steps that are being taken to cool tempers on both sides of the border”.
Remember that the situation in eastern Ladakh started deteriorating after May 5 when around 250 Chinese and Indian soldiers were engaged in a violent face-off. The point of conflict was the opposition of China to an Indian project of laying a road on the border. The opposition parties — particularly the Congress — have long been asking the Government to lift the veil over the whole incident. For more than a month, the media have been largely serving news, based on speculation while the official sources often remained tight-lipped, causing concerns to the opposition parties, the security analysts, and others.
For example, Ashok Kantha, Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies, expressed his anxieties over the Galwan Valley in an interview with Karan Thapar on May 26. He said that “I will not rule out an accident happening”. Similarly, Lt. Gen H. S. Panag (Retired) — a day after Defence Minister Rajnath Singh confessed that the Chinese had come inside Indian territory in a large number — accused the Modi Government of being “in denial mode” after a “loss of territory”. He wrote in The Print that “Having seized the initiative by securing approximately 40-60 square km of Indian territory in three different areas, China will be negotiating from a position of strength and will try to impose unacceptable conditions–no further development of border infrastructure on the Indian side–to restore status quo on its own terms. If diplomacy fails, China has come prepared for a border skirmish or a limited war”.
Meanwhile, the opposition parties kept asking the Government to clarify its position on the causes leading to the skirmish. In the all-party meeting called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday, Congress President Sonia Gandhi said that “Even at this late stage, we are still in the dark about many crucial aspects of the crisis… We have some specific questions, for the government: On which date did the Chinese troops intrude into our territory in Ladakh? When did the government find out about the Chinese transgressions into our territory? Was it on May 5, as reported, or earlier? Does the government not receive, on a regular basis, satellite pictures of the borders of our country?”.
In the same meeting the Prime Minister — going against the statement of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and security experts — asserted that there was “no Chinese incursion” or “loss of territory”.
His statement — instead of clarifying the doubt — has raised many questions. For example, if China has not made any incursion, how were the Indian soldiers killed? If his statement is true, would not then the statement of Defence Minister, accepting Chinese forces getting in the India side, would become false? If there was no Chinese incursion, then why is so much hysteria and frenzy being spread by the media and the ruling establishments?
The opposition has picked up the statement of the Prime Minister to contend that the Government had made a compromise with China on the Indian territory. Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi has alleged that “PM has surrendered Indian territory to Chinese aggression. If the land was Chinese: Why were our soldiers killed? Where were they killed”. Meanwhile, the BJP has called Rahul Gandhi as most irresponsible politician.
The tug of war and claims and counterclaims between the establishment and the opposition parties are nothing new. When the BJP was in the opposition, it used to vehemently attack the Congress-led government over its alleged “failure” on the security issues. But the role of the media is to act as the watchdog of democracy. The “watchdog” of the Indian democracy has again shown little courage to seek accountability from the establishment. Instead, it takes an easy path to slam the opposition parties.
For example, Hindi daily Rashtriya Sahara — in its editorial (June 19) — tried to silence the opposition. Look at its choice of words: “We should believe the Prime Minister’s statement. The politicians [read the opposition parties] should avoid posing unnecessary questions to the Government. Such an act may weaken the morale of the country”. In its editorial (June 20) titled “Anti-national politics” (deshghati rajneeti), Dainik Jagran fired indiscriminately at the Congress. It accused the Congress leaders of giving “irresponsible statement”, and being mired in petty politics.
See the irony. The media — whose primary work is expected to question the power — is advocating swallowing whatever is fed by the Government. If posing the questions to the Government amounts to weakening the nation, then the very existence of the opposition as well as media would be in peril. By giving such a logic, the media is contributing to the weakening of democracy.
(Abhay Kumar is a Ph.D. from JNU. He is broadly interested in Minority and Social Justice. Earlier, he held a Post-Graduate Diploma in English Journalism from Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi and worked as a Delhi-based reporter with The Indian Express. You may write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org).