An Indian and a Pakistani student at Oxford reflect on how their countries covered the same story in their own ways. By Zahra Shah and Debanshu Mukherjee.
If there has been one constant permeating the ever-so-fragile relationship between India and Pakistan, it has been the proclivity of our two peoples to “keep scores”, in war as in cricket. Until events on the Line of Control in early 2013 (the de facto border) in Kashmir, cricket and war had co-existed in our collective consciousness and generally not tread into the domain of the other, in the minds of the people or the media. But on Sunday 6 January 2013, they came menacingly close to each other. This is an account of the events, as seen by the governments and the media on either side of the border and the way this portrayal shaped public opinion in our two countries.
On 6 January 2013, even as the cricket teams of India and Pakistan clashed in a thrilling cricketing encounter in New Delhi, the Pakistani press reported that Indian soldiers had crossed the Line of Control in Kashmir and raided a checkpost in the Sawan Patra district. A gunfight between Pakistani and Indian soldiers ensued, resulting in the death of one Pakistani soldier named Naik Aslam. According to a statement by the spokesperson for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations, “Pakistani soldiers effectively responded to the attack successfully”. Immediately afterwards, the Foreign Office in Islamabad summoned the Indian Deputy High Commissioner in Pakistan, Mr. Gopal Bagley, in order to lodge a protest about the incident.
On 8 January, the Indian Army released a statement which said that a group of the Pakistan Army’s regular soldiers had intruded across the Line of Control earlier on that day, and that it was engaged by the Indian soldiers in a “fire fight”, which caused the intruders to retreat. The statement also said that two Indian soldiers, namely Lance Naik Hemraj and Lance Naik Sudhakar Singh “laid down their lives while fighting the Pak troops”.
On 9 January 2013, the New Delhi edition of Dainik Bhaskar, a leading Hindi newspaper in India, carried a front-page story titled- “Pak ne Babarta ki Seema Langhi: Bharatiya Seema Mein Ghuskar Do Sainikon ki Hatya, Sar Kat Kar Le Gaye”(“Pakistan crosses the limits of barbarity: crossed the border, killed two soldiers, decapitating one and carried his head along with them”). The Times of India, a leading national daily in English carried a similar headline, “Pak troops kill two jawans, behead, mutilate one of them”. Its report also related back to the past and referred to “the barbaric way in which during the 1999 Kargil conflict Captain Saurabh Kalia was tortured by his Pakistani captors who later handed over his badly mutilated body to India”. On the evening of 8 January, India’s External Affairs Minister Mr. Salman Khurshid, from the ruling Congress party, appeared on a national television channel (NDTV) and called the incident “unacceptable” and “ghastly” and promised appropriate action in response. Senior opposition leader Mr. Arun Jaitlely from the BJP also appeared on the same television channel and urged the Indian government to keep “all its options open” and “review the level of engagement and the pace of engagement with Pakistan” (in reference to the on-going peace process) . He also said that the government should use this incident to mobilise shame against the government of Pakistan. The Pakistan High Commissioner in India was also summoned by the Indian authorities and a “strong protest” lodged. Over the next couple of days, Indian news channels conducted one panel discussion after another, exploring options ranging from discontinuing the peace process to launching a full scale war. Meanwhile, Indian newspapers continued churning out further details about the incident, including the plight of the affected families: “Mere Sher Ka Sar Lao” (“Get me my tiger’s head”) screamed the Dainik Bhaskar on January 10. Television channels showed horrifying images of the situation. Ever since the ceasefire was put in place in November 2003, there had been many reported violations, arguably committed by both sides. However, this incident was seen very differently in India from the ones in the past because of the condition in which the bodies of the two Indian soldiers in question were found and the public knowledge of that condition. With the terrorist attacks of 26/11 in Mumbai still fresh in the minds of the Indian public, the mutilation and the beheading of the soldiers and its portrayal in the Indian media heightened the public anger against Pakistan, with many calling for “revenge” and some even supporting war.
The 6 January incident was initially treated quite casually by much of the Pakistani print media, and received almost no coverage in the Indian press. However, Geo TV (Pakistan) with its tendency for showing emotional footage (often accentuated by dramatic music) aired a video showing Naik Aslam’s family grieving their loss. However, by 9 January, the accusations made against the Pakistani army of killing and mutilating an Indian soldier had succeeded in diverting much attention towards Pakistan’s brutality in Kashmir in the Indian press. In the aftermath of these allegations, the 6 January incident has grown in significance in the Pakistani press, as it was seen as the starting point of the violence. A senior military official also stated that India was “using propaganda” to divert attention away from Sunday’s attack on Pakistan. Such blame-games and attempts to contextualise these events are not rare: indeed, the majority of reports contain allusions to past violations of the 2003 ceasefire treaty.
On the whole, however, in Pakistan, this whole chain of events has taken a backseat to other happenings in the country. The attention of the media has been absorbed instead by Tahir-Ul-Qadri’s long march to the capital and MQM leader Altaf Hussain’s threats of launching a ‘political drone attack’ on the People’s Party government. Urdu language newspapers in particular have focused virtually exclusively on news of the MQM. Exceptions to this norm include Dawn, a major English language daily, which published an online feature on the impact of cross-border violence on Pakistani villagers living along the Line of Control. This article, however, emphasised the importance of achieving more peaceful links with India. In contrast, Pakistani government officials have been quick to release a number of statements which, while denying Pakistan’s involvement in cross-border violence, have demonstrated the state’s concern to sustain peaceable and stable relations with India. Pakistani Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, has denied the Pakistani army’s involvement in the killings, offered to allow a UN probe into the events, condemned the latest attacks, and reiterated the importance of the peace process, showing just how tricky maintaining the balance between images of ‘strong government’ and ‘dependable ally’ simultaneously can be. Interestingly though, Pakistan has decided to suspend the cross-border bus service and the trade route linking Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to Jammu & Kashmir. A quick glance at the events of 2013 alone shows that despite this violation of border regulations, both countries have maintained the terms of other treaties, exchanging lists of prisoners and nuclear installations and facilities in accordance with past agreements.
The responses of the Pakistani media and government to these cross-border incidents show that official and popular priorities can vary significantly. While the government is keenly aware of Pakistan’s foreign policy and the importance of relations with India, media attention (reflecting popular interest) is preoccupied with internal affairs. The latest news of the killing of a second Pakistani soldier, Havildar Mohyuddin, on 10 January briefly made it to newspapers and TV channels in Pakistan; however, this instance of ‘Indian aggression’ has been largely – and perhaps understandably – forgotten amidst the horrific bombings in Quetta and Swat which claimed around 103 lives. The Pakistani government, on the other hand, has been quick to respond, and summoned the Indian High Commissioner to the Foreign Office, registering a protest.
One notable exception was the Nawa-i-Waqt, a far-right Urdu daily, which featured this attack as a minor headline: “Control Line chauki par phir hamla, havildar shaheed; Bharat ka aqwaam muttahida se tehqiqat karanay se inkaar” (‘Checkpost at the Line of Control attacked again, army personnel martyred, India rejects UN Investigation’). In India, however, the issue has continued to occupy center-stage, with reports of more firing across the Line of Control (“Fresh firing by Pak troops…”). India has never been in favour of internationalising its conflict with Pakistan as it sees the conflict as a bilateral issue and does not want any outcome influenced by a third-party.
Despite the patriotic tone often adopted by the press in India and Pakistan, it would be misleading to see this simply as a media war, as journalists on both sides collaborate with each other regularly and possess strong links in the form of organisations such as the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA). In this case especially, it does not seem as though the Pakistani media has been particularly instrumental in shaping public opinion, for better or for worse. While the initial focus of the Indian media on the decapitation did stir public emotions, its approach seems to be more cautious now. Both sides are acutely aware of the fact that an outright war, as suggested by some, would be disastrous for both nations. In the eventuality of such a war between the two nuclear armed states, years of development and growth could go up in smoke in a matter of seconds.
With this background, it is important to mention an article in the Hindu, a prominent Indian newspaper in English which reported that the January 8th incident was the culmination of a series of events that started with an elderly lady repeatedly crossing the Line of Control to visit her family across the border around September, 2012. This raised security concerns for the Indian Army, which started constructing posts along the Line of Control for better monitoring of the area and for preventing any infiltration. Pakistan saw this construction activity as a breach of the terms of the ceasefire and initiated gunfire, which sporadically continued from both sides leading up to the recent incidents. Interestingly, the same article also seems to suggest (without confirming) that the Indian military could also have decapitated Pakistani soldiers in the past.
Mutilation of bodies in war, while against the rules of war, have been part of warfare all over the world from times immemorial. However, if the reports of mutilations carried out in the present incident as well as those in the past are actually true, it is not the illegality of mutilation that should be our main cause of concern. The mutilation of bodies and even the thought of retaliation in the form of decapitation and mutilation underscore the dehumanisation of Indian and Pakistani soldiers in the minds of each other. This dehumanisation is also reflected in the apathy of ordinary Pakistanis to the plight of the victims of terrorist attacks in India and the indifference of ordinary Indians to a deteriorating and imploding Pakistan. This dehumanisation could not have occurred over one incident. What could have caused this? Is it because of the Partition and the wars of 1965 and 1971? Is Kashmir the sole reason? Will we ever get out of this cycle of violence? The question this begs, then, is: is it possible that the media over-contextualises such happenings? The press on both sides has made reference to past attacks or treaty-violations made by the other country, seeing this event in a continuum. How would it change matters if we were to treat this as an isolated incident fuelled by misunderstanding and the fury of a handful of armed men? No amount of bloodshed and mayhem will reduce the pain and miseries of the families that have been affected by these conflicts. So, the question shouldn’t be ‘who started this?’ It should be, ‘who has the courage to end this’?
The following words of Marge Piercy are worth pondering over:
The past leads us
Only when we force it to
Otherwise it shuts us
In its asylum with no gates
We make history
Or it makes us.
Debanshu Mukherjee is a graduate student at the faculty of law, Oxford University, reading for the BCL degree. Zahra Shah is studying for a DPhil in History at Oxford University. Both are members of the Free Speech Debate team.