From Pulwama to Abhinandan: European journal exposes Indian lies

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LAHORE :  A European journal – Modern Diplomacy – has exposed Indian lies concerning the events which occurred after last year’s Pulwama attack.

The Pulwama attack on 14 February 2019 not only led to the deaths of 40 Indian paramilitary personnel but also lobbed Pakistan and India into yet another narrative war – and more ominously, the potential of a real one. Before any investigation was conducted, the Indian military, political leadership, and media began a jingoistic propaganda offensive against their neighbour – stating that Pakistan was behind the attack. Soon after the Pulwama attack, Pakistan and Indian fighter jets were embroiled in a dogfight (details ahead) in which Pakistan destroyed two Indian jets and subsequently captured one pilot, Abhinandan (now released). The article examines the unfolding narrative war brought forth by these events. It primarily deliberates on the role of both countries’ media in said narrative war. The article highlights the distorted and false claims that the Indian media disseminated fervently – their unobjectivity, antagonism, and falsities stemmed from the hostility exemplified by their government and military. This aggression was contrasted by the Pakistan media’s focus on objectivity (for the most part), and relatively calmer approach – this stemmed from Imran Khan and the military’s reliance on impartiality, facts, and restraint. As the dust settled, reputable international media outlets who were the de facto adjudicators of this war judged in favour of Pakistan’s official and media narrative to the dismay of New Delhi.

Indian Media & Narrative

The Indian media has a storied propensity for being acrimonious and dispelling exaggerated, distorted, and even false news stories. This is emphatically true in relation to its neighbour, Pakistan. Indian news outlets in their greed to be the first ones to break stores, on many occasions, neglect to fact-check them. For example, in 2017, India Today’s Hindi channel, Aaj Tak, ineffably reported that a fatwa had been issued in Saudi Arabia that men could eat their wives if they were hungry.

The obnoxiously loud anchors and analysts during prime time become even more conspicuous if the news is in relation to Pakistan. Shouting to the audience as if they are hard of hearing, dramatic deliveries of what is supposed to be news, fear mongering, and jingoism are their modus operandi. It is an obsession, which draws massive ratings and revenue for them as it gravitates the Indian masses towards their TV sets. Although, one could label these Bollywood-esque theatrics as innocuous, the hyperbole and outright lying against Pakistan and Muslims is particularly worrisome. Anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim sentiment has erupted since Modi and his RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) affiliated BJP came into power.

Commenting on the Pulwama attack, documentary filmmaker, Sanjay Kak, observes, “Every time an incident like this happens, before the government can respond, before the army can respond, before the military responds, the media immediately jumps the gun, asking for war.” Although, his assertions are valid, but when the government and military did have a chance to respond, they in perennial fashion blamed Pakistan without any investigation. After the Pulwama incident, Al Jazzera conducted a report on the Indian media and noted that especially during prime time, the media “descends into unjournalistic ranting”. For example, after the attack, a popular Indian anchor, Arnab Goswami of Republic TV, proudly said to his viewers, “India wants Pakistan punished. Like you I also want Pakistan punished”. Other anchors were miming similar statements causing a surge in anti-Pakistan sentiments across India. Associate professor, Rohit Chopra, states, “With the exception of a few sane voices, what you have is a completely absurd and very dangerous competitive jingoism that’s perennially on display from all these anchors”. Citing how India’s “media is war-crazy”, Mumbai-based journalist, Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar, writes that after the Pulwama attack, the media was “trading journalistic responsibility for tabloid hysterics”. The Indian media tried its best to link Pakistan to Pulwama – they wanted something to gain traction. However, their rushed approach embarrassed them on a myriad of occasions. For example, they claimed Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, a Pakistani cleric who died in 2007, was the mastermind of the attack. Furthermore, media outlets such as India Today, ranted that Rasheed was killed by the Indian army after Pulwama attack, which would be quite a feat. The Indian media and anchors beating on their war drums, became louder and more assertive, clamouring for revenge against a crime that Pakistan had not been implicated of.

This call was answered by the ultra-nationalistic BJP when they launched a “surgical strike” by invading Pakistan’s airspace. They claimed that a terror base was destroyed near Balakot – and with it, 300 or so terrorists were killed. Pakistan agreed that its airspace was violated by Indian jets, however, it apprised that no “terror base” was destroyed and barring from four trees and one injured man, there was no casualty (details ahead). Adopting the Indian official narrative, the Indian media outlets went hysterical with pride and made sure to inculcate this sentiment among its viewership. One news anchor, Gaurav Sawant, tweeted that India should “Strike again & again”. The sanctimonious Indian media in an attempt to validate the “surgical strike” narrative propagated a video of a jet flying as evidence of India’s attack –channels like CNN News 18 ran this footage. Their exuberance was misguided again as the footage, ironically, was of a Pakistani jet flying over Islamabad around 3 years back. Rather than publicly apologising for such sub-standard and yellow journalism, the Indian propaganda machine continued to disseminate animosity and unfounded allegations. The Indian media also began passing off a video game’s footage as the alleged strike on the terror camp. Fortunately, there are some reputable Indian media outlets and fact checkers that did their job and reported that this was from a video game.

Shortly after the Indian incursion into Pakistan’s airspace, the international media shot down the Indian rhetoric. According to the New York Times, the Pakistani narrative was substantiated by two Western security officials and military analysts, who noticed that any terror base in Balakot had long dispersed. Washington Post noted that according to reports from local residents and police officers there was a strike but no signs of mass casualties. The Guardian stated, “The attack was celebrated in India, but it was unclear on Tuesday whether anything significant had been struck by the fighter jets, or whether the operation had been carefully calibrated to ease popular anger over the 14 February suicide bombing…”. Reuters interviewed some local residents about casualties; one of them, Abdur Rasheed, said, “No one died. Only some pine trees died, they were cut down. A crow also died.” Reuters even interviewed a hospital official, Mr Sadique, in the Basic Health Unit, Jaba – he stated, “It is just a lie. It is rubbish. We didn’t receive even a single injured person. Only one person got slightly hurt and he was treated there. Even he wasn’t brought here.” Questions such as “where did the bodies go if there were 300 casualties?” and “where are the destroyed buildings?” proved to negate the Indian state and media’s narrative. The New York Times reported that the Indian side provided no visual evidence of the strikes, while the Pakistani military provided pictures from Balakot showing not much damage. High-resolution satellite images provided by San Francisco-based company, Planet Labs, further revealed to the world that the buildings that were “targeted” were still standing – no scorching or holes or other indicators of an aerial assault were identified. In fact, the satellite images and other evidence provided by Pakistan and the international media has even shown the light to some segments of the Indian media. For example, vis-à-vis the satellite images, The Economic Times (India) reports “The images cast further doubt on statements made over the last eight days by the Indian government of prime minister Narendra Modi…”. Even opposition parties who were supportive of the Indian government initially are now feverishly stating that Modi has provided no proof of any strike.

After the faux surgical strike, Pakistan launched an aerial retaliation, which was previously announced by the Armed Forces, in which fighters locked on to several Indian targets but chose to fire in an empty field to avoid any loss of life. Immediately after this, Pakistani and Indian jets faced each other in a dogfight – the Pakistanis shot down two Indian jets in Pakistani airspace, one of which’s pilot was captured by the country. India conversely acknowledged that they lost a singularMiG-21 Bison and the pilot was in Pakistani hands – but stated that India also downed a Pakistani F-16. Pakistan claimed this as false and asserted that it lost no jets. The international media again heavily leaned towards the Pakistani assertions as India could not provide any proof of their claims while Pakistan did. Pakistan captured the MiG-21’s pilot, wing commander Abhinandan and showed footage of his downed jet – this was more than enough proof to the world that Pakistan was stating facts and won the dogfight. Vis-a-vis the Indian claims that it downed a Pakistani F-16, they were proven to be bogus. Pakistani and Indian Air Force officers (retired and serving) were sceptical that India shot down an F-16 citing that easily accessible evidence such as Abhinandan’s radio transmissions to flight controller, loss of radar blip, and video recording(s) of air-engagement had not been provided. Furthermore, while analysing the Indian media’s picture and video evidence of the alleged downed F-16, it was revealed that the exhaust shown was consistent with an R-25 engine found on a MiG. During a live TV show, an Indian anchor clamoured to the audience and an Indian analyst that the pictures he was displaying were of the downed Pakistani F-16. This immediately backfired when the Indian analyst stated, “I do not think that it is entirely accurate. That part is actually a MiG-21 part.” Moreover, the service hatch on the wreckage showed a “CU” format serial number written, which is used on Indian upgraded MiG-21’s.Quite recently, American scholar, Christine Fair, who is known to be very vocal against Pakistan, stated at the Indian hosted Military Literature Festival in Chandigarh “I say this clearly with 100% certitude that there was no F-16 struck down. I do not believe you did. I believe that my bonafides as a critic of Pakistan stand for itself”. The reason the Indians “needed” there to be a downed F-16 was to save face or otherwise its military capabilities would be exposed. The latter is exactly what transpired – a Foreign Policy article remarked that the dilapidated state of the Indian Air Force was reinforced when Pakistan came out victorious in the dogfight. The New York Times also spelled tragedy for the Indian government and media as it commented that due to Pakistan’s victory over India, questions arise regarding its “vintage” military.

Vis-à-vis the captured pilot, wing commander Abhinandan, even he took a major jab at the Indian media. Before leaving Pakistan, he regretted that the “Indian media always stretches the truth. The smallest of things are presented in a very incendiary manner and people get misled.” Overall, the Indian media, without conducting any research of its own, only mimicked whatever the government told them and ignored any objective voice.

Pakistani Media &Narrative

In Pakistan, none of the media houses promote anti-Indian sentiments as policy, however, conversely, all Indian ones target Pakistan maliciously.

Unlike the Indians, the Pakistani media generally does not rant on why it should “punish” or “invade” India, even when the BJP-run government has followed a policy of isolating Pakistan and has turned Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) into a battlefield. BJP and Modi have become globally condemned due to their human rights abuses of thousands of Kashmiris, as well as more recently their abrogation of J&K’s special autonomous status which has led to an ongoing curfew and media blackout in the region that has lasted over 100 days. Due to these crimes and the abhorrent conditions faced by other Muslims and minorities in India, the Pakistani media can be considered anti-BJP, but not anti-India (as most call for dialogue).

When faced against the onslaught by the Indian media vis-à-vis the Pulwama incident, the Indian incursion, and the dogfight, the Pakistani media became more hostile than its default setting and attacked India’s narrative. As tensions rose, Pakistani news was laden with “patriotism” and talk show hosts donned military uniforms to ensure there was no doubt who they were supporting. BBC correspondent, Secunder Kermani, stated that where the Indian anchors were demanding military action, Pakistani journalists “were more restrained, with many mocking what they called the ‘war mongering and hysteria’ across the border.” The preceding is true as many Pakistani anchors did try to tone down tensions and called for calm (albeit while supporting their country). A media analyst stated that in comparison, the Pakistani media played “peace monger as opposed to a war monger” role. A media outlet reported, “As opposed to the rabble-rousing, baying-for-blood Indian media, their Pakistani counterparts have been, barring certain exceptions, relatively more muted.”

When the Pulwama event unfolded, the Indian state and media (as mentioned) attacked Pakistan without any evidence. Pakistani media began by fact checking Indian claims and disproving Indian falsities around the Pulwama attack. The media scoffed and invalidated the Indian media’s claims that the already deceased Ghazi Abdul Rasheed was involved in the Pulwama attack. The Pakistani state and media narrative emphasized that the Pulwama attack was an Indian security lapse. During this time, the Pakistani media remained relatively composed. They did, however, become gaudier when India entered Pakistani airspace and claimed that 200-300 terrorists were killed, but still things remained in control. During this incident, the Pakistani media refuted that 200-300 people died by providing pictures of the bombed site that were made public by the Armed Forces’ media wing, ISPR (Inter Services Public Relations). The ISPR was in fact the raison d’être why Pakistan’s narrative was victorious with even retired Indian generals, Syed Ata and Rajesh Pant, stating that the ISPR played a masterstroke. In their ambitious endeavours to disprove Indian propaganda, some Pakistani journalists went to investigate the actual site that was bombed (Jaba, near Balakot) – a sagacious move on their part. Well-known Pakistani journalist trekked at night with his media team and showed, live on a program, the craters where Indian bombs fell. Out of breath, he went inside one of the craters and stated, “This crater’s depth is around 4 feet and the width is around 6 feet when the Indians claim they dropped a 1,000 kilogram bomb.” As mentioned before, the Pakistani narrative was later substantiated by the international press (especially when the ISPR and the military escorted them to the bombed site). The Independent stated “The ‘300-400 terrorists’ supposedly eliminated by the Israeli-manufactured and Israeli-supplied GPS-guided bombs may turn out to be little more than rocks and trees” while villagers pointed to Reuters that besides four bomb craters and some broken pine trees, there was “little other impact from the series of explosions”.

When Pakistan retaliated the next day against the Indian incursion (which led to the dogfight), the Pakistani media began plummeting down akin to the Indian MiG. After the Pakistani military confirmed in a press conference that they downed two Indian jets, journalists present started yelling “Pakistan Zindabad” (Long Live Pakistan).

The Indian pilot, Pakistan’s media aired the video of him sipping tea and extolling the professionalism of the Pakistani Armed Forces. This footage was obviously a feel-good moment for the country and the media and was soreplayed continuously. The pilot expressed that he was treated well and that he would not change his statement when released – which he has not still.

Conclusion

Overall, as commentators stated, the Pakistani media was not as egregious as the Indian media. The main reason for this, despite issues with unprofessionalism and some instances of fake news, was the media’s general reliance on reporting the truth regarding events unfolded. The Pakistani media shared real images of the bombed site in Jaba, went there to investigate, debunked various Indian lies, and continually perpetuated Imran Khan’s message of dialogue and peace. They came off relatively more mature due to Pakistan’s government and its armed forces (via ISPR) calling for restraint. Imran Khan even released the captured pilot as a symbol of goodwill while calling for dialogue. Furthermore, since the media relied on the Pakistani government and the ISPR’s version of the events – which were based on impartiality and facts – they came out looking more trustworthy. The reverse was true for the Indian media as their narrative was based on speculation and lies stemming from the bellicose Indian government and in reporting this version, their media was exposed ad nauseam for lying. Media analyst Adnan Rehman stated that the Pakistani officials who continuously warned against escalation inspired the “peace monger role” of the Pakistani media. While both countries’ media need drastic reforms and a professional makeover, in this war Pakistan not only downed two Indian jets, but also downed India’s biased narrative.