The Line of Control [LoC] between Indian and Pakistani-controlled parts of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir became so hot last week that it took the whole sub-continent by storm – a media-induced storm.
The sudden escalation of shelling by Pakistani and Indian forces positioned on the LoC followed the killings of civilians and military personnel on both sides. These killings were nothing new in the area. The Line of Control is the most hostile border in the world and has witnessed killings for many years. The media usually ignored the violence unless military personnel were involved. What little coverage there is has usually been brief for the sake of avoiding hype.
The tense relations between India and Pakistan have been stable despite the killings over the last six decades. However, this time the Indian media, especially online, picked up the issue to such an extent that it whipped up a panic about imminent war which echoed across the sub-continent and even reached Western media.
A hypothetical war
Several news anchors and ex-military officers have been accusing Pakistan’s army of deliberately killing Indian border security personnel, and are demanding that New Delhi avenge the killings with ten Pakistani soldiers for one Indian soldier. Indian media outlets not only covered the LoC incidents extensively and repeatedly, but they fanned the flames by discussing the capabilities of the Indian army against the Pakistani army.
They discussed possible outcomes if war were to break out between the two countries. Some retired Indian military officers even analyzed how long the Indian army would take to destroy certain Pakistani cities.
Perhaps the biggest casualty of this media-created storm was the proposed fresh round of negotiations between Islamabad and New Delhi to build a lasting peace.Mansoor Jafar
Unusually, the Pakistani media did not respond with equal hysteria, although government officials issued statements about the Pakistani army’s readiness to meet any threat.
The present escalation at the LoC began when the Indian army claimed to have killed four alleged infiltrators. But the mainstream Indian media played down the later details which said that all four men were peasants from a Pakistani border village, in middle and old ages, and one of them was at least 62. Indian outlets aired army claims of having killed 19 infiltrators at LoC without asking why none of the bodies were found except for those four bodies.
These events were followed by massive protests by Muslims holding Pakistani flags in the district of Kashtwar, in Jammu and Kashmir. The population of the state is majority Muslim but there is a significant Hindu minority. The Muslim protests followed large-scale arson attacks and riots. However, again only a narrow section of the media revealed that the protests were sparked by a group of allegedly Hindu youth, who hurled insults and booed at the Muslims offering Eid prayers.
Media hysteria stalls hope for peace
There are some in both countries who have always seen the sudden unusual escalation of border skirmishes, especially when some dialogue was underway, as a decades-old conspiracy to justify the existence of huge armies and the heavy spending on defense. They took the present situation in India as proof of such a conspiracy. A similar incident occurred last year when two decapitated bodies, allegedly Indian soldiers, were found during a fresh round of talks between the two countries.
Perhaps the biggest casualty of this media-created storm was the proposed fresh round of negotiations between Islamabad and New Delhi to build lasting peace. Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed to strengthen ties with India during his election campaign, and when he took office two months ago his aides spelled out a program of high-level meetings between Pakistani and Indian officials.
Nawaz Sharif was scheduled to meet his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh during his address to the U.N. General Assembly, while some other positive signals were coming from Islamabad, suggesting the possibility of a new era of friendly relations between the two hostile nuclear neighbors.
The hysteria has done damage on both sides of the political divide. Now, the proposed talks could be stalled before they have even begun. Nawaz Sharif and Manmohan Singh might meet in New York but would probably only discuss the media-created panic, and not the route to find lasting peace.
Extremist political leaders and media made Indian Defense Minister AK Anthony eat his words. Anthony read out a statement in parliament whose facts were provided by none other than the Indian military, in which it was alleged that certain militants were involved in the killing of five Indian soldiers on the Indian side of the LoC.
But nationalist politicians from the opposition Bhartia Janata Party and media rejected that statement, claiming that the Indian soldiers were killed by the Pakistani army. They demanded that the defense minister either blame Pakistan’s army or resign, forcing him to issue another statement the following day, in which he held Pakistan responsible for the killings. Indian opposition parties demanded an end to all dialogue with Pakistan.
It seems the irresponsible media could push both countries into a war.
Mansoor Jafar is Editor of Al Arabiya Urdu based in Islamabad. He can be reached via Twitter: @mansoorjafar