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Indian press buries truth at the border
By Debasish Roy Chowdhury
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First, the bad news : Indian Army preparing for limited conflict with China: US intel chief; China inching closer in Arunachal; China creeping up in Ladakh; Chinese intrusion in Leh; Jitters over Beijing border build-up; India beefs up China front with UAVs, copters; Govt plans to recruit 90K soldiers for China border; China threat: Army inducts new regiment of BrahMos; 114 light combat choppers to thwart any Chinese mischief.
Now, the good news : India is not actually going to war with
China. Contrary to what these blaring headlines in Indian newspapers suggest, mostly tucked away in inside pages and fewer in number are the less incendiary ones, such as: India, China ink border peace pact; China not likely to attack, PM tells Parliament; Border with China most peaceful: Govt; India-China defence ties on fast track.
The shame of a lost border war left a long tradition of anti-Chinese slant in Indian newspapers, to the point where it doesn’t even seem like an aberration. But for some years now, the tone of a large section of the media has turned decidedly strident, a condition the country’s leading Outlook magazine once diagnosed as "Sinositis". Where once the China reportage gave the impression that for some in the media the war never quite ended, now one gets the sense that the infected are, in fact, itching for another round. Brace yourself for more malignant stuff this year, which marks the 50th anniversary of the war.
Many of the China-bashing stories doing the rounds in Indian papers are a mixture of reflexive phobia, envy, anxiety and great-game bluster, with headlines such as Wary of China moves, India, US & Japan plan talks; As China looms, US tells India to lead Asia; etc. Some are products of the occasional public spats on issues such as territorial rights, and are appropriately combative (Manmohan to Wen: Back off on South China Sea). And, when they are not openly hawkish and baying for blood (With China in mind, India tests new-generation Agni missile with high 'kill efficiency', screams a November headline), they are passive aggressive at the minimum, often betraying a degree of inferiority complex. The subheading to another November story headlined East Asia meet to have China tilt read INDIA STAND: Can't check them, will wait and watch. And that's not even an editorial!
Then there are the Chinese "incursions" stories - the most potent, and the fountainhead, of all Sinoscare media motifs in India. These stories, liberally peppered with alarmist words like "aggression", "transgression", "encroachment", and the like, follow a familiar pattern. "Sources", mostly unnamed, tell a paper or a TV channel how Chinese forces have been intruding into Indian territory; a comparison with similar intrusions in previous years establish how the Chinese menace is rising; followed by accounts of Chinese military build-up.
The story gathers pace, with more papers and channels joining in, before politicians demand to know - as they did during the last session of the parliament - what the government is doing about it. At this point, top army or government officials step in to restore order by way of an all-is-well statement on the border situation. In the latest instance, it took Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, no less, to assure agitated parliamentarians that China would not attack India. Phew!
The typical story that sets in motion this periodic cycle of rage and reason will have Chinese intrusion or something to that effect in the headline and will start off detailing how and when aggressive Chinese soldiers muscled into Indian territory in a certain border area. But lower down, by which time the reader is most likely to have turned the page after having been suitably alarmed at the increasing assertiveness of the Chinese, there may be - if at all - a throwaway line explaining that the disputed area is not clearly demarcated.
Now, that's really the crux of it. India and China do not actually have a border. What they have is a notional, undemarcated LAC (Line of Actual Control) as opposed to one that is agreed and marked out on land. As the exact alignments of the LAC are not mutually agreed, Indian and Chinese forces have their own ideas on where it lies and are constantly trying to establish its limits - as each side sees it.
Hence the interpretation of what substitutes for border is subject to perceptual differences - a boring, headline-killer of a nuance that the Indian government keeps repeating but nobody seems particularly interested. As Defense Minister A K Antony puts it, "Differing perceptions of the unresolved LAC" means "sometimes our people go there, sometimes their people come here, but basically there is no change ... Sometimes incursions take place when they go to areas which they think is with them and sometimes we also do that".
It's often in the course of such comings and goings that 'incursions' occur, with the two sides yet to determine on which side of the LAC these particular problem areas lie. They will presumably do that right after they agree on where exactly the LAC itself lies. But while Indian and Chinese interlocutors have been trying to do that for 30 years now, in what may the world's longest ever border talks, scare-mongering Indian journos have long figured it all out. For them, there is not an iota of doubt on where that line is, which side is China's and which India's.
As such, the faintest whiff of the comings will have the media all over the story. Trigger as they do a primal fear in a country repeatedly invaded throughout its history, comings make for great copy. Few of these stories bother to explain, or even mention, the muddled status of the boundary that lends itself to misinterpretation, and trouble. The goings, on the other hand - on the rare occasions that they get reported - are downplayed. Which is why, if you have followed Indian papers of late, you will have read that an Indian chopper strayed into Pakistani territory, which happened about the same time that Chinese troops violated Indian airspace.
What the "incursion" stories essentially do, is give the impression of the existence - and sanctity - of a line of separation that does not really exist, and feed collective outrage with accounts of its alleged violation. What these stories also end up doing is blow up localized border scuffles into national panic fits that raise political temperature and complicate the civil-military equation on both sides, making the task of achieving a well-defined border that much harder.
India and China inherited an extremely tangled border that has far too many gray areas of ownership. To pretend otherwise with a stance of stubborn cartographical certitude is to be in a state of denial and constant war, as much of India's media find themselves in these days. Having learnt from their past mistakes, both governments are doing a commendable job avoiding that trap and have continued to talk despite their deep disagreements that threaten to derail dialogue every so often, and despite the best efforts of the warmongers.
The two sides have put in place elaborate mechanisms to sort out the differences in the event of conflicting perceptions on the border alignment and prevent such altercations from snowballing. This is why not a single shot has been fired across the LAC since New Delhi and Beijing signed the 1993 Confidence Building Measures on the border.
Even in eyeball-to-eyeball situations, when the paths of the two armies meet as they probe the limits of their perceived boundary, soldiers - away from home, cold, armed, face to face with the enemy and on the edge in a hostile terrain - are trained to hold their fire and allow reason over passion. Could journalists, negotiating the comparatively milder stresses of deadline and caffeine, ever learn to do the same?
Debasish Roy Chowdhury is an Indian journalist currently based in Hong Kong.
(Copyright 2012 Debasish Roy Chowdhury.)