Backstory: Reading Between the Headlines in Times of Almost-War

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

In the battle to capture public perception, the use of information and disinformation has always played a key role and never more so when there is actual warfare taking place. The brutal encounter that took place on Monday, June 15, between Indian and Chinese forces in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, which led to at least 20 deaths on the Indian side, will long haunt us as a country. What makes this even more painful is the fact that the full truth of these deaths may never emerge, enshrouded as they already are in a miasma of truths, half-truths and stuff that is totally fake.

All information that reaches the Indian public in situations like this is mediated through a combination of versions: what the Indian military wants you to know; how the Indian government would want the information framed; the manner media houses would like to pitch it, in order to gain government approval and market space – and, also important, what the Chinese government projects through its own media and sympathetic platforms across the world. This leaves us, the people, floundering, trying to read between the lines – and the headlines.

Consider, for instance, these frontpage headlines that appeared in two national dailies on June 19. The one in Hindustan Times went: ‘India tells China to stick to its side, says no soldier missing’. In contrast, there was this headline on the same story in The Hindu: ‘Days after clash, China frees 10 soldiers’. The first headline had nothing about soldiers being freed which was, after all, a crucially important news point, although the report that followed made it clear that 10 soldiers – including a lieutenant colonel and three majors – had actually been held by the Chinese and released three days after the clashes. This leads one to the conclusion that during these three days, news of the missing soldiers was deliberately suppressed, although it appears that the Army had come to know of it by late Tuesday, the day after the clash. The army did say no soldier was “missing in action”, but this was after they came back. Clearly, Hindustan Times was falling over backwards in the effort to tell the “true” story even while trying to accommodate itself to the establishment script. Later – according to army sources – it transpired that these soldiers had lost their way. What exactly happened to these ten soldiers? Were they captured on Indian soil, or on territory claimed by China? Were they lost and had to be rescued by the Chinese? It’s all very fuzzy.

There was similar prevarication over whether the Indian soldiers who died were armed. According to initial reports, they died in hand-to-hand combat or were bludgeoned to death by their Chinese counterparts. The matter got immediate attention when Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted, ‘How dare China kill our UNARMED soldiers? Why were our soldiers sent UNARMED to martyrdom.’ S. Jaishankar, minister of external affairs, was quick with a clarification that the soldiers carried arms, adding that as “long standing practice” firearms are not used during faceoffs. Which is odd, to say the least. Did our soldiers not resort to firearms even though they were caught in a life-threatening situation? Fuzzy, fuzzy.

The prime minister’s all-party meet on the India-China border issue likewise did nothing to provide clarity. According to Narendra Modi, “Neither have they (the Chinese) intruded into our border, nor has any post been taken over by them. 20 of our jawans were martyred, but those who dared Bharat Mata, they were taught a lesson.” Now if this isn’t a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, I don’t know what is. Is the media to infer that those who died had given up their lives without adequate reason within their own territory? And what does this claim do for the Ministry of External Affairs’s (MEA’s) own argument that the Chinese were guilty of trying to alter the status of the LAC? Here again, reading between the headlines proves a wild goose chase. The headline in the Indian Express on Saturday, June 20 said: ‘No one has entered Indian territory or captured any military post, PM tells leaders of all parties’. However, the Times of India‘s headline held an important clue: ‘No intruder in our land now, no post in anyone’s custody, says PM’. The operative word is now.

One of the biggest booby traps in conflict reporting is in the accounting of bodies. After the Balakot strike, the Indian media, briefed by military and political sources, had claimed that 300 Jaish-e-Mohammed men had been killed in the operation. That figure was shown to be extremely problematic by the international press, and officials had to finally concede that “limitations of technical intelligence and lack of ground intelligence at this point make any assessment of terrorists killed in the attack purely speculative”. This time too, there were claims made of casualties which needed constant revision. In fact, the first figure of deaths put out by the army a day after the attack was three – which included an officer. This was rapidly revised to 20 within a few hours. Then we were told of 70-odd soldiers having suffered critical wounds.

Indian army soldiers rest next to artillery guns at a makeshift transit camp before heading to Ladakh, near Baltal, southeast of Srinagar, June 16, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

But it was in attempting to arrive at a figure of Chinese casualties that had our media in knots. Some major media personalities felt it was their patriotic duty to arrive at a number larger than the Indian toll so that at least, virtually, we gave them a bloody nose. We also had the unedifying spectacle of major television channel latching on to a WhatsApp forward and claiming it as their “breaking news”. The headline screamed ‘China accepts 30 soldiers have been killed during the Ladakh standoff’, and sourced it to an anonymous “spokesperson for the Western Theatre Command that oversees defences of China’s border with India”. Pretty soon the egg on the face of the channel had assumed the proportions of a large and highly spiced omelette, which had to be subsequently scraped off before it caused further embarrassment.

The quandary of the government and army may even be understood. Discretion at the highest quarters is called for given the manner information can potentially be weaponised in times when the country’s security is under threat. But discretion cannot be opacity, fakery and grandstanding. The age-old methods of information control, advocated from before the days of the great Chanakya himself, are remarkably blunt instruments today, when the informational ecosystem leaks like a sieve and algorithmically driven social media keeps blitzing human consciousness at mach speeds.

One of the reasons why The Wire’s coverage of this hot summer day was educative was because it allowed a rigorous examination of the actual situation at hand through opinion pieces that asked tough questions, offered unvarnished advice and was prepared to interrogate the official narrative without, of course, threatening the four walls of Indian nationalism: ‘India and China Need to Dial Back the Tension’; ‘Modi Needs to Be Rescued from his Cheerleaders’; ‘Ladakh Clash Was Long in the Making But India, China Now Need an Honourable Exit’ (June 19). It also had a comprehensive assessment (‘What Would Boycotting Chinese Goods Mean for India?’, June 17) of what would ensue if we allowed our balcony classes, eager to get videoed throwing Chinese TVs from their “top storeys”, to set policy. The Wire was also among the first to sound the alarm on Chinese incursions (‘What’s the Truth About China’s Incursions on Indian Soil? Arfa Khanum interviews Ajai Shukla’, June 10).

What was missing was reportage from the field of action, a near impossibility given the conditions. One was grateful, therefore, for the piece, ‘Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: The Chequered Story of India and China’s Border Tensions’ (June 17), which captured a memorable bus trip to Tawang and a bit of the local mood.

Chilling effect in the summer heat

The police FIR is the new sword hanging over any beleaguered Indian journalist who resisting falling into the category of establishment cheerleaders (‘55 Indian Journalists Arrested, Booked, Threatened For Reporting on COVID-19: Report’, June 16). What is the message sought to be sent out through such preposterous action? That the “official truth” will be imposed, even if it requires the force of a police baton? That a story is only credible if it is endorsed by the PMO? That the “chilling effect” – the summer heat notwithstanding – is the new climate in this country? That stories that even tangentially threaten the image of the prime minister would necessarily invite the strictest punitive action?

Take the most recent case involving the executive editor of Scroll.in, Supriya Sharma (‘UP Police Registers FIR Against Journalist Supriya Sharma For Report on PM’s Adopted Village’, June 18). Mala Devi, quoted by Supriya in her story as having said that she faced a personal crisis of hunger during the lockdown, retracted her statement and filed the FIR against the journalist. The interview was conducted on June 5. The prompt and efficient way the FIR process unravelled over the next few days would suggest that there were powerful forces that had brought about this denouement. After all, wasn’t Mala Devi a resident of a Varanasi village adopted by Narendra Modi himself, so how could she have possibly suffered from hunger pangs? Banish the thought – and brand a journalist with an FIR for provoking such a thought!

Representative image. Credit: Karnika Kohli/The Wire


School teachers lose out

A contractual teacher with Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti (an Autonomous Body Under MHRD ) from July, 2019, writes in: “Due to COVID-19 pandemic, summer Vacation in all the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas was advanced March 25. All contract teachers were directed to stay on campus till March 31. Because the lockdown was extended from time to time and many of us couldn’t leave the campus, even while we engaged with different academic duties. I received payment for the month of April, 2020 in good time. A Ministry of Finance memorandum  extended the validity of instructions issued earlier that any contractual, casual and outsourced staff of ministries/departments and other government departments, are required to stay at home  up to May 31, in view of lockdown measures and shall be treated as ‘on duty’. In this regard, I wrote emails to the officials of NVS & MHRD to receive my salary for the month of May, but no response has been received yet. Contractual teachers work on very low wages and their families are dependent on them. Today I do not even have enough money to reach home, which is in a remote location. I request that the May salary be released for these teachers.”


Another teacher working for one of the leading school in Bangalore writes in to say how she and her colleagues received only around half their regular salaries for the month of June, without prior intimation, despite working with sincerity for our school in this difficult period, where they didn’t get their complete vacations as usual. They even called parents personally to provide them with login details of their wards and informing them over WhatsApp the scheduling of classes, and preparing presentations and videos for their students. To do this, some of them had to purchase new laptops and tablets. Meanwhile, the school authorities are charging parents for these extra efforts. Around the world, school education is being commercialised, and teachers are being exploited in the process.


A reader of The Wire pointed to the fact that her mother, a mother is a teacher in a private school in Chhattisgarh and the only breadwinner of the family, has not been getting her salary for the last three months. She would like The Wire to cover this pressing issue of salaries for teaching staff of schools.


Protest frames

Vinodini Jayaraman, who works as a visual artist in Memphis, Tennessee, described how she went downtown over one weekend and saw the pain and anger of protestors. This pain and anger continues. She wanted to share one of the paintings she did on June 9 with the readers of The Wire:


Students write in…

Students continue to express their anxieties and woes. A law student from Karnataka draws our attention to the decision of the Karnataka State Law University (KSLU) to conduct physical classes from July 1, and physical examinations from July 22. This, despite the fact that several students in colleges affiliated to KSLU have gone back to their home state due to the virus and hostels and PGs are closed. Home-quarantine will make it impossible for students living in PGs with no-food to have a single square meal a day. The authorities have been informed about this, but have not responded.

Similarly, students of Dr. D. Y. Patil Biotechnology and Bioinformatics Research Institute, Pune University, are worried about the End Semester Examination to be held in July 2020.

Meanwhile, according to Apoorva Pande, students and alumni of Chanakya National Law University, Patna (‘CNLU’), they along with Child Rights Centre, CNLU, have set up ‘Shramik Saarthi’, a dedicated COVID-19 response resource centre to help migrant labourers and the working poor tackle social and financial hardships and facilitate their rescue, relief and rehabilitation. It is being run by a team of 60 students of the institution and a few alumni, and ties up with volunteers, NGOs and solidarity groups working on the ground to extend immediate relief to those in need. It has also provided “dignity kits”, each kit containing foodgrain, milk, masks and sanitary pads.

Also Read: During Lockdown, Law Students Across the Country Chip in to Help the Underprivileged


Setting fuel prices ablaze

Mohan Menon from Kerala has a question (‘Fuel Prices Hiked For Thirteenth Straight Day’, June 19):  “Like Covid-19 patients, the prices of petrol and diesel are also increasing by the day. At a time when a responsible government should seek to support the people, in India it seems the government is in the business of emptying the pockets of the people under the umbrella of Covid19.  Due to this daily price rise in petroleum products, the prices of essential commodities are also increasing. During UPA regime, Narendra Modi and his party kept protesting against such price increases. Now that the ball is in their court, shouldn’t Congress leaders also take to the streets and agitate?”


Bhagalpur’s tragic legacy

Finally, this response from Joseph Maliakan, a well-known newspaper reporter, now retired. What he has to say is profoundly disturbing: “In your last column you asked if anyone remembered the Bagalpur blindings (‘Backstory: Anyone Remember the Bhagalpur Blindings in Context of George Floyd’s Death?’, June 6). I just wanted to point out that the 14 victims of those blindings at the hands of the Bihar police never got justice, while the journalists who wrote about them were feted and received awards. The blinded victims died one by one in penury. Some lived by begging at Delhi’s Connaught Place. I had taken some of them to the Supreme Court and got them admitted to the R.P. Centre at the AIIMS. They never even received the compensation announced by the prime minister, Indira Gandhi.”

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in