Social and mainstream media fan frenzy for war over Kashmir

Hysteria and jingoism override common sense and calls for considered action

Bharatiya Janata Party activist wave Indian national flags in front of a fighter plane model as they celebrate the Indian Air Force (IAF) strike launched on a Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) camp at Balakot, at the Punjab state war heroes memorial and museum, in Amritsar on February 26, 2019. Indian warplanes breached Pakistani airspace on February 26 in a move that sent tensions over disputed Kashmir spiralling, but Islamabad furiously denied claims the strike destroyed a militant camp and inflicted heavy casualties. / AFP / NARINDER NANU
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The last time India and Pakistan fought a war, in 1999, Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp did not exist. The blog had just been born, and television news channels were not stuck in an endless frenzy of breaking news.

Correspondingly, the war itself was seen as a worrisome, necessary evil to repel the incursions of Pakistani troops over the Line of Control, which demarcates India from Pakistan-held Kashmir.

The arrival of new media technologies has changed all that. Since February 14, when a Pakistan-based militant group carried out an attack on an Indian army convoy, killing 40 troops, India has been whipped into pro-war sentiment of a kind rarely seen here.

A combination of social media hysteria and television news jingoism have pushed Indian policy-making to consider military responses over diplomatic negotiations, particularly after Pakistan shot down an Indian Air Force plane and captured its pilot.

On television, several anchors have practically plotted the course of the war they think India ought to pursue. On Tuesday, after India claimed to have carried out an air strike on a terrorist camp in Pakistan, an anchor on a Telugu news channel dressed in fatigues and carried a toy gun. In its chyrons and bulletins, the channel Times Now dubbed Pakistan “Fakistan” to insist that the country had been duplicitous in its approach to terrorism.

Arnab Goswami, the most notorious warmonger on Indian news TV, declared that “an eye for an eye” was outdated wisdom. “The new way forward is two eyes for one eye.”

“The idiocy of our commando TV news media will reach a point where we will force the two countries to war,” Rajdeep Sardesai, one of the rare news anchors calling for patience, said on Twitter. “Utterly embarrassing.”

On social media, similarly, a thirst for war became a litmus test for patriotism. Bollywood stars tweeted out their roaring approval of India’s air strike; “Mess with the best, die like the rest,” the actor Ajay Devgn wrote. Anyone who advised moderation or dialogue ran the risk of being dubbed a “traitor”. Fake news bloomed. Photos of the alleged devastation of the terror camp turned out to have been images from a 2005 earthquake in Kashmir.

In these debates, the divide between those eager for India to pursue all-out war and those arguing for restraint closely tracks the political polarities of the country. The former tend to fall into a camp supporting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has long advocated a hard stance towards Pakistan and its encouragement of terrorism. The latter adhere more closely to the Congress Party and other left-liberal parties.

The bellicose mood has been fanned by the BJP, which refused to cut short its campaigning for the general elections later this year. Instead, the BJP’s leaders incorporated the tension of the border conflict into their stump speeches, projecting the party as the only one to keep India safe.

Urging a crowd in Ghazipur, in Uttar Pradesh, to re-elect the BJP, Amit Shah, the party’s president, said on Tuesday: “Who can give a fitting reply to Pakistan? Who can wipe out terrorism?” His implied answer was: Mr Modi. The air strikes that the government had just ordered, Mr Shah said, “have brought a sense of peace to the people of this country”.

On Thursday, Mr Modi said: “We will fight as one, we will win as one.”

A similar mood has prevailed in Pakistan. There too, television anchors dressed up in military uniforms, and Twitter warriors expressed their bloodlust. Writing in the New York Times, Fatima Bhutto, the author and the niece of the former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto, pointed out the glee with which the hashtag #Pakistanstrikesback was being used after the capture of the Indian pilot. Several commentators, she wrote, were trying to "hashtag our country down the path of nuclear war".

In an address on Wednesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan warned of the need for caution. "My question to the Indian government is: With the weapons that you have and the weapons we have, can we afford a miscalculation? Shouldn’t we think about what will happen if the situation escalates? This will not be in my control or in Narendra Modi’s control.”

Mihir Sharma, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank in New Delhi, told The National that the "over-the-top rhetoric" of social media and news television "actually limits the government's options".

“Having created the expectation that Pakistan will be visibly punished, anything less will be hard for the government to spin as victory,” he said. “Logically, India should look for ways to de-escalate at this point, but a government facing re-election with one eye on Twitter trends may not be able to afford logic.”