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Suhasini Haidar
Sunday , January 27, 2013 at 19 : 52

India-Pakistan tensions: What caused the frenzy?


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Ironically, it was the words of the Indian Army Chief that made many journalists covering the tensions at LoC take the first pause in the barrage of bellicose reporting that had followed the announcement that two Indian Army soldiers had been killed, one beheaded in the Mendhar Sector in Jammu and Kashmir.

At the Army day press conference, where General Bikram Singh had called Pakistan's action "unforgivable", adding that his frontline commanders had been ordered to be "offensive and aggressive", General Singh made a startling admission. Asked if two soldiers of the Kumaon regiment had been beheaded by Pakistani soldiers in July 2011, he said indeed "such an incident had taken place". The answer made many Indian reporters rush to their archives, and to Google the event, as the puzzling question whirled in their minds, "Why wasn't this reported earlier?" In fact, as a few newspapers found, the grisly event in 2011 had been followed with an Indian reprisal, when "3 Pakistani heads went missing" (Hindustan Times, January 12, 2013). New Delhi and Islamabad had even exchanged protests at the time. Yet nothing close to the near-war being predicted, even advocated on some TV channels and in some newspapers this year had followed then.

The difference, perhaps, is then, not in the way Indian media reacted to the beheadings, as it is in the way the Army and the governments of both countries chose to respond to it. A day later, a senior Indian government official was asked about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's outburst at the Army Day function, where he said no "business as usual" could be conducted with Pakistan after the beheadings. The official once again admitted to beheadings having occurred in the past. "What was different this time was the blatant denial by Pakistan," he said "They should have let the DGMOs sort it out after a full enquiry".

Much analysis has followed on how and why the Indian media ran with the LoC story, working itself up to a frenzy all day with live coverage of the funerals, of widows weeping, and then combusting with anger on talk shows all evening. "Action, not words", screamed one channel that pushed the catchphrase "Zero-Tolerance". What should India do with "Pakistan's Barbarism?" asked another. And a third brought the family of a Kargil war hero on a show to confront Pakistani journalists with what the "Pakistani army had done". One national daily's description of Hinna Rabbani Khar's statement even began with the heavily editorialised line, "In a hugely arrogant move..."

In Pakistan, however, the coverage was the opposite - the funeral of Havildar Ghulam Mohiyuddin killed in the Haji Pir sector on January 6th was held on the same day as the funerals of Lance Naik Hemraj Singh and Lance Naik Sudhakar Singh, yet while the latter was the only news of the day in India, in Pakistan, television and newspapers had it as the 3rd or 4th lead. So out of touch seemed the two sides, that PM Manmohan Singh's most stern warning to Pakistan was delivered at exactly the same time on Army day as his counterpart PM Raja Pervez Ashraf was flying to Karachi, to discuss the crisis over the Supreme Court's arrest warrant to him, and hardly able to treat it with the seriousness it merited. .

It is possible, although highly unlikely, that the Pakistani media chose restraint in this case because they are more mature than their counterparts. It is equally possible that the Pakistani government's line, to play down the incident, and to ignore the obvious anguish in India over the beheading, was the reason. Finally, it may be that some in the media establishment have learned their lessons- especially after the Kargil war, when Pakistani journalists genuinely believed Gen. Musharraf's line that India was the aggressor, and that army regulars were not involved, only to feel quite betrayed later. Whatever the truth, it is for armies to play up their side's virtue, to portray the other as aggressor. It is for journalists to try and get to the truth, and find the other side to all stories.

One of the solutions may be to urge both Indian and Pakistani governments to open up the airwaves, allow each other's television channels to freely distribute, and allow both countries to see how a story plays out on the other side- and to see each other's countries as more than just the border between them. Many in India would be startled to know that 3 Pakistani soldiers have died in the past two weeks of cross LoC firings, 1 of them before the Mendhar killings. Many in Pakistan would be truly astonished if they knew of the anger that was felt in various cities in India over news of the Mendhar killings and the disbelief of official Pakistani denials. But few on either side would fail to feel the pain of a soldier's widow, left with 3 children aged 7, 5, and 2, living in gruelling poverty in the Uttar Pradesh village of Shernagar.

Perhaps the most sub continental moment of the past two weeks played out when Indian Army Chief General Bikram Singh visited Lance Naik Hemraj's home in Shernagar. With tears in their eyes, villagers spoke of the anger they felt that Hemraj Singh's mutilated body had to be laid to rest, but his head had not been returned. When he asked what he could do for them, however, they replied- "A good road sir, we really need one so we can get to the nearest hospital in time. A school, or admission to a good school close by. And dependable electricity so we may finish our work". It's a scene that may have played out in any part of both countries.

At a recent meeting of South Asian journalists (SAFMA) author and activist Sanjoy Hazarika explained what should be the journalist's approach to covering conflict. "Let's remember", he said, "We are humans first, journalists next, and citizens third." When we choose to deny the anger felt over the brutal killings in Mendhar, or ignore the loss of a young soldier in Haji Pir, or in fact shut down the performances of sportsmen and playwrights, and dash the hopes of senior citizens and businessmen, we are adopting that rule in reverse.


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More about Suhasini Haidar

Suhasini Haidar is Diplomatic Editor, The Hindu. Earlier, she was a senior editor and prime time anchor for India's leading 24-hour English news channel CNN-IBN, and also hosted the signature show, 'World View with Suhasini Haidar'. Over the course of her 17-year career, Suhasini has covered the most challenging stories and conflicts from the most diverse regions including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Libya, Lebanon and Syria. In India, she has covered the external affairs beat for over a decade and her domestic assignments include in-depth reportage from Kashmir. In 2011 she won the Indian Television Academy-GR8! Award for 'Global news coverage',and the Exchange4Media 'Enba' award for best spot news reporting from Libya. In 2010, She won the NewsTelevision NT 'Best TV News Presenter' Award. Suhasini is the only journalist to have interviewed Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his family, a show that won the prestigious Indian Television Academy award as 'Best Chat show' for the year.
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