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THE WAR OF NARRATIVES

A year after the Balakot strikes, both India and Pakistan are still pitching their version of events to the world.

Updated 08 Mar, 2020 07:24am

Today marks the first anniversary of Pakistan’s return to India of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, the MIG-21 pilot shot down by the Pak Air Force in skirmishes after India’s cross-border attacks in Balakot. While announcing the decision, Prime Minister Imran Khan had said that the pilot was being released as a “peace gesture”. In the days that followed, the critical warlike situation did thankfully fade, but the battle for the last word continues to date. Eos looks at the enduring legacy of contested war narratives on both sides of the border and the new worlds of age-old propaganda



Mera watan mujhe hai apni jaan se pyara
Nazar utha ke phir jo dekha dobara...
Dushman mita dein ge hum
Dushman gira dein ge hum
Shaheenon ki hai yeh fiza


My country is more dear to me than my life
If you dare look in our direction again...
We will annihilate the enemy
We will shoot the enemy down
These skies belong to the Shaheens


These are the opening lyrics from the newly-released song Allahu Akbar, which has been put out to commemorate the shooting down of an Indian warplane last year by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). As singer Shuja Haider (literally) sings praises of PAF, the video shows the silhouette of a shaheen (a hawk), which is also the emblem of the air force. The shaheen looks majestic; with its wings spread open, it keeps a watchful eye on the sky and is ready to take flight and pounce at any given moment.

As the video proceeds, we see a fighter plane standing in front of a setting sun; we see the tails of a fleet of planes proudly displaying the Pakistani flag; and we see PAF men running in slow motion and displaying their athletic prowess.

As the thus far slow-paced song picks up speed and really starts to sound like a celebratory anthem, the video shows archival footage from the failed Indian attack last year. A crowd stands around the remains of the shot down MiG-21 Bison aircraft. This is followed by glorious shots of Pakistani aircrafts soaring through the sky — a sharp contrast to the Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot Abhinandan Varthaman’s crashed plane that we saw on the ground moments ago.

Pakistani soldiers stand next to the wreckage of an Indian fighter jet shot down in near the Line of Control on February 27, 2019 | STR/AFP
Pakistani soldiers stand next to the wreckage of an Indian fighter jet shot down in near the Line of Control on February 27, 2019 | STR/AFP

The screen then splits into four sections, with each section showing an archival news clip. Seeing the visuals one is transported back to the media frenzy from last year. While three clips — one from a French news outlet, one from a South Korean network and another (seemingly) from the BBC — report that Pakistan says it has shot down two Indian planes, the last clip tells a different story. It is from an Indian news channel, showing a press conference by India’s foreign minister and air vice-marshal.

During the presser the speakers allege that scores of “terrorists” have been killed in the strike. Pakistan would contest this, but it would only seemingly embolden India to repeat the claim louder and louder — even in the absence of any evidence to support this narrative.

Both countries are clearly still pitching their version of events to the international world. A year later, the critical warlike situation may have thankfully faded, but the war of narratives continues to this day.


INDIA SAID, PAKISTAN SAID

IAF Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa was a busy man around this time last year. After Abhinandan was captured on February 27, 2019, Dhanoa gave many press conferences claiming that India conducted a successful airstrike at a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) “terror camp” in Balakot. Politicians from the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also repeated their own version of events.

The captured Indian pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, with Pakistan Army men | File photo
The captured Indian pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, with Pakistan Army men | File photo

And a disappointingly warmongering mainstream Indian media seemed to throw all fact-checking protocols out the window. “The media, in the modern era, are indisputably an instrument of war. This is because winning modern wars is as much dependent on carrying domestic and international public opinion as it is on defeating the enemy on the battlefield,” academic Kenneth Payne had noted in a 2005 paper. “And it remains true regardless of the aspirations of many journalists to give an impartial and balanced assessment of conflict.” But many Indian journalists were clearly not interested in even appearing ‘impartial’. They shouted on-screen, actively asking for retaliation, and labelling people anti-national. They gave uninterrupted airtime to politicians who claimed to have killed hundreds in the strike. BJP leaders gave numbers ranging from 250 to 400.

The situation on the ground appeared to tell a different story. Pakistan maintained that the only damage the attacks had caused was to the trees in the area. “There are just some burnt trees and nothing else,” Zahid Hussain Shah, a villager from the area, had told this newspaper. Residents of Balakot had maintained that it was business as usual in the area. No ambulances had come rushing to the scene of the ‘deadly’ strike; no families could be seen mourning their dead; and even the buildings the strike had supposedly taken out appeared to be unharmed.

Still, Dhanoa continued to reiterate that the “target was hit”. “If we plan to hit the target, we hit the target,” he had told the Indian press. “If we dropped bombs in the jungles why would [Pakistan] respond?” the Indian air marshal had asked.

Unlike Indian politicians, however, Dhanoa refused to share how many had been killed in the strike. “The air force is not in a position to clarify how many people were inside,” he had said. “We don’t count human casualties. We count what targets we have hit or not hit.”

A satellite image of a madrassa near Balakot which was the intended target of India's air strike | Reuters
A satellite image of a madrassa near Balakot which was the intended target of India's air strike | Reuters

But even satellite images of the ‘target’ the Indian strike supposedly hit appeared to contradict Dhanoa’s claims. “Satellite imagery did not suggest that any damage was inflicted to nearby buildings,” a report by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab concluded. “Something appears to have gone wrong in the targeting process — exactly what, however, remains unclear in the open-source evidence.”

It did not help India’s case that no photographs supported its version either. “Where are the pictures of the attack on Balakot?” Jawed Naqvi, Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi had written in the paper last year. “The Mirage-2000 is supposed to be the best choice for shooting pictures of its targets,” he had pointed out, adding that one Indian channel had said the weather was bad for taking pictures and another reported that the pictures were being processed.

Pakistan said on February 27 last year that it has shot down two Indian warplanes in its airspace over Kashmir in a dramatic escalation of a confrontation that ignited fears of an all-out conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbours | STR/AFP
Pakistan said on February 27 last year that it has shot down two Indian warplanes in its airspace over Kashmir in a dramatic escalation of a confrontation that ignited fears of an all-out conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbours | STR/AFP

For its part, Pakistan made every effort to indicate that it had nothing to hide. It eventually even gave foreign journalists access to the site of the strike. The group of journalists also “visited a nearby madrassa that India claimed it had struck and killed scores of terrorists at”, the Inter-Services Public Relations wing (ISPR) of the Pakistan military had said in a statement. “India should accept the reality,” the then Director General (DG) ISPR Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor had added.


TRUTH BE TOLD

Pakistan and India are far from the only countries that have battled to tell the world the story of a conflict from their perspective. In his 1928 book Falsehood in War-Time, Arthur Ponsonby looks at the role propaganda played in the First World War. “Falsehood is a recognised and extremely useful weapon in warfare, and every country uses it quite deliberately to deceive its own people, to attract neutrals, and to mislead the enemy,” wrote Ponsonby, who opposed Britain’s involvement in the World War. “The ignorant and innocent masses in each country are unaware at the time that they are being misled, and when it is all over, only here and there are the falsehoods discovered and exposed.”

A student takes a selfie at an exhibit featuring a statue of Indian Wing Commander Abhinandan at Karachi's PAF Museum | AFP
A student takes a selfie at an exhibit featuring a statue of Indian Wing Commander Abhinandan at Karachi's PAF Museum | AFP

Unlike in the 1920s, today these ‘falsehoods’ are much easier to catch and contest online. But at the same time, the age of social media throws up its own challenges and also allows misinformation to spread far and wide. In a March 2019 article published in the Guardian, Michael Sheldon, a research associate from the Atlantic Council, said that the confusion over basic facts is not unusual during conflict or major tragedies, especially in the social media age.

“The MH17 shootdown [of a passenger jet over Ukraine by Russian-armed rebels] was a classic case study for state-sanctioned disinformation,” he told the Guardian. “Decentralised versions of this ‘trying anything to see what might stick’ [approach] do happen in the broader social media environment.”

In today’s world, when those in power take to Twitter and other social media platforms, they are talking not only to their own people but to social media users around the globe. The victors are those who convince the rest of the world they are in the right.

The article further quotes Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology: “The advantage of the fog of war, especially in the immediate aftermath of something like this, is that … you can actually sustain contradictory narratives.” According to Narang, this ambiguity can allow both sides to claim victory, avoiding further strikes. “We can litigate the facts once things settle down.”

As far back as 1928, Ponsonby had written about how critical the “psychological factor” is in times of war and conflict. He had stated that it is just as important as the “military factor”. “People must never be allowed to become despondent,” he wrote, “…so victories must be exaggerated and defeats, if not concealed, at any rate minimised…”

A tapestry featuring Indian Wing Commander Abhinandan's portrait is sold in India | Reuters image
A tapestry featuring Indian Wing Commander Abhinandan's portrait is sold in India | Reuters image

In today’s world, when those in power take to Twitter and other social media platforms, they are talking not only to their own people but to social media users around the globe. The victors are those who convince the rest of the world they are in the right.

At the end of February last year, Indian Wing Commander Abhinandan was in Pakistan’s custody. He was sent back home on March 1, 2019. Many saw the move as a masterstroke by the Pakistan government and declared that, by freeing Abhinandan, Pakistan had won the perceptions war.


A GESTURE OF PEACE AND A CUPPA

On February 28, 2019, Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke before parliament. “We have caught India’s pilot, but as a peace gesture we are freeing him tomorrow and sending him back to India,” he declared, as parliamentarians applauded the decision.

The applause for Khan continued on both Pakistani and Indian Twitter. While many welcomed the gesture of peace, others saw it as an intelligent strategic move. “[The Ministry of Defence] briefing, to announce [the] release of Wing Comdr Abhinandan, has been pre-empted by Imran Khan, who announced it earlier,” tweeted Indian defence analyst and former colonel Ajai Shukla. “Now [the Ministry of Defence] briefing [has been ‘postponed’]. Whatever happens in [the] real battle, Pakistan has comprehensively won the perception war. At every stage, their PR was ahead of ours.”

While many Pakistanis mocked Abhinandan’s capture, India made every effort to paint their pilot as a hero.

Soon the Indian media started to present the return of the pilot as a diplomatic victory for Delhi. But before Abhinandan would leave, he would record a video message — his second in two days. “The Indian media exaggerates a lot,” he says in the video. “It always gives air to small things, adding fire and spices to it,” he says, adding that the Indian media misleads his countrymen.

Of course, the circumstances under which the video had been made forced one to question the veracity of these statements. Prior to this video, another video featuring Abhinandan had caught everyone’s attention, in which the Indian pilot was singing his captors’ praises. He was apparently enjoying a cup of tea and speaking about how well he had been treated in Pakistan.

Indian pilot Abhinandan stands with armed escort at the Wagah border on March 1, 2019 | Screengrab
Indian pilot Abhinandan stands with armed escort at the Wagah border on March 1, 2019 | Screengrab

It was in this video that the now-iconic phrase “The tea is fantastic,” was first uttered. The phrase has lived on online. It has inspired memes. It has inspired a fan-made commercial for a popular tea brand. And it has even inspired adverts by some chai dhabbas.

It also served as the inspiration for a commercial that went viral during the ICC Cricket World Cup. The commercial shows a man in a blue shirt, clearly referencing Team India’s official kit. An off-screen voice asks the man a series of questions, such as, “What will you do if you win the toss?” The man sips his tea and responds to every question with, “I’m sorry, I’m not supposed to tell you that, sir,” a clear reference to the Indian pilot’s refusal to answer most questions in his initial video. The off-screen voice finally inquires how the tea is. The man on screen delivers his catchphrase and starts to walk out of the frame, with the cup still in his hand. The interrogator stops him and asks, “Where do you think you’re taking the cup?” A punny reference to the World Cup.

A Pakistani actor playing Abhinandan | File photo
A Pakistani actor playing Abhinandan | File photo

While some Indian and Pakistani commentators criticised the ad, its popularity on social media showed that many in Pakistan were completely comfortable ridiculing the Indian wing commander.

In November last year, a statue of the Indian pilot was installed at Karachi’s PAF Museum. The exhibit includes parts of his MiG-21 Bison aircraft, a cup of tea (not the actual cup used by him) and a mock ‘mess receipt’ charging him for the tea. The cost: ‘one MiG-21’. The exhibit became quite a crowd-puller when it first opened. But not everyone saw the humour. India Today called the display “a bizarre promotion of [Pakistan’s] heinous propaganda against India.”

The statue and the frequent reference to his comment on the tea clearly show that Abhinandan has become a symbol. But he symbolises different things in the two countries.

While many Pakistanis mocked Abhinandan’s capture, India made every effort to paint their pilot as a hero. The pilot was given a hero’s welcome last year when he crossed the Wagah border. Drums played and a huge crowd with Indian flags, sweets and garlands gathered at Wagah. Many held signs calling for peace.

Children hold banners and national flags to celebrate Prime Minister Imran Khan's decision to release Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan | Reuters image
Children hold banners and national flags to celebrate Prime Minister Imran Khan's decision to release Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan | Reuters image

A group of schoolchildren held placards reading, “Hope for peace between India and Pakistan” and “Thank you Imran Khan”. Abhinandan’s parents were also part of the jubilant crowd. According to media reports, when the pilot’s parents boarded a flight to Amritsar near Wagah, they were given a standing ovation.

After returning home, the Indian wing commander was awarded the Vir Chakra — India’s third-highest wartime gallantry medal. Tapestries featuring his portraits started going on sale around India. And, according to a Reuters report, Indian men started asking barbers to shave their moustaches to match Abhinandan’s distinct handlebar style. “Everybody follows Bollywood and celebrities’ style but he is the real hero of our country,” Dhiren Makvana, the manager of a fitness club, told Reuters last year, as he had his beard sculpted at a barbershop in Ahmedabad.

It would appear Bollywood producers agree with Makvana.


THE BIG SCREEN TREATMENT

In the wake of the Balakot strike, something strange happened in India. According to a Huffington Post India report, following the attacks, the official body responsible for registering movie names saw a “sizable” spike in requests to register titles around Pulwama and Balakot. Producers fought it out to acquire every possible title.

Two films are apparently already in the works. One is Vivek Oberoi’s Balakot — The True Story, the other is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s untitled film that “celebrates the accomplishments of the Indian Air Force.”

Responding to the latter film’s announcement, then DG ISPR Ghafoor had tweeted, “With due respect to [Wing Commander] Abhinandan as a soldier, yes the dream could only be fulfilled through Bollywood.”

Bollywood is, of course, one of the biggest film industries in the world. And cinema has arguably been used as a means for propaganda since the first World War. “The cinema also played a very important part, especially in neutral countries, and helped considerably in turning opinion in America in favour of coming in on the side of the Allies,” Ponsonby had noted in his Falsehood in War-Time. “To this day in this country, attempts are made by means of films to keep the wound raw.”

Propaganda cinema has a long history. And while this means audiences today are more mindful of what they are consuming, it also means that well-read filmmakers can learn from the many films that exist and construct narratives that get the job done more subtly. One knows that if an ace producer like Bhansali is producing a Balakot strike film, it will be eminently watchable.

Bhansali Productions’ announcement tweet regarding the project tagged the Indian prime minister’s office and the country’s defence minister. Many were especially surprised to see this from Bhansali as the filmmaker’s previous film, Padmaavat, had faced more than its share of trouble prior to its release. Among others, several members of the ruling BJP had called for a ban on the film. Multiple Rajput caste organisations including the Shri Rajput Karni Sena had vandalised the film's sets and assaulted the filmmaker because they believed the film misrepresented some ‘facts’ about a Rajput queen, Padmavati.

To see Bhansali’s production house now tagging BJP’s Modi in his film announcement is disappointing, but not surprising. Writing for an online Indian publication Arre, Poulomi Das called the BJP government a government that has “introduced the word “anti-national” to our modern lexicon, as an indictment of citizens who veer even a little from any official narrative.” In such a scenario, it makes sense for filmmakers to be drawn to films that reiterate the state’s viewpoint.

Part of the motivation is probably the critical and commercial success of Uri: The Surgical Strike, another film peddling the Indian government’s version of recent history. According to Uri’s synopsis, following the “roguish terrorist attacks at Uri Army Base camp in Kashmir, India takes the fight to the enemy.” The synopsis further dubs this India’s “most successful covert operation till date.”

The film treats the Indian government’s narrative surrounding the 2016 Uri attack as fact, even though many details are still contested. Expectedly, it also caricatures Pakistanis. Reviewing the film Arre’s Das wrote, “How do you turn a blind eye to the timing of the release of the film, which is clearly endorsing the ruling party, just a few months ahead of the general elections? Uri glorifies a government that has milked dry the idea of patriotism and the sacrifices of soldiers for political leverage.

Poster for Indian movie Uri
Poster for Indian movie Uri

“In fact, it’s a far greater disservice to watch Uri without acknowledging the context of the film: The Modi government’s unabashed publicity of a cross-border raid — standard for armed forces around the world, including our own — that was never intended to be a public spectacle in the first place,” she wrote. “Two years later, Uri serves as its mouthpiece — and it’s even more dangerous because it is a compelling cinematic accomplishment, that can’t just be written off. Instead of dumbing itself down to cater to only a target audience, it presents a government-approved version of events packaged so sophisticatedly that it could appeal to almost anyone.”

Propaganda cinema has a long history. And while this means audiences today are more mindful of what they are consuming, it also means that well-read filmmakers can learn from the many films that exist and construct narratives that get the job done more subtly. One knows that if an ace producer like Bhansali is producing a Balakot strike film, it will be eminently watchable.

The question of timing is also a pertinent one which many, including Prime Minister Khan, have raised. Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 2019, Khan had said, “Modi’s campaign was based on the lie that they killed 350 terrorists while they killed only 10 trees, which was quite painful because we are planting all these trees.”

It is worth noting that BJP president Amit Shah had cited the number of 250 to 350 casualties at a campaign rally for India’s general elections in April 2019. Seeing a pattern, Das had written that a film on surgical strikes such as Uri “cannot be considered harmless in an election year.”


TRIUMPH OF THE WILL

Filmmakers and storytellers working closely with governments should perhaps look at the legacy of German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous propaganda piece Triumph of the Will (1935). The ‘documentary’ shows Adolf Hitler at the 1934 Nuremberg Rally.

It starts with an artful series of helicopter shots of the clouds. The clouds eventually part to show beautiful architecture, standing tall with Nazi flags. We see people eagerly waiting for Hitler. When Hitler arrives, we see him interact with a child. We see him in a flattering light he has never been seen in before — or since.

This makes sense when you consider that Triumph of the Will was commissioned by Hitler. The Nazi leader had realised the power of film to convince people early on and gave Riefenstahl a substantial budget to play with. With a crew of 172 people, Riefenstahl got to work with a film crew that was extravagant by the standards of the day. Hitler’s personal architect designed the set in Nuremberg and did most of the coordination for the event. Pits were dug in front of the speakers’ platform so the filmmaker could get the camera angles she wanted. And tracks were laid so that her cameramen could get travelling shots of the crowd.

Of course, history has not been kind to Riefenstahl. Defending the work, the filmmaker once called Triumph of the Will a purely historical film. “Everything in it is true,” she said. But despite the high production values, people see Triumph of the Will for what it is.

This may be a worthwhile reminder for present-day storytellers; the ability to tell a high-production compelling story may ultimately not be enough to win the war of narratives. In this day and age, the whole world keenly watches conflict zones such as that between India and Pakistan, and sophisticated eyes everywhere can distinguish fact from fiction. 


Header illustration by Samiah Bilal


The writer is a member of staff, a visual artist and filmmaker.

He tweets @FahadNaveed


Published in Dawn, EOS, March 1st, 2020