Controlling the narrative

Sanjay Kapoor

Small towns wake up early. In Dinanagar, Gurdaspur district, Punjab, terrorists woke up India at 5.30 am when they began shooting innocent people. A few minutes later, the news channels had found a juicy bone. They began to run breaking news about how terrorists had struck in Punjab, which had been free of violence for the last two decades. Shortly thereafter, the channels announced that the terrorists had occupied the police station of Dinanagar and were shooting from inside. Some channels showed images of ill-trained Punjab Police men atop nearby terraces,  throwing what seemed to be stones towards the police station. Other channels showed some of them valiantly firing from their World War 1 vintage .303 rifles towards terrorists equipped with armour-piercing bullets. A little later, the coverage began to give the impression of being stuck in a groove. A few English channels explained that they were being “responsible” and not relaying live coverage of the gun battle that lasted 12 hours. Obviously, they were trying to prove that those who were beaming live footage from Dinanagar were wrong. While there may be merit in the TV channels not showing the terror attack as it happened, what the government began to do instead was to control the narrative. Even though the attack took place in Punjab with a strong likelihood of the return of Khalistani militants– even Hardnews reported the rise of Sikh extremism in the last issue – the narrative was firmly controlled by Delhi’s home ministry to perhaps tell another story. So, again, Pakistan was held responsible for the attack with GPS data displaying “way points” originating from the neighbouring country. What was intriguing was that the home ministry neither released pictures of the three terrorists nor tried to establish their identity. Were the terrorists Sikh extremists or did they belong to the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba? Home Minister Rajnath Singh had earlier claimed that the terrorists had come from Pakistan, but later the government did an intriguing rethink. A day later, a government official told a channel that they had no evidence that Pakistan was involved in the attack.

At least on the Dinanagar incident, the media did not cross the laxman rekha, though the government eventually tied itself in knots due to its flawed self-perception. This does not really mean that its narrative was not contested by the social media or by what was emanating from across the border. Facebook entries claimed that those killed were Sikh terrorists trying to reignite the Khalistan cause after all these years. There were WhatsApp messages, to the same effect.

However, the traditional or mainstream media, by and large, stuck to the official line.

After tasting this limited success, the government again tried to manage the media and the narrative when 1993 Mumbai blasts accused Yakub Memon was hanged in Nagpur jail. The Central government quietly told the visual media that they should not reveal the huge throng of people that had collected to bid goodbye to Memon. Most newspapers followed this diktat. Coincidentally, on the same day, former President APJ Abdul Kalam was being buried in his hometown of Rameshwaram. News channels displayed inordinate enthusiasm in covering his last journey. Did the news blackout of the burial of Memon work? Not if one goes by how some of the images of his burial went viral on Twitter. Also, the WhatsApp messaging platform, which disseminates more news and perhaps rumour than TV or any newspaper, was full of details about what happened in Mumbai or earlier in Nagpur. Similarly, the social media and WhatsApp were full of messages from those celebrating the execution of Memon. Their joy and blood lust, it seemed, threatening to spill beyond the confines of their mobile devices.

In these information-clogged times, the jury is still out on whether the media can be managed and the narrative be controlled by the government or the oligarchy. During the Arab Spring, every ruler tried to control the media but failed.  On the contrary, in Iran, the government managed to block Western propaganda and social media to preserve itself. What’s visible is that technology and its ever greater penetration is allowing government to pretty much keep track of everything, including those who could cause trouble. Stronger leaders are using electronic surveillance, as exposed by Edward Snowden, to control everything. In India, a beginning has been made at just that.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: AUGUST 2015