Line of Narrative Control

The media and the government’s misdirections on China’s border incursions

The government would like Indians to forget that a crisis exists on the Ladakh border but, having lost the narrative early, it seems impossible, even for Modi with his masterly control over the media. tauseef mustafa / afp / getty images
01 December, 2020

On 2 October, images of a war memorial in eastern Ladakh started appearing on the social-media accounts of some journalists. The memorial, “Gallants of Galwan,” was built for the 20 Indian soldiers who died in a violent physical clash with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on 15 June. The unacknowledged source of those images, which made it to all newspapers the next day, was the army headquarters, and the pictures contained more details about the incident than had been made public till date. The inscription on the memorial stated that Colonel Santosh Babu, the commanding officer of 16 Bihar Regiment, and his team had been “tasked to evict the PLA OP (observation post) from Gen A (General Area) Y-Nala and move further to Patrolling Point 14.” It further clarified that this team “successfully evicted the PLA OP from Y-Nala and reached PP 14 where a fierce skirmish broke out between the IA (Indian Army) and PLA troops.”

Till then, the government or the army had never officially confirmed that Babu and his men had been tasked to evict Chinese soldiers and then move further to PP 14, a few hundred yards away, in an area where inches of space are fiercely contested by both armies. The images of the memorial established that the clash—which, along with the deaths, also injured another 78 and left ten soldiers in Chinese captivity—occurred not during the eviction but subsequently at PP 14. Compare this to the terse official statement from the late hours of 16 June, which simply acknowledged that 17 critically injured soldiers had succumbed to their injuries, taking the death toll to 20. An earlier statement in the afternoon had plainly stated that, “During de-escalation process underway in the Galwan Valley, a violent face-off took place yesterday night with casualties on both sides.” The two statements are not available on the Press Information Bureau’s website, even though all official statements released by the army’s public-relations officer in the defence ministry are uploaded there. Although these deaths occurred on 15 June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not acknowledge these deaths on his Twitter timeline till 17 June, an unusual delay from someone otherwise so prompt—more so, when these were the first deaths of Indian soldiers in clashes with the Chinese in Ladakh since the 1962 war.

That the bodies of the fallen soldiers did not come to Delhi for the ceremonial laying of wreaths by the prime minister—as was the case with the 40 Central Reserve Police Force troopers who died in the Pulwama car-bombing during the 2019 election campaign—can perhaps be explained by the prevailing pandemic. But the government and the army’s silence about the ten soldiers taken captive by the PLA that night defies reason. Indian soldiers were in PLA captivity for the first time since 1962, but their capture found no coverage in the media. Journalists seeking confirmation were initially stonewalled by the army, but, as they became insistent, the army changed its tone to a request to keep it off the news. When the New York Times said in an article on 17 June that a number of Indian troops were captured, the army issued a statement more than 24 hours later: “It is clarified that there are no Indian Troops Missing in Action.” Since the New York Times had never claimed that the troops were missing, but had reported that they had been captured by the PLA, the Army PRO’s clarification was misleading even if it was factually correct.

If the omertà on reporting the facts of the matter was only to ensure the safety of captive soldiers, it should have ended the evening these soldiers were released. However, the army still pressed journalists to abstain from reporting, perhaps to ensure that the capture of the soldiers would be erased from public memory. It is not clear if this was done at the behest of the political leadership, or if it was solely an attempt by the army to protect its public image. The Hindu was the only national daily that reported the release on its front page on 19 June, and almost every other newspaper, television channel and web portal remained silent on the matter. There has been no official statement from the army or the government till date acknowledging the soldiers’ captivity and release. Unlike the case of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who was in Pakistani captivity after his MiG-21 fighter jet was shot down in aerial combat in Pakistan-administered Kashmir on 27 February 2019, the Indian media has not shown any interest in investigating and recounting the three-day captivity of these soldiers.