Friday, September 25, 2009

India media battles China

Why does the India media blow hot and cold over China, every now and then? I look at this phenomenon in "Breaking news: TV battles China", published in the Financial Express, on 25 Sept 2009.

Apart from any geopolitical factors, there are two plausible explanations for the current focus on the China-India border, particularly on a few TV news channels in India. We are being daily fed with reports of Chinese incursions, China’s aggressive postures, China’s military buildup, China painting rocks red, and then the media is blowing hot and cold over whether the Indian military is capable or ill prepared to deal with any situation that may arise. Indian government has repeated that there is nothing unusual happening on the border. Indian military has said there has been nothing unusual on the border. But of course the media knows better.

I know very little about the Chinese response to the war being waged in Indian drawing rooms. One report in Indian papers quoted Chinese officials urging Indian media to show restraint. Of course no one can restrain the free Indian media, particularly when what is at stake is TRP. Particularly when many are suffering from withdrawal symptoms in a phase when there is no T-20 cricket to keep TV channels focused on the records made, the records missed, and the records that might be made, both on and off the field.

Here is my two cents worth contribution on why China-India border is dominating some TV news channels.

One, China is still relatively unknown to most Indians, quite unlike our other neighbours, and that makes it an easy target. For instance, Pakistan and its many non-state actors are a known devil, so whatever price they make us pay every time we are at the receiving end of their firework, we soldier on. There is very little personal animosity between ordinary people on both sides of the Indo-Pak border. On the other hand, historically and socially, China has always been on the periphery of awareness for most Indians, and the Himalayan range only reinforced that perception. Shekhar Gupta writes in his weekly column in The Indian Express, (September 19, 2009; news/stop-fighting-the-1962-war/ 518975/0), that the defeat of the

Indian army in the 1962 war at the hands of the Chinese in the Indian north-east may have scarred the Indian psyche for generations. So today, the little known China, coupled with the trauma of 1962, is casting a shadow over the reality of Sino-Indian relationship in 2009.

Secondly, like the Bollywood films that are forever eager to try and capitalise on any prevailing popular perceptions, there are some in the Indian media who think they now have an opportunity to try and leverage the Chinese dragon. In an economic slowdown, competition among news channels for higher TRPs has become hot, and what better than a T-20 thriller between China and India. The channels had a field day predicting a close election, when it was anything but that. Then the swine flu brought in the running commentary on the disease and death, triggering a panic. Then the monsoon, or its failure, and the media descended like vultures, excited at the prospect of picking at the worst drought in a century. And now it is time for a face-off between China and India, a battle which has been joined, with hardly anyone from the media actually visiting the border. Wait for the next media sponsored breaking news event. Far from being the messenger, the TV channels want to create news! Welcome to the media war in the information age.

Nevertheless, a war of words on TV channels is far more tolerable than any exchange of artillery between the armies.

The media warriors have, of course, attempted to wrap their rhetoric in tricolour. In the heat of battle, they may have missed one small point. Much of the China-India border is disputed by one side or the other, which is why we have the Line of Actual Control. And in some areas, even the LAC is not clearly accepted by both sides. There can hardly be anything but ‘incursions’ by one or the other, if there is no mutually recognised border cast in stone, in the first place.

On the other hand, if we are to accept the LAC as the de facto border, then it would basically mean that we surrender claims on the western sector in Aksai Chin, and China give up its claim in the eastern sector in Arunachal Pradesh. A lot of scholars think that it is precisely this kind of across-the-board settlement which is desirable, possible and doable. But it is the sector by sector, section by section, mile by mile negotiation between China and India that has perpetuated the talks, and held up settlement of the border dispute all these years.

One hopes that from this fog of battle in the media, a little light would shine through, giving impetus to the border negotiations. If the border is settled, the media warriors, of course, will lose one of their favourite punching bags. But that is one casualty from friendly fire that would be worth paying for.

Postscript: While the media goes to battle the dragon, the reality of Sino-Indian relationship goes on. China is India’s largest trading partner. Indian investment in China is growing. Many Indian students are studying at Chinese universities. China and India are working together at G-20, at WTO and other forums. The two sides recently acknowledged their identical positions on climate change. If these are a few of the highs, then as in any relationship, there are many low points too. The war drums in the virtual media cannot overshadow the realities.