What The Ambiguity Surrounding The Surgical Strikes Tells Us About India's National Security Beat

06 October, 2016

Over the past week, the Indian media’s coverage of the surgical strikes reportedly conducted by the Indian army on the night straddling 28 and 29 September has been unapologetically hawkish. In light of this, it becomes important to take a fresh look at this excerpt from first official statement the Indian army made:

“Based on very credible and specific information which we received yesterday that some terrorist teams had positioned themselves at launch pads along [emphasis ours] the Line of Control with an aim to carry out infiltration and terrorist strikes in Jammu & Kashmir and in various other metros in our country, the Indian army conducted surgical strikes last night at these launch pads.” Director General Military Operations Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh said in a press conference on 29 September.

Since then, there has been a deluge of news reports that have left nothing to the imagination. The stories are replete with precise details of an operation carried across the Line of Control (LoC): the battalions involved, the time and duration of the strike, the target areas and the number of dead enemies. These details have varied across several reports, but one aspect has remained common: The sources in all these stories were either absentees, or anonymous.

Ajai Shukla—a former army officer and a columnist for the Business Standard on strategic affairs, defence and diplomacy—stated cross-border operations have taken place several times in the past and that a message was sent to the Pakistani army through these strikes. This time however, he said, by publicly announcing the strike, the government had transformed it into a political message for the Indian public, presumably for political gain. During a televised discussion on India Today TV on 4 October, Shukla pointed out that the DGMO “didn’t mention that it was a cross-border surgical strike” and said that this conclusion was reached through “background briefings and background…sort of planted stories and so on.” “I underline the word along not across,” he added.

On 5 October, Praveen Swami, the editor of strategic affairs for The Indian Express, went further than most in his front page story and cited “eyewitness accounts as well as intelligence records” to provide an intricate description of the strike. Attributing information to anonymous sources and documents is the hallmark of security reporting.  The eyewitnesses mentioned in Swami’s story did not actually witness the strike, they heard about it from the villagers across the LoC.  Despite such tenuous sourcing, the story makes it assertions with confidence. “Local residents told one of the eye witnesses that loud explosions–possibly rounds fired from 84mm Carl Gustav rifles–were heard from across the Al Haawi bridge,” states a line in the report. On Twitter, a reader said the story is “one tenth fact and nine tenths fiction”.

The dictionary meaning of an eyewitness is a person who has seen something. But according to this report, an eyewitness seems be anyone who hears what a resident tells him.

Although no video evidence has surfaced yet, the media has liberally used file footage from military actions elsewhere, rich graphics, and anonymous sourcing to substantiate the claims of the military. Defence experts such as Shukla trace the origins of these reports, all of which are based on unverified information, to background briefings and planted stories.

Praveen Donthi’s report, “Known Unkowns” was published in The Caravan in December 2013. But in the murky media landscape of today, as jingoistic fervour seems to have triumphed over factual reportage, his story on India’s compromised national security beat has become both relevant and essential. Read the story in full here.