Why shoot the messenger?

To China’s
delight,
India
reins in its media

The Indian government doesn’t deny recurrent Chinese cross-frontier
border incursions, yet it has unfairly accused the media of overplaying such
border provocations, says
Brahma Chellaney

India Abroad and Rediff.com
http://ow.ly/tzWe

At a time
when border tensions with China
have risen, the Indian government has tried to pull the veil over the
Himalayan-frontier situation by targeting the media for allegedly overplaying
Chinese cross-border incursions. Note: No one in the government has denied such
incursions are occurring. Yet the media is being accused of hyping such
incursions, even as a tight-lipped government remains reluctant to come clean
on the actual extent and frequency of the Chinese intrusions.

To
the delight of the autocrats in Beijing, who
tightly control the flow of information in their country, including through
online censors, New Delhi
has reined in its home media.
In response to the governmental intervention at the highest level,
Indian news organizations essentially have clamped down on further reporting of
the Chinese incursions. The message this sends to Beijing, however
inadvertently, is that when the world’s biggest autocracy builds up pressure,
the world’s largest democracy is willing to tame its media coverage, even if it
entails
dispensing half-truths and flogging distortions.

Beijing is sure to be emboldened by the precedent that
has been set. Next time when it is unhappy with Indian media coverage of another
issue sensitive to its interests, it simply will issue a diplomatic demarche to
New Delhi to
discipline its media the way it did on the border tensions.

Given Beijing’s
growing hardline stance towards India
since 2006, New Delhi’s
attempt to sweep serious issues under the rug is baffling. The facts, even if unpalatable, should be allowed to
speak for themselves. New Delhi’s
oft-repeated line in recent weeks has been that Chinese incursions are at last
year’s level, so there is no need to worry. But 2008 brought a record number of
incursions, with the Indian defence establishment reporting that the number of
such intrusions went from 140 in 2007 to 270 last year, or almost double. In
addition, there were
2,285 reported instances of “aggressive border patrolling”
by Chinese forces in 2008. This summer, as the army chief publicly said, there were “21
incursions in June, 20 in July and 24 in August.”

The key point to note is that
China has opened pressure points against India across the Himalayas, with border incidents occurring in all the four sectors — Ladakh,
Uttarakhand-Himachal, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
Yet, such is the Indian government’s continuing
opacity that it is loath to clarify the actual border situation, even as it
conveniently blames the media for overplaying the incursions, although the
information about them has been coming from official channels.

If the threat from an increasingly assertive and ambitious China is to be contained, India must have
an honest and open debate on its diplomatic and military options, including how
gaps in its defenses can be plugged and what it will take to build a credible
deterrent. The media has a crucial role to play in such a debate, both by
bringing out the facts and providing a platform for discussion.

Still,
New Delhi has
sought to make its home media the scapegoat. Even more odd is that it has taken
its cue from Beijing.
It was the Chinese foreign ministry which first accused Indian media of
stirring up tensions.
“I have noted that some Indian media are
releasing inaccurate information; I wonder what their aim is,” spokeswoman
Jiang Yu had said. Soon thereafter, Beijing
discreetly began exerting diplomatic pressure on New Delhi to domesticate its media.

In response, Indian
government functionaries have rushed, one by one, to make light of the Chinese
incursions, although
the Chinese leadership has
studiously kept mum on border-related developments. Not a word has come from
any Chinese leader. By contrast, the almost entire Indian security leadership from
the prime minister down has gone public — not to clarify what is happening
along the border, but to claim there is no cause for alarm. But by being
disturbingly opaque, New Delhi
only adds to the public unease.

The Indian public
indeed has been offered mostly one-line statements from government
functionaries. Here’s a sample:

■ In
September’s first week, the neophyte external affairs minister offered this
one-liner: ‘‘Let me go on record to say that this
has been one of the most peaceful boundaries that we have had as compared to
boundary lines with other countries.” From the Maurya Sheraton’s presidential
suite, where S.M. Krishna was ensconced for more than 100 days, everything
looks “most peaceful,” not just the India-China border.

■ In the
following week, the foreign secretary claimed there has been “no significant
increase” in Chinese incursions. That suggests the incursions have increased
but not significantly. But who is to judge whether any increase is significant
or insignificant if those in authority divulge no information?

The foreign secretary was followed by the prime
minister, who laconically indicated he was in touch with the “highest levels”
of the Chinese government while implicitly acknowledging that a better flow of
government information was necessary to improve media reporting.

■ A day
later, the army chief was asked to speak up. “The
Prime Minister has just made a statement that there has not been any more
incursions or transgressions as compared to last year. They are at the same
level. So there is no cause of worry or concern,” Gen. Deepak Kapoor declared
on September 19. If the level of intrusions remains at last year’s level,
that
should be a cause for concern because it shows China
is keeping India
under unremitting pressure.

■ Then came
the national security adviser, who was loquacious but not enlightening in a TV
interview. “Almost all the so-called incursions
which have taken place have taken place in areas which in a sense are viewed as
being disputed by one side or the other,” said M.K. Narayanan. Really? What
about Sikkim, whose border
with Tibet is formally
recognized by China?
And what about Uttarakhand —  the middle
sector — where the line of control was clarified through an exchange of maps
with China
in 2001? More fundamentally,
why should New Delhi offer explanations or
justifications for the Chinese incursions? If such intrusions really are due to
differing perceptions about the line of control, let the Chinese say that. But
note: Beijing
hasn’t proffered that excuse.

Significantly, the NSA admitted the Chinese have started intruding a
“little deeper” than before, even as he maintained the government’s
now-familiar line that there has been “hardly any increase” in Chinese
cross-frontier forays. He went on to say, “China certainly sees us as a rival. They wish to be numero uno in this part of the world.”
Yet he complacently concluded, I don’t think there is any reason for us to
feel particularly concerned as to what’s happening.” Didn’t such smugness bring
the surprise 1962 invasion?

Unfortunately, even while denying any media
report, New Delhi
tends to be so economical with words that it leaves questions hanging. For
example, the government has yet to categorically deny that Chinese forces
opened fire across the settled Sikkim
border in late August. It merely described as “factually inaccurate” a
September 15 newspaper report that two Indo-Tibetan Border Police soldiers were
wounded in such firing. But another national newspaper had earlier front-paged
on August 28 the trading of cross-border fire in the same Sikkim area — Kerang.

If New Delhi
wants to ensure Himalayan peace, pulling the wool on public eyes is certainly not the way. It is the government’s responsibility to keep the public
informed through media of new security threats and the steps it is taking to
effectively defend the borders.

Journalists seeking
information from the government on the Himalayan frontier complain they get the
runaround. Rather than stonewall or obfuscate, the
government ought to readily disseminate information. Not all information
released in the public domain can be venomous to diplomacy.

Good public diplomacy, at home and abroad,
indeed can complement official diplomacy and defense preparedness. Indian
opacity on Chinese-triggered border incidents only
helps bolster China’s projection of its “peaceful
rise."

By trying to mask the actual border situation, New Delhi seriously risks playing into Beijing’s hands and spurring on greater
Chinese belligerence.

Brahma Chellaney,
professor of strategic studies at the independent, privately funded Centre for
Policy Research, is the author, most recently, of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise
of China, India and Japan.”

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