We are living in a world of narratives and these narratives influence the perception of the public and shape our reality. Media plays a significant role in building these narratives and shaping our perception about the happenings across the world. Nation-states often employ the mass media for building a perception in their state’s favour and against their enemies, such as the propaganda both, the US and USSR, carried out in times of cold war. This media led agenda setting technique is categorized as the tactic of hybrid warfare or part of the psychological operations that use social and traditional media to influence popular perception and international opinion. Case of Pakistan and India is no different because both states are nuclear-armed rivals and in order to keep their conflict under the nuclear threshold, they are engaged in irregular warfare.
Today, media is everywhere. With the advancement and proliferation of digital information communication technologies (ICT’s), there is a drastic increase in the usage of these digital platforms for the dissemination of information, especially news stories. With the inherent power of media to influence our thoughts, the proliferation of mass media, especially the digital media, has rendered it as a powerful tool and even as a weapon to control the minds of the people. Technological developments, like the expansion of cyberspace and social media users, have multiplied the threats of informational and psychological warfare and provided with enhanced tactics and strategies to actors for achieving their goals of hybrid warfare. Now wars are not only fought in the conventional battleground but also on these digital grounds.
Employing mass media for winning a war of narratives is also not new; it remained a common practice during the prolonged cold war and even before that. During the early period of the cold war when the two superpowers were struggling to erect their world orders, both sides used media, especially TV and radio for gathering public support for state actions and motivating the populace for reaffirming and defending their national political and economic allegiances. Case of hybrid, irregular or psychological warfare of Pakistan and India is similar to the case of the US and USSR cold war rivalry, where both powers waged informational and propagandist wars against each other to destabilize their adversaries and legitimize their state’s policies and actions. Here, both nuclear-armed rivals are aware that such tactics are damaging the interests of their rivals while keeping the conflict below the nuclear threshold and avoiding the possibility of mutually assured destruction.
India is engaged in the narrative building against Pakistan since its independence and has pretentiously used their power of media to taint Pakistan as a troublemaker in the region. The fascist regime of the country is using print, broadcast and now social media platforms for building a maligned image of Pakistan in their country and abroad. They are also using it for undermining the societal, political and economic stability of Pakistan through fake news or deep fakes, as it is called today. One can observe it through the state-sanctioned, but disguised as private news sites, where the Indian government and military establishment led narrative is pushed through giving each news a different angle which favours the incumbent regime.
EU Disinfo Lab, a European based NGO, had spotted a coordinated network of 265 sites operating in 65 countries to push the anti-Pakistan, pro-Indian narrative and influencing the European decision-making in 2019. These networks of hoax media outlets harness the power of digital media to build anti-Pakistan narratives through republishing one another and creating a mirage of international support.
It is also evident from the cinema industry of India –Bollywood. Using the vast viewer base of the Indian film industry, the country’s establishment is busy painting the Muslims and especially the Pakistanis as terrorist, radicals and conservative among all polities of the South Asia region. The cinematic influence of Bollywood has been used by India’s defence institutions to paint Pakistan as the warzone, underdeveloped country and hub of crime, and has shown India as a pluralistic and humanitarian country where rule of law prevails; however, in the actual situation is opposite. The discourse analysis of Bollywood films has shown that India has used its cinema industry to paint a negative image of Pakistanis, its military and intelligence forces, and its religious groups. This cinematic bias and selective truth representation in their movies is intended to imbibe hate in the Indian masses against Muslims and Pakistanis, and due to wide reach of Bollywood across the world, especially in UK, USA and Canada, this is creating problems for the Pakistani diaspora living in these countries.
This is a blatant move of hybrid or psychological warfare, where Indian defence establishment is tarnishing the image of Pakistanis in the international arena, knowing Pakistan partially relies on the remittances coming from foreign countries and through this move, they will not only make the visa regimes tightened for Pakistan but also undermine their equity in those countries.
Once Pakistan banned the screening of these movies in the country’s cinema halls, India is now using Internet mediums like YouTube and Netflix to disseminate the narrative and shape the perception of the public. Through YouTube channels, India has been manipulating the history, especially related to wars and skirmishes, showing Pakistan as the failed state and its military and intelligence forces as rouge actors. This agenda-setting through digital media has far-fetched consequences, where at one end they are shaking the beliefs of Pakistanis while on other hand, they are granting legitimacy to India’s belligerent actions in the region and undermining Pakistan’s sovereignty.
India’s coercive use of media resulted in the separation of East Pakistan in 1971, labelling the legitimate freedom struggle of Kashmiri people as the terrorist insurgency, and Pakistan as the perpetrator of terror; however, the ground reality is very different. In their films, documentaries, and drama serials, India is constantly building a narrative of Pakistan as the terrorist sanctuary and a place where different polities like Baloch, Sindhi and Pashtuns are marginalized. Previously these media led false flag operations were limited to the Kashmir region and Pakistan but now the incumbent Hindutva regime is employing the same tactics inside India on their populace. Recent cases of Uri Attack, and Pulwama Attack leading to hoax surgical strikes in the Northwestern region of Pakistan, were glorified in the Bollywood films and mainstream news channels of India whereas in actual these were mere attempts of labelling Pakistan as the menace and trouble makers of the region. According to media pundits and geopolitical analysts, Modi regime has used these false flag operations to create war hysteria in Indian populace and for electoral gains.
A comparison of India’s scandalous use of media, especially the digital media platforms now, with the propaganda machines of the US and USSR in times of cold war shows eminent resemblance. India is silencing its news-outlets to disseminate news against Indian occupational forces violating the human rights in Kashmir, just like the USSR’s censorship institution called Glavlit, which used to eliminate any undesirable printed materials and ensured that the correct ideological spin was put on every published item. Similarly, the RSS and BJP troll army is using the digital platforms to mock and castigate the policies and public figures of Pakistan, and on top of that, this all has been done in an organized way as the USSR used their schools and youth organizations, art and theatrics to propagate their narrative of communism, anti-tsarist, anti-German, and class enemies. This recently exhumed vast network of fake sites reveals the huge funding like former USSR used to channelize through GRU and KGB for international propaganda against the US. From the last three decades or so, Bollywood has been used to push anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim narrative similar to the Hollywood of cold war times.
India is using media as the propaganda machine and weapon of hybrid warfare against Pakistan to create an image of a common enemy, war hysteria, and solidifying and polarizing the cultural and political ideologies. Such attempts of indoctrination will have far-reaching repercussions on the once-pluralized Indian populace and will only lead to breeding hate and paranoia in their masses for years to come.
We, as Pakistanis, should not forget that the purpose of this Indian coxed psychological warfare is to build an anti-Pakistan and pro-Indian narrative. These narratives are intended to disrupt the social, economic and political development of Pakistan and we as citizens of the country should be aware of the Indian propaganda. Through disseminating maligned or hoax information, India is sowing mistrust in its populace. Such scandalous attempts can ephemerally legitimize India’s belligerent actions inside their country or in Kashmir and may also facilitate the incumbent regime to gather support for their planned military involvements, but in the longer run, it will destroy the pluralistic social fabric of India and scorn the public trust in the government and media.