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 organisations 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 defences 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,' General 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 television 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 recognised 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.