Media Matters

If India really attacked insurgents inside Myanmar, why isn't the Modi government admitting so?

Even though the administration did not claim that it had struck militants across the border, sections of the media floated this scenario – giving Modi’s defence policy a muscular sheen.

The Indian army on Tuesday carried out strikes to avenge the killing of 18 of its soldiers by militants in Manipur last week. Significant casualties were inflicted by the Indian army during the strikes, as it engaged two separate groups of insurgents, the army said.

But there was a significant difference in details released by the government and reports in large sections of the media, which were driven by anonymous sources. While the Indian government said that the operation had taken place “along the Indo-Myanmar border”,  many media reports characterised the operation as having taken place inside Myanmar without the permission of the Myanmarese government – something that backs up the Modi government’s claims of putting in place a muscular defence policy.

The Ministry of Defence’s Principal Spokesperson, Sitanshu Kar released a statement about the strikes at around 6 pm on Tuesday. It also took care to point out that the Indian government was “in communication with the Myanmar authorities on this matter” and spoke about “working with them [Myanmar] to combat terrorism”.

Media narrative

An hour before this official statement, however, the news about the operation was broken by Economic Times reporter Manu Pubby.

Pubby’s account differed from the official version of the Indian government.  It said that the Indian army went into Myanmar as part of a "very rare cross-border operation".

Pubby also claimed, again contrary to the Indian government’s version, that Myanmar was not kept informed of the operation – a serious charge since, as per the 2010 agreement signed by the United Progressive Alliance, Indian forces can enter Myanmar but only with the permission of the Myanmarese authorities.

On television, Arnab Goswami’s point of view was best expressed by the hashtag Times Now chose to push the evening’s Newshour show: #IndiaHitsBack. Goswami also was quite clear that the India army wasn’t the only one hitting back. Much credit also needed to go to Narendra Modi since Times Now, like Manu Pubby, believed that this was this was an unprecedented act of forcible hot pursuit by India.

Goswami immediately set up a scenario of hostile hot pursuit into Pakistan, although it is unclear how this Myanmar operation, whatever be its details, can serve as a template for India’s western border. India had an earlier agreement with Myanmar in order to target insurgents – something that Pakistan would almost never agree to. Hot pursuit into Pakistan does not seem to be a policy that the Modi government even seems to be considering now.

Other media outlets also quoted similar anonymous sources. IBN spoke of a “tough, well coordinated and surgically executed operation a few kilometres inside Myanmar" while the Times of India ran a headline that announced, “Myanmar hot pursuit signals massive change in India’s strategy”. “The Myanmar government was informed hours after the commandos in battle fatigues had mostly completed surgical strikes,” claimed The Times of India, without mentioning what the source of this information was.

Modi link

The Times report then linked this instance of hot pursuit to the Modi government: “The cross-border pursuit was in line with Modi government's decision to give disproportionate response to provocations, which had been visible in Jammu and Kashmir in recent months, where Indian troops have been aggressive in their response to ceasefire violations by Pakistan."

While a media narrative of congratulating the current administration for this alleged hot pursuit has emerged, it would enhance the credibility of the Modi administration if it came clean about what happened. The strategy of seeding rumours allows the Bharatiya Janata Party government to derive political capital for an act that it hasn't actually admitted to carrying out. It also allows the Indian government to be vague about whether it actually crossed the borders into a neighbouring country, lacking the courage of its convictions to project itself a fearless administration with a muscular defence policy.

Tuesday's operation would seem to be inspired by the strike against al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistani territory in 2011. But in that instance, US President Barrack Obama made an official statement that openly admitted that American soldiers had entered Pakistani territory.


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