When the war’s on WhatsApp
Slick, jingoistic videos are whipping up pro-war rhetoric on social media after the Uri terror attack.
The article by Manju V was published in the Times of India on September 25, 2016. Nishant Shah was quoted.
It packs a meaner punch than any 140-character tweet. In 140 jingoistic seconds, the cleverly packaged YouTube film veers from Mohammed Rafi to Chandra Shekhar Azad drumming up pro-war rhetoric to avenge the Pathankot attack. Set to the tone of chirping crickets on a moonlit night somewhere along the western border that India shares with its neighbour, the short film has two armymen in fatigues deliberate over the absolute need to respond with a counter attack. It ends in a staccato military drumbeat with a voiceover quoting Azad: "If yet your blood does not rage, then it is water that flows in your veins."
Posted about 10 days after the Pathankot attack in January, the video was resurrected last week after the country woke up to the Uri attack that killed 18 Indian soldiers in the deadliest assault on security forces in Kashmir in over two decades. Even as photographs of a grenade smoke-filled valley, tricolour-draped coffins, grieving sons, daughters and widows made the rounds in media outlets scores of Indians marched onto social media, some armed with incendiary prose and other with slick videos that expressed more anger than anguish.
In another video doing the rounds, a jawan, or someone in uniform, sings a poem warning Pakistan. His mates join in the refrain: "Kashmir toh hoga, lekin Pakistan nahi hoga."
These videos of jawans threatening to decimate Pakistan were shared by thousands. WhatsApp profile pictures and statuses were changed, Facebook posts got longer and vitriolic, Twitter #UriAttack exploded with expletives as the enough-is-enough sentiment peaked. It heralded the beginning of an era where the dynamics of Indo-Pakistan relations will play out not just in the diplomatic corridors of Delhi and Islamabad, the valley of Kashmir or the barracks of security forces; but also on the mobile phones, tablets and laptops of millions of Indians.
When contacted for a comment, the makers of the war-mongering 'Pathankot Tolerance' video didn't endorse war outright. "My individual opinion is that war is not a solution," said producer Santosh Singh, who heads the Mumbai-based V Seven Pictures. "Before we resort to war, we have to solve our internal problems. How can we let infiltration take place so blatantly?" he asked. Why then does the video not talk about this? Singh said that when one hears about such attacks, the instant reaction is to retaliate. "The video is based on that sentiment."
An electronics engineer, Singh also owns an IT recruitment firm. His film production company, which he runs along with his friend Vivek Joshi, made the Mauka Mauka World Cup video that went viral and also produces short films and videos for clients. "We have no political affiliations, in fact we turned down a couple of political parties who approached us," says Singh, adding that his company has made 30-35 films in less than two years. "Of these, about 10 are on issues close to our heart, like those on Afzal Guru and the Pathankot attack. We upload them on YouTube, they are aired without ads. We don't earn money from them," he adds.
Ugly gets outlet
Nitin Pai, director of Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy, says that social media and some television studios have enabled people to express their subconscious fears and desires. "It is not just today that the people of India have been angry with Pakistan for fomenting terrorism in our country. But it is only now that they have ways to express this anger; unfortunately, social media dynamics amplify this anger in a grotesque, distorted manner, allowing the ugly and less-sensible views to rise to the top of the public discourse," said Pai.
Tracing the many origins of this phenomenon, psychiatrist Harish Shetty says that in an angst-ridden, globalized world, we need a whipping boy. "With the Uri attacks, the entire nation had a common enemy. In expressing collective anger, there's catharsis." The current outpouring is not just over the deaths of soldiers; such an incident also opens up older wounds, he says. "For a long time, Indians have found their leaders to be helpless. It's like a family that is attacked again and again by a neighbour, but the father does nothing about it. There has been a lack of strong response from 'papa figures' across time, which has led to a sense of anger and rage. After the Uri attacks, the collective self-esteem of the country took a beating, and people felt a need to assert themselves on social media. At such times strong action is viewed as legitimate, valid and free of guilt," he adds.
If social media brought together protesters in Tunisia and Egypt during the Arab spring, in democratic India it has turned into a platform for expressing mass disenchantment with the government, especially in the wake of such attacks.
Social media plays several roles in times of crises, says Nishant Shah, professor of digital media and co-founder of the Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru. One, it amplifies what is already being said in friend circles and living-room conversations in front of the telly, but spreads it to a larger audience. "The second role it plays is distribution: social media allows people to inherit other people's opinions, thus exposing them to new ways of thinking but also find corroborators for their own viewpoints," he says. The third is catalysis — social media also has the capacity to generate new information. "The format creates new kinds of truths. Things that can be caught in Snapchat videos, or visuals which can be remixed, all become a part of this zeitgeist," Shah says.
But in India at least, social media is no indicator of considered public opinion, points out Pai. Shah adds: "What we are seeing is a filter bubble of a privileged set of people who are engaging in this debate."
Then again, what's said on social media needn't be endorsed in real life. Vivek Joshi, who wrote and directed the Pathankot video, says nobody in the world would want a war. "But when it comes to the lives of our soldiers, an answer has to be given. If the government had taken any visible action, then there would have been no need to put out a video like this," Joshi adds. And therein probably comes the new-age heuristic of venting out on social media.