Why India urgently needs a Ministry of Counter-Propaganda

If the West has long expertise in propaganda, we do have a longer memory that has not yet been fully extinguished. We need investment in the sparking of that memory to life, to global life. Without such an investment, we won’t have a ‘Jagat Guru’ role to play in the world

Vamsee Juluri January 17, 2022 10:30:55 IST
Why India urgently needs a Ministry of Counter-Propaganda

File image of protesters atop a flagpole on the ramparts of the Red Fort. AFP

In early January 2021, the United States witnessed either a protest, riot, or insurrection. Characters like “Jamiroquai Davey Crockett”, and claims that this was an even more monumental assault on America than the terrorist attacks of 9/11, suddenly demanded our attention. One half of the country was left feeling violated (but perhaps relieved), and another half feeling robbed (and silenced).

A few days later, India witnessed dramatic protests culminating in the spectacular climax of the national flag being desecrated at the Red Fort on Republic Day. This event too came to be perceived in different ways, and projected in different ways. The word “toolkit” captured the imagination of some people, while supporters of the protestors insisted that the flag removal was the act of an infiltrator or agent provocateur

t would be fair to say that different groups and interests drove their own narratives, allowing supporters to feel affirmed in their beliefs, encouraging fence-sitters to come aboard, or losing some in the process to the twilight zone of independence in a polarised communication environment.

Since that time, the battle of narratives has raged on, relentlessly. COVID-19. Vaccines. Malone or Fauci? Rogan or Noah? Dismantling Global Hindutva. 9/11 anniversary. Afghanistan. Caste. Islamophobia. Hinduphobia.

Narratives and mass persuasion

There are two different questions to consider in relation to these controversial issues. The first is that of veracity. What is true and how do we know it? We have a whole fact-checking industry now which offers to help us figure it out, but their credibility is somewhat shaky too. The second question is that of efficacy. What narratives are “winning”? And why?

I have been studying the phenomenon of mass persuasion for a while now, and what strikes me as an important absence in India’s understanding of global narrative battles is a recognition of the profound scale of investment in what we might call propaganda infrastructure by other countries, forces, and interests. The history of propaganda, a history in which India barely figures (except as a target perhaps), is marked by both ideological clarity, and institutional investment, in key historical moments and contexts, that it is worth recognising if we are to see where India (and Indians fall short).

We don’t think of it often, but two thousand years of proselytisation in the name of religion can give people skill and passion for mass persuasion that non-proselytising cultures can barely even imagine. Even if the goal of that persuasion is no longer solely religious (although that part exists too), the techniques for building narratives drawn from a history of force applied to the creation of mass belief (or at least mass obedience), involve complexities that we often fail to notice, let alone act to begin to reciprocate.

America’s first ‘Ministry of Propaganda’

One important example in the history of modern propaganda is the creation, in April 1917, of the Committee for Public Information (CPI) by US president Woodrow Wilson to meet the demands of World War I. Popularly called the “Creel Committee” after its chairman George Creel, a former journalist, the CPI was effectively “America’s first propaganda ministry.”

Many accounts of propaganda tend to talk only about the sensational moments, the “products” as it were, such as the manufacturing of atrocity stories about German soldiers during the war. But what is more instructive and relevant to India’s situation in the global narrative battlefield, is the institutional and organisational investment that went into the making of the “products” (media historians argue that the atrocity propaganda of the war was actually only the sensational aspect of it, the Creel Committee’s actions and legacies went far deeper).

It is worth outlining the organisational scope and depth of the modestly named “committee” to better understand it. Media scholars Robert Jackall and Janice Hirota write that the CPI “brought together, under one organisational roof, leading journalists, publicists, and advertising men, along with novelists, academic intellectuals, moral crusaders, and muckrakers… (and allowed) a whole generation of what might be called experts with symbols… to sell America’s crusade to the American public and the idea of America to the world”.

The CPI operated through a number of divisions, each consisting of experts tasked with specific projects and activities:

News Division: Published a newsletter sent to the editors of established newspapers, a precursor to the news handout.

Publications Division: Commissioned professional historians to write booklets on topics like how the war came to America, a war encyclopaedia and so on.

Syndicated Columns Division: Engaged famous novelists, essayists and short-story writers to produce “human interest” stories to complement news and analysis articles in the press.

Films Division: Recruited famous stars for public appeals in short films as well as narrative films

Division of Pictorial Publicity: Capitalised on visual communication, exhibitions

Division of Cartoons: A popular mass medium well into the Cold War era

Division of Advertising: involved the leading lights of America’s emerging advertising business.

“Four Minute Men”: A popular speaker training programme that produced thousands of trained speakers who would take the stage before movies and public events to “sell” the war to the public in short speeches.

Creating a propaganda architecture

For the first time in the modern media age, different communication experts and practitioners were brought together in a large, sprawling organisation to coordinate their communicative efforts and build one solid narrative about American greatness and righteousness during the war. What is important though is not only the effectiveness of CPI in persuading the American public about America’s moral and political role as a global beacon of democracy and freedom (in contrast to German tyranny), but in laying down the foundations of America’s propaganda architecture for the coming century. Even before the phrase “military industrial complex” came to be used, it seemed that a “propaganda complex” was very much in play.

The personal, commercial, and professional relationships and networks that were built at this time moved en masse into post-war activities, and then, reconstituted themselves once again during World War II for the purpose of war propaganda. Following the end of that war, not only did the media become a reliable arm of the US military and foreign policy establishment, but so did an even more intrusive and influential arm for persuasion and propaganda, that of the intelligence services.

Since then, it might be fair to say that the US has come to have a propaganda and mass persuasion industry that has grown in depth, scope — and brazenness too. Surely, when seemingly well-meaning projects like “fact-checking” become a part of the establishment’s field of operations, there is little space left for objective, non-persuasive communication professions. American propaganda now functions from day to day even with nearly half of its own populace profoundly distrustful of all its major institutions, media, education, and even science.

Indian understanding of propaganda

This is not a happy or healthy situation, and I certainly do not wish anything like it for India. But all the same, there is a need for Indians, especially those working in diplomacy, foreign trade, international education, media, and of course, defence, to recognise the vast asymmetry between countries rooted historically in propaganda and mass persuasion as a way of life and others.

Indians tend to view communication, I think, in very basic terms, like information and entertainment, and not as a persuasive activity, much less a “mission”. We have of late become more aware of propaganda against us, given (among many other things) the shamelessness with which newspapers change identities and names in headlines to demonise Hindus, and the state of our history textbooks and eminent historians’ theories. Yet, we lack ideological clarity, as well as institutional awareness (and investment) in coming up with anything like a counter-propaganda or narrative building operation. India’s “narratives,” such as those we have seen in recent years, are almost always within the space of the converted (“world famous in India”). They tend to play out largely in the realm of personality politics, and with ephemeral results. There is nothing like a narrative that has really been built, at least not globally.

I would not blame this as a failing of the post-2014 years alone, but a deeper shortcoming of the Indian state, and perhaps a civilisational peculiarity as well. When your deepest ancestral beliefs and practices are more like “live and let believe” rather than “believe what I believe or die”, it does put you in a very disadvantaged spot as far as propaganda experience and expertise is concerned (an interesting anecdote worth noting here: Many of the West’s biggest propaganda and media creators, even the secular ones, have had religious, missionary or priestly backgrounds — from George Creel's father to Reader’s Digest's founders to Slumdog Millionaire's creators). Creel’s pitch to President Wilson in fact was couched very much in the language of religious expansionism, even if the goal was the “Gospel of Americanism” rather than that of Christianity specifically.

Beyond labels and slogans

The narratives “about” India today from the West, not surprisingly, have far more invested in them compared to any narrative “from” or “for” India. “Pro-India” narratives, such as those we have in our nightly shouting TV shows or daily Twitter feeds and WhatsApp forwards, are at best rituals of reassurance for what we seem to think or hope is only a passing nuisance that will disappear with a strong economy or election result. These, at best, are only temporary and tenuous relief from the inevitable.

The one clear conclusion we must keep in mind about narratives is that those with a long history of producing narratives first and then bending reality to conform to them are in for a long-game. We can certainly draw courage and inspiration from our ancestors’ resistance to them, but in their time “narratives” did not have the intrusive and pervasive presence they do now. We must recognise that, to a determined entity with ideological clarity, experience/expertise, and funds, anything is possible: India can be made into “South Asia.” Civil war can be unleashed. Mass indoctrination and erasure of cultural memory enforced on a ruthless scale.

The seeds of this “South Asia” are already there, in the zombified minds of the experts, and in the rapacious desires of the corrupt. And resistance, in our time, will require both institutional investment and ideological clarity.

The former is “above my pay-scale” as they say, and I leave my words with that. As for the latter, it cannot continue to be a superficial hodge-podge of labels like “soft power”, Bollywood, Jagat Guru, Non-Alignment, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, “Made in India”, and so on. All of this haphazard posturing shows us a country and a people with no sense of understanding of the depth of who we are, and what we bring, still, to this colonised and propaganda-ravaged planet. If they have two thousand years of propaganda expertise, we do have a longer memory still that has not yet been fully extinguished. We need investment in the sparking of that memory to life, to global life. Without such an investment, we won’t have a “Jagat Guru” role to play in the world. In fact, we won’t even have a “we” to speak of any more. India needs to invest in counter-propaganda seriously

The writer teaches media studies at the University of San Francisco. Views expressed are personal.

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