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In a busy Bastar tea shop, reactions to the IAF's Balakot air strike mirror TV newsroom hysteria

On 26 February, the day Indian Air Force struck JeM camps in Balakot in Pakistan, I was in Bastar, one of the conflict-ridden districts in south Chhattisgarh. After the expected polarised reactions, the debate on social media soon descended into what kind of impact the IAF strike would have on the Indian General Election to Lok Sabha looming ahead.

On 14 February, more than 40 security personnel were killed in a ghastly attack in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama district. Jaish-e-Mohammed, a terror group led by Masood Azhar with a base in Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the attack. Pulwama was a huge intelligence failure and reflected poorly on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. After the Balakot strikes, however, the narrative changed.

 In a busy Bastar tea shop, reactions to the IAFs Balakot air strike mirror TV newsroom hysteria

Representational image. ANI

Would it help Narendra Modi for taking an aggressive route against Pakistan? Would it sweep the domestic issues like unemployment and agrarian distress under the carpet?

I had left my room early in the morning to report on a story. After returning to the hotel, I decided to step out for the evening tea and snacks, instead of ordering in. With the idea of eavesdropping on conversations around Balakot, I reached a busy tea stall near the hotel in Jagdalpur, a town in Bastar.

The atmosphere was celebratory. Pulwama had been avenged.

Sahi sabak sikhaye Pakistan ko,” said the tea vendor. There was a sense of justice at the thought of nearly 300 Pakistani terrorists being killed. A piece of information that still remains dubious and uncorroborated over a week later.

In fact, in a joint press conference four days ago, the Indian Air Force said it would be premature to peg the number of people killed in the attack.

Union Minister SS Ahluwalia later said there were no human casualties in the air strike, and the purpose of the attack was not to kill, but to send a message. While death toll figures in India ranged from 200-600, several international publications reported no casualties.

But it did not matter. Over the next week, I heard the number 300 peddled with joy by several people on the ground.

As one often sees on social media, the clarification of fake news is not even retweeted half the number of times as the original fake news. What mattered on the ground was that Pakistan had been taught a lesson.

"Ghar mein ghus kar maara," as my driver put it the next morning after the strike. I had to go to Dantewada, about 200 kilometres from Jagdalpur, and he kept telling me how this is the only "ilaaj (solution)" for Pakistan during the two-hour drive.

In trying to engage him further, I pointed out that we have still not received answers regarding intelligence failure at Pulwama.

He said, “Toh kya hua. Badla toh le liya na (So, what! We have taken our revenge.”

All was apparently well because Pakistan was supposedly on its knees.

These phrases that I heard through the casual conversations during that period were eerily similar to the phrases used by the media while reporting the story. I do not watch television. But just like other tragedies in the world, I end up following it through several mediums. This time around, it was a journalist friend who showed me several clips from various news shows.

Kaap gaya Pakistan”, “Pakistan Nestanaboot”, "Nakshe se Pakistan saaf", and so on.

Immediately after the attack, Pakistan captured an Indian Air Force pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan, addressing his countrymen, spoke of dialogue and peace with India and later released him as a "goodwill gesture".

When I asked a waiter at a hotel I had stopped for lunch about what Imran Khan said, he responded, "Darr gaya hai woh, toh abhi peace ki baat kar raha hai."

And sure enough, "Darr ke maare baatchit chahta hai Pakistan (Pakistan wants to talk out issues out of fear)” was a headline in one of the papers.

Whenever I countered the revenge talk with tensions on the border, I was told that “collateral damage” was unavoidable to “fix Pakistan permanently”.

A lot was being said about who won the battle of optics between Imran and Modi. In global terms, Imran may have come across looking like a bigger man, despite the Geneva Conventions. He was technically bound to release Abhinandan. However, I do not think it has affected Modi's image domestically. Modi's appeal is that of an alfa male. Toxic masculinity does not value the idea of tolerance. In Modi's India, being a bigger person is misconstrued for being weak. And the media conveys this message more than adequately.

This is not to suggest that people are so gullible that they have only been parroting what they read or saw. But this carpet bombing aimed at influencing people’s minds subconsciously or consciously works in favour of the ruling party. It helps set a narrative.

Also, we have a tendency to hear what we want to hear. During that week in Chhattisgarh, I visited several villages, stopped at tea stalls and eateries in different localities. I heard Ravish Kumar’s voice only once. It was not in the homes of people I had visited. Nor did I see him on the TV sets mounted at eateries and nukkads, The only time I saw Ravish Kumar on TV was at a senior journalist’s home in Jagdalpur, who had hosted me for dinner one of those nights.

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Updated Date: Mar 05, 2019 11:04:37 IST