We may be living in the information age. But we are likely as far from truth as we ever were.
From the Pulwama (February 14) attack claimed by a Pakistan-based militant outfit, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), on a convoy of Indian soldiers resulting in 49 deaths, to the subsequent aerial bombing that India claims to have done (300 killed according to some Indian leaders) and retaliatory measures by Pakistan (two Indian fighter jets shot down, according to Pakistan army), to an Indian newspaper (The Hindu) quoting documents to reveal the prime minister’s office directly intervening — sidelining the defence ministry — in the negotiations with a French firm Dassault and that country’s government in the acquisition of Rafale jets to update the Indian Air Force, nothing is definitive.
There seems in fact no way to sift the information and find out what happened. One of the prime casualties of jingoism surely is truth.
Indeed, not to be believing what the government of one’s country said could be easily construed anti-national if the social media, which in India has firmly established itself as an arbiter of truth relative to its respective bubble, is anything to go by.
To begin with, the Rafale issue (a deal worth about Rs600 billion or Dh31 billion) refuses to go away to the chagrin of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Last week Indian Attorney-General K.K. Venugopal said that, in the Rafale case, the Supreme Court should not be admitting as evidence reports against the government’s role (allegedly in favour of businessman Anil Ambani) as they were based on ‘stolen documents’ and that doing so would amount to violation of the Official Secrets Act.
The attorney-general is quoted as saying at the hearing: “Documents relied on by the petitioners in their review petitions were stolen from the ministry and should not be relied on.”
A day later, he issued a correction: “I am told that the Opposition has alleged what was argued [in the Supreme Court] was that files had been stolen from the defence ministry. This is wholly incorrect.” They were, he said, photocopied. The representation or misrepresentation of facts merely fed into the social media as fodder for that day’s trends. It seemed, as it does increasingly these days, whoever had more followers would be the oracle of the day.
That indeterminacy of affairs holds true for India’s February 26 aerial attack on Balakot in Pakistan. A few Indian politicians had claimed a figure of 300 casualties — mostly terrorists — holed up in the madrasa reportedly run by JeM.
On February 27, in an opinion piece in the New York Times, Fatima Bhutto said: “In Pakistan, for once, there was more sober reflection. While some called for revenge, many Pakistanis, myself included, refused to cheerlead for war. There were, of course, odd voices in between. Hamid Mir, a Pakistani journalist, visited the village of Jabba in the Balakot area the next day and standing in a lush, leafy forest reported that there was no infrastructural damage visible, no funerals, no blood and no bodies. He then corrected himself, and pointed to a dead black crow.”
Pakistan government officially denied the Indian figures, though the crow was not mentioned. India stuck to its guns. So what’s one to believe?
Later still, on March 6, a Reuters report quoting a private satellite imaging service said: “The images produced by Planet Labs Inc, a San Francisco-based private satellite operator, show at least six buildings on the madrasa site on March 4, six days after the air strike …”
The report goes on to add: “The image is virtually unchanged from an April 2018 satellite photo of the facility. There are no discernible holes in the roofs of buildings, no signs of scorching, blown-out walls, displaced trees around the madrasa or other signs of an aerial attack.”
In this quagmire of fiction and facts, one tragic incident has been largely ignored. On February 26, some 100km from the India-Pakistan border, in Budgam, an Indian Air Force helicopter crashed. According to reports, six soldiers on board and a civilian were killed. An Indian Air Force official said: “A court of inquiry has been ordered and we cannot speculate on the reason behind the crash before it submits its report.”
The Indian authorities attributed the crash to a “technical fault.” There are reports (or rumours) that the chopper came down on account of “friendly fire”.
The nub of the matter, whether it is the Rafale files or the 300 dead, or the IAF chopper crash, despite claims to India being a democracy the flow of facts that contribute to an informed debate so crucial for decision-making by the public is hard to come by.
Of course, the public itself is not too keen on truth as it will hem in their need to be outraged and to be venting, social media-induced overriding urges that are likely to prove detrimental to democracy itself in the long run.
As the general elections approach in April, the chances of the situation improving are dim. It seems certain that India will decide its destiny in 2019 in one of the most opaque information climates ever. As the poet said, everything is permitted, nothing is true.
To decide a leadership of a country without facts is to practise shell democracy. In a surveillance society, this is a thought of sobering irony.
C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India.