When the Pakistan foreign office summoned the Indian deputy high commissioner to protest against the killing of one of its soldiers on January 6 in an unprovoked cross-border raid, New Delhi said nothing much had happened. The Indian army had merely opened fire to thwart an infiltration attempt from the Pakistani side. An infiltration attempt at the height of snow, and in the midst of a diplomatic thaw? The Pakistani army is at it again, the Indian media concluded, they scuttle peace every time. “Pakistan violates ceasefire, yet again,” said Mail Today.
On the morning of January 8, there was another incident. This time, India said two of its soldiers had been killed in a cross-border raid. Pakistan denied it. Curiously, the Indian media went to town with the word “beheading” in the headlines; but the reports did not give details of the decapitation—no official quote, no name of the beheaded soldier and so on.
A statement issued by Rajesh K. Kalia, spokesman for the Indian army’s Northern Command, called it “yet another grave provocation”. But many headlines ignored the “yet another”. Kalia’s statement said: “Two soldiers, Lance Naik Hemraj and Lance Naik Sudhakar Singh, laid down their lives while fighting the Pak troops.” But, take note, it did not make any mention of the bodies being mutilated or beheaded.
So how was the media going to town with reports of mutilation or beheading? The Hindu attributed it to “sources”. NDTV’s defence correspondent attributed the information to “senior army sources”, and the Hindustan Times to “a top army official not wishing to be named”. This report said the headless body was that of Lance Naik Sudhakar Singh; it later turned out to be Hemraj Singh. A PTI report named its source: Brig J.K. Tiwari, deputy commander of the 25th Division. According to Tiwari, “one head was severed and another body was beheaded. It (the head of a jawan) has not been recovered... probably, they have taken it along with them”. (Was the severing of a head different from a beheading? Was one person beheaded, or two? Never mind the details.) The missing head, the report said, was of Lance Naik Sudhakar Singh.
You cannot blame the media for this confusion, which lasted at least two days, because there was no official word. But at least one reporter, Dean Nelson of the London Telegraph, thought it important to call up the Indian army’s chief spokesperson, G.L. Narasimhan, who said one body had been mutilated but he could not confirm if there was a beheading.
I looked for official confirmation of the beheading in, for instance, the defence minister’s statement on January 9 but there was none. By evening that day, Reuters quoted Kalia, saying there was no beheading. On the same day, Pakistan asked the United Nations to investigate the January 6 incident and asked India to also seek an investigation of the January 8 incident to prove the charges it was levelling. But India refused. By January 10, Indian army officers were talking about the beheading on TV news but there still was no official statement.
It was only after Pakistan officially pointed out that India hadn’t officially said that a soldier had been beheaded that Col Jagdeep Dahiya, a spokesman for the defence ministry, issued a statement: “It is clarified that Pakistan has quoted the initial press release given by the spokesman of Indian army’s Northern Command, on 08 Jan 2012, when the details of the incident were still not clear.... Subsequently, on the same day, the Indian army made a statement that the body of one soldier was mutilated. Both these statements were made based on information available at the time of making those statements...it is reiterated that the body of one soldier was found mutilated and beheaded, the body of [the] second soldier was also mutilated.” It went on to say that earlier statements did not mention the decapitation because there wasn’t enough clarity. In other words, it took the Indian defence establishment four days to confirm whether or not a soldier was beheaded.
The best confirmation of the beheading could have been from the unfortunate family of the soldier. But the media downplayed why the family of Lance Naik Hemraj Singh sat on hunger strike. A report in The Hindu quoted his brother: “What was brought to us was a body covered in a white sheet. Now, it could be anyone’s body! We were not allowed to see what was inside,” he said, highlighting that he had spent his childhood with Hemraj and knew that his brother had a mole on the back. “I would have checked it, but they didn’t allow me to do that.”
What does all this say about the Indian defence establishment? It first told us of the decapitation by letting the news slip out through anonymous sources; then, it refused to confirm whether there had been a decapitation; then again, it said there had been a decapitation; and once again said there wasn’t one before denying its denial. The media did not question the establishment on its tying itself up in knots.
News reports—this time from unnamed civilian sources—that gave an alternative narrative did not have much of an impact on the war-mongering on TV news, which some say is itself becoming a national security hazard. The Hindu’s grandmother story was the most important of these narratives. The report said that a grandmother who crossed the LoC to be with her family raised alarm bells on the Indian side and the Indian army started building observation bunkers in violation of the 2003 ceasefire agreement. This was the root cause of the escalation of tension on the LoC. Various details proferred in this story were denied by the defence ministry but not this part: “Last year...two Indian soldiers were beheaded in an attack on a forward position by a Border Action Team (of Pakistan).” Indian special forces responded by targeting a Pakistani forward post, killing several soldiers, said the report, and, by the account of one military official, which The Hindu could not corroborate independently, beheaded two. Saikat Datta’s report in the DNA said that it was the Indian army that started this round of hostilities, and by now, everybody had forgotten the claim that militant infiltration was responsible for the January 6 incident.
Buried inside a report by Shishir Gupta in the Hindustan Times was the claim that two Indian soldiers were beheaded in July 2011 and “three months later, heads of three Pakistani soldiers went missing, with Islamabad lodging a protest with New Delhi.” Don’t you love it that while Indian soldiers are beheaded, Pakistani soldiers’ heads go “missing”—as though they detach themselves from the bodies of the soldiers and just disappear? The report also claimed that similar beheadings (of Indian soldiers) and heads going missing (of Pakistanis) had taken place in 2000, 2003 and 2007. When Admiral Lakshminarayan Ramdas (retd), former chief of the Indian navy, tried to say on Barkha Dutt’s show on NDTV that the Indian army has also beheaded Pakistani soldiers, he was cut short by Dutt. But in 2001, Dutt had herself written that she had seen a head displayed as a war trophy by the Indian army during the Kargil war in 1999. Two other journalists were not shy of recalling similar experiences: Sankarshan Thakur of The Telegraph (on his website) and Harinder Baweja of the Hindustan Times on Twitter.
If these incidents happen so often, why did anonymous sources in the Indian army decide to use the defence correspondents to make it seem like an unprecedented provocation from Pakistan? There is little doubt that the beheading of a soldier, and the taking away of his head as a war trophy is sickening and outrageous and every such incident should come to light. But it should also remind us of the brutalities of war, and that the LoC is a ceasefire line where hostilities have merely been halted until the next battle; that the two armies stand eye-to-eye there because of the Kashmir dispute; that Jammu and Kashmir is not a settled question. Such thoughts are apparently anti-national. And bad for TRPs.
(The writer is with Kafila.org)
Edited online: The print version of the article has a typo and erroneously says, "By evening that day, Reuters quoted Kalia, saying there was no mutilation." This has been corrected in the copy above which now reads: 'By evening that day, Reuters quoted Kalia, saying there was no beheading."