Surviving War Propaganda

First Person

Surviving War Propaganda

I

was only eight years old when the 1971 war broke out. Although I have trouble remembering details of events from that year, I can’t forget overhearing a conversation between my mother and our neighbour in Kanpur that triggered panic. “I heard they are covering the Taj Mahal in jute,” the woman told mom. She took a minute to catch her breath and continued. “I don’t know how safe we are.”

A sense of hysteria had gripped the country that cold December. Every piece of information was magnified, every rumour acquired credibility. Kanpur, where I lived with my family, was on edge. My father was a government officer and was the first among us to hear chatter about where the war was headed and he warned us not to fall for the rumours. But I couldn’t get the jute-covered Taj Mahal out of my head. If the Taj Mahal wasn’t safe, what was?

Our parents didn’t want us to be frightened, but had no choice but to prepare us for a potential attack. Our windows were blackened. There were days when we switched off the lights, and huddled close, and I knew we weren’t playing a game.

One day, to escape from the feeling of being prisoners in our homes, we decided to pay a visit to our relatives in Lucknow. Usually we would make it a point to travel during the day but in this instance, we embarked on our journey in the evening, after my father had returned from work. My parents, aunt, and I packed ourselves into our white Ambassador. The roof, bonnet, and boot had been covered with black paper to prevent any chance of light reflecting off the car’s surface.

The journey was tense. Fear had embedded itself into our psyche. Nobody knew what to expect. No definite guidelines had been issued on travel or regarding what one should do in the event of an airstrike. During class, we had been told to simply lay low if the sirens went off, heralding the arrival of Pakistani warplanes. We imagined we’d do the same if it happened now.

But still, it was a relief to get out of Kanpur. Each night, fearful vigilante groups crawled the streets, flinging rocks at windows, which allowed light to leak through. Jingoism and anti-Pakistan sentiments were at an all-time high and it felt good to leave that behind for some time.

The cold wind burned my cheeks, as we drove along a secluded road. It was already growing dark. My father had switched on the headlights, which had black paint across half of it. They were covered with a hood to ensure that the light it projected was dim and angled downward.

The seconds ticked by in a painfully slow manner. My father’s hand was itching toward his revolver, but there was nothing we could do if enemy planes whirred past above us.

Eventually, we allowed ourselves to relax, talking about everything we could do once we’d reach our destination. My father fiddled with the radio’s knob, refusing to settle on a single channel for more than a few minutes. He finally arrived at a frequency that piqued all our interests.

Through short bursts of disturbance, we could make out the distinct Urdu language being spoken. Daddy had accidentally stumbled onto a Pakistani channel. In an instant, we all agreed to stay on it. We listened keenly, smiling to ourselves as though we were a bunch of spies, who had stumbled upon some classified information.

We’d barely been tuned in for a few minutes when an announcement by the host brought our car to a screeching halt. According to the report, the Unnao bridge between Kanpur and Lucknow had been bombed. Based on my parents’ calculations, we were only a few hundred metres away from it. Dad, mom, and aunt sat deathly still, in complete darkness.

The seconds ticked by in a painfully slow manner. My father’s hand was itching toward his revolver, but there was nothing we could do if enemy planes whirred past above us.

Eventually, we heard a faint tinkling of bells. A warm glow emanated from the direction of the bridge. A lone farmer on a bullock cart appeared to be making his way toward us. Both him and his cattle seemed unperturbed by the bombing of the bridge. My father stepped away from our vehicle and approached the man. “Bhai saheb, yahaan aage ek bridge hoti thi na?”

The question seemed to surprise the man. It’s still there, he explained to my father. He had just crossed it himself. The statement came as a revelation. We’d just had our first taste of blatant propaganda. And the flavour was rather bittersweet. We were relieved that the broadcast had been spouting lies. For the rest of our journey, my parents whispered over the possibility of the Indian government doing the same thing.

***

The memory of that frightful December night came rushing back to me, as India launched surgical strikes. And within a few hours, rumour mills went into overdrive. Pakistan media reported that eight Indian soldiers were killed, while India wasted no time in rubbishing the claim.

But a lot has changed since 1971. Highly vitriolic media campaigns and social media make war propaganda of the 1970s look like child’s play. We seem indifferent and unconcerned, as warmongers take every opportunity to steer the national conversation in the direction of their choice.

There is a ton of misinformation that comes along with such an atmosphere. Allowing informal and formal media to strike fear within us will only make the situation worse. We’d be doing ourselves a great service by arming ourselves with facts to take apart any piece of “news” that originates as a Whatsapp message.

It’s been 45 years and there are still conflicting narratives of what went down in the 1971 war. All three countries, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are guilty of scripting narratives for their own people. Our history books bear testimony to an imperfect reality. When it comes to statecraft, we will always be in the dark about what happens on ground and propaganda will masquerade as the truth.

Like the “jute-covered Taj Mahal”.

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