Politics of border radio broadcasts

Politics of border radio broadcasts

New Delhi: “Pakistan is caught in its own web of violence," claims the deadpan voice on Radio Kashmir, All India Radio’s (AIR) Kashmir channel. “For years, India has been warning Pakistan about the dangers of supporting militants, but did Pakistan learn anything from this?"

Listen to clips of broadcasts from Tabsara, a programme aired on Radio Kashmir.

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“No," says the anchor of Tabsara emphatically.

The programme is, according to G. Jayalal, director general of AIR, a “commentary" on current affairs. But month after month, the main subjects it seems to find worthy of comment are the troubles of Pakistan.

Is this counter-propaganda? “No, we don’t do that," protests Jayalal. AIR, he claims, likes to focus on national integrity, the democratic ethos of the country and positive developmental themes. “We have a policy," he says, “of not attacking neighbouring countries."

The days of sputtering warmongering radio broadcasts might be over, but the game of “patriotism", propaganda and counter-propaganda continues in India’s border areas. It retains its air of intrigue; the only difference is that today, the “propaganda" comes better camouflaged.

Nearly all of it is, quite predictably, directed at Pakistan and China. The jousting is the most lively in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and Arunachal Pradesh, where over the last few years AIR has been strengthening its programming and infrastructure.

Under the J&K Special Plan, Rs100 crore is being spent on the improvement of FM and TV coverage in J&K border areas. New transmitters are being set up, programmes in regional dialects are being created and, as a letter from AIR states, “programmes to counter day-to-day propaganda of PAK Radio" are being introduced.

Deceptively jovial

“Our best counter-propaganda programme," says a senior official of Radio Kashmir (who did not want to be named) rather candidly, “is Wadi ki Awaz." The Urdu programme has actually been around since the 1960s, but its content and presentation, he claims, has changed.

If you were expecting histrionics, you’d be disappointed. The programme is a deceptively jovial mix of popular music, interspersed with convenient and somewhat exaggerated bits of “news" and “information" from Kashmir.

The target audience, as the AIR website says, are the people of Pakistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. According to the official, it’s extremely popular across the Line of Control, the de facto border.

The small dusty town of Kargil, a 10-hour drive from Srinagar, is another front in this battle. The town has changed in the 10 years that have passed since the war that made it famous. Everyone here now has cable television, nobody listens to the radio.

But in a corner of the town, AIR has set up its own programme centre where programmes in Purgi, Balti and Shina, the languages spoken in the area, are created. The transmitter at the station has been upgraded from a meagre 1kW to 200kW, making it more powerful than transmitters in some metropolitan cities.

It’s been done, points out Kacho Mohammed Ali Khan, chief executive councillor of the area, “to counter the Balti radio programmes that are beamed across from Skardu in Pakistan-administered Kashmir". The station now broadcasts 5 hours of local programming every day, including news and music. It also relays programmes from Srinagar.

Wavelength worries

However, the reach of AIR programmes is limited. Khan says the signals are limited to a radius of 20km around Kargil. In a number of outlying villages, it’s easier to get Pakistani radio stations.

The official at Radio Kashmir agrees that in many parts of the state it’s easier to get radio channels from across the border. Their transmitters are more powerful, and their frequencies often interfere with those of Radio Kashmir. Their FM channels, he says, reach all the way to Jammu.

Part of the reason for their popularity, he grumbles, is that private channels and even some national ones broadcasting in J&K ignore the emotional needs of the people. “How can they broadcast film songs during Moharram?" he asks. On most religious occasions, people switch over to Pakistani channels such as Radio Pakistan. “Their programmes are more appropriate."

One among these is the shadowy Sada-e-Hurriyat Jammu Kashmir, or the Voice of Jammu Kashmir Freedom, which is broadcast from Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The content, as the name suggests, is dominated by discussions on the alleged excesses of the Indian government in Kashmir.

The channel did not go unnoticed in India. A few years ago, says Alokesh Gupta, a Delhi-based radio enthusiast, a channel which went by the confusingly similar name of Sada-e-Kashmir was spotted on air. The content was pro-India, but there was nothing on the channel to identify its broadcasting location.

Interestingly, and this is where the plot thickens, Gupta remembers hearing the AIR call sign once on the channel, and suspects that it belongs to them. But AIR denies having anything to do with it. “It might belong to the Army," says Jayalal of AIR.

The Indian Army public relations officer Colonel S. Om Singh says he is aware of the channel but that the Army is not involved. The Pakistan Broadcast Corp. believes that it originates from India. They list it as one of the “international" channels they monitor. Perhaps the similarity in names was a deliberate attempt to confuse listeners.

Conspiracy theories surface and disappear, mimicking the wheezy fade-ins and fade-outs of short-wave signals. But so far, nobody has admitted to running the channel.

Morale booster

A similar game is being played out in Arunachal Pradesh. The air here is thick with Chinese radio channels. A few of these channels are in Tibetan, which is understood by many people in the state.

To counter the Chinese channels, AIR’s programme centres in districts such as Tawang have been “working with the army, police and intelligence authorities to create programmes" that, according to L.C. Deka of AIR Tawang, promote “national integration". These programmes in Monpa, the local language, often combine music and entertainment with coverage of camps and special programmes organized by the state government and police.

Under the North-East Special Package of AIR, five substations are being created in the state, new transmitters are being installed and a 24-hour news channel is on the anvil.

There are problems of large shadow areas where Indian signals don’t reach or Chinese radio stations drown them out. Deka also complains that the 15 minutes of programming in Tibetan that is relayed from Delhi is just not enough.

However, he feels the local programming they’ve done has helped “boost the morale of the people". The recent controversial visit of the Dalai Lama to Tawang is a case in point. At that time, there were a lot of rumours of Chinese aggression, and even a possible invasion. “A fear psychosis had been created in the villages," says Deka.

“I’m proud to say," he continues with disarming honesty, “that at that time our team foot-marched to the last and remotest village in the district." They walked for a whole week from 19 July, recording, talking to people in the villages and clearing misconceptions. It was, according to him, what the situation demanded.

The people they met were so happy to see them that they often hugged the team members. In Mago and Thingbu villages, states Deka proudly, the people were so overwhelmed that they started crying.

“For the last 35 years, they said no government official had come to their villages. But now they said, ‘We know that you are with us, we know that the Chinese are not coming, and we are proud to be Indian.’"