After the Standoff: Indian News Framing of the Galwan Clash

Prateek Srivastava, Executive Director & Senior Advisor - Inequalities

Picture Credits: AP Photo/R. Parthibhan, File

It is not the first time that the two Asian giants saw each other at the border. June 15, news broke that Indian and Chinese troops clashed along their contested border in the Galwan Valley, a high-altitude region in the foothills of the Himalayas. China mobilized thousands of troops in a military drill to the border with India in the Himalayas, where tensions flared again, resulting in a violent face-off between the two mega armies. The Indian military reported that 20 Jawans had died in the clashes, whereas China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) reported that it suffered “casualties”. As both the governments released public statements, blaming the counterpart for the violent attacks, millions of citizens in the two most populated countries turned their heads to media channels and social media to understand the crisis better and pass along the message of national unity.   

There is always a deep interest in understanding how news media plays an important role in times of conflict. Studies in political communication show that newswires often become vital tools for states and parties to gain support on the lines of national spirit and identity. People worldwide heavily depend upon various media for accessing information, making the newswires a mirror that reflects the world and its happenings. 

After the recent clash, both the countries saw a major flood of newswires bringing different parameters of how the standoff affects each other's relations on a global platform. Media’s reporting on this issue sheds light on how governments used this issue to shape their national environment accordingly and also showcases how the national narrative is not based on facts, rather a package wrapped up in emotions, values, cultures, and rivalries. 

This article is focused on understanding the framing of news about the June 15 standoff in Indian newswires and how did the media portray the incident along the lines of national pride and sacrifice. 

Media’s role in such incidents formulates new boundaries, allegiances, and the very old “us” and “them” is created in vibrant forms penetrating deep into society's pre-existing fault lines. Numerous studies have argued on the role of the media as a factor that shapes opinions, socially when presenting a certain ‘version’ as a form of a fair reality. India has the second-largest newspaper market in the world, combined circulation of over 240 million copies and more than 400 news channels. In 2012, a Press Council investigation reported that many leading newspapers received monetary benefits for publishing information disguised as news in favor of individuals, including senior politicians. Indian media has come under the scrutiny of several organizations and scholars. India lands 142 in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, raising questions on the credibility and reporting of everyday issues.

Reporters Without Borders in their recent report noted that "Ever since the general elections in the spring of 2019, won overwhelmingly by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, pressure on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line has increased."

Notably, in the matters of national security, identity-based cases (e.g. murder, rape, or news portraying majority communities as victims) Indian media has been known to support the ultra-nationalist and religious-extremist ideologies, sponsored by the government. To understand the reporting of the clash better, this article draws on contextual analysis and framing theory. Newswires and journalists ‘frame’ the information in specific manners which is presented further to audiences. Scholars have criticized the criteria through which news is selected. Jakobsen concluded that negativism, personalization, and the influences of elite people from countries are the factors that frame the final package delivered to audiences.  

Front page of A National Daily Newspaper/ Times of India June 17

Indian Newswires and The Common Narrative 

Analyzing news (in both channels and print media), one can find a narrative that runs common along with vibrant mediums of the press. China is the wrongdoer and the Indian government will take revenge for the death of 20 Jawans. Several media outputs claimed that if China wanted to avoid a situation of violence, it would have “reassess its actions and take corrective steps.” This statement was repeated by many with no such official citations. This story was a followup on a phone call between the diplomatic channels of the two nations. However, newswires gave limited focus on whats and hows of the call, and the next steps that will be followed. 

News reported that 43 Chinese casualties had occurred and there is an increase in the helicopter activity on the Chinese side to airlift bodies of Chinese soldiers. A nationalist narrative started in reports flooded stating, 'Nobody Can Dare To Intrude' and ‘Our Soldiers Taught Them a Lesson.’

To mask China in a much severe light of wrongdoers, reports relating to the use of stones, clubs and barbed wire rods to attack Indian soldiers surfed a couple days after the clashes. The narrative followed on how barbaric and inhumane the Chinese army is. After a few days, only a few newswires reported that the news of barbed wire rods and clubs was fake, however there seemed to be no change in the ongoing representation of China in the media. 

It is important to note that these reports praised the administration for their role in honoring the lives lost and how they fought the enemy, rather than emphasizing the role of the Army or Diplomats in what follows a very twisted relationship already persistent with complexity. An important aspect of news reporting in India is the heavy reliance on the public view of any event. Prannoy Roy argues that the first and most popular path to profits is to turn to tabloid news to gain eyeballs. Virtually every single Indian news channel today is grotesquely tabloid. With the tabloidization of news, the majority of the public review of any incidents and the so-called ‘debates’ there is little to no focus remains on the issue rather major light is on the anti-Chinese agendas and a subtle pro-nationalist wave flows throughout.  

Debates such as Violent Faceoff In Galwan; India Gives It Back To China Diplomatically and Violent Ladakh Faceoff: India Won't Tolerate Chinese Belligerence brought people from different spectrums together on board for people to discuss on this issue. Anti-Chinese statements, and public demonstrations, such as breaking of electronics made in China, other household items being burned in a collective pile, surfed all over the news in the following days of the clash. 

These demonstrations were majorly led by nationalist groups where the public burning of Chinese flags and pictures of President Xi, were heavily covered by both newspapers and channels. These protests were followed by a door-to-door campaign, during the COVID-19 pandemic where cases in India have reached beyond 700 thousand, which was aimed to educate residents of the area about boycotting Chinese products. These campaigns and protests were again, very heavily reported by the newswires, including responses from the public, politicians, celebrities, etc.  

When we talk of nationalist narrative, it certainly follows a narrative that supports the ruling party and how their ways of handling the clashes. Many news channels elaborated on how this is the ‘new’ India and will not surrender or tolerate any intruder like in the past. Simultaneously, it raised questions on the Indo-Sino dispute and the procedures adopted by the previous administrations, especially drawing upon the 1962 war under the Nehru administration. An important addition to the framing of the news is the effect it has on the audience's attitudes. Research shows the way news is perceived depends heavily on the prior beliefs and preconceptions of people. Hence, references to previous incidences of loss and pain penetrate the effects of news far deeper than a simple story, drawing polarization among people. 

Adding to the nationalist narrative, one can easily spot how the government remains out of the issue and it is this administration that can handle this situation better than anyone else. Several newspapers focused on quoting ruling party leaders (e.g. India will win both battles — Covid-19 and China border — under PM Modi’s leadership: Amit Shah ). Additionally, an anchor on Aaj Tak news said that the Indian army should be blamed for the incident, and not the federal government; "The duty to patrol the borders is of the army and not the government,"

Anti-China protest in New Delhi. Picture Credit: Indian Express/Partha Paul

Journalism and Revenge 

Lawfare Institute reported that “...heavy pro-government tint in media coverage is par for the course in Chinese media but is further evidence of a worrying trend in the world’s largest democracy.” Even articles that presented the views of the opposition party remained slightly tilted towards the majority, for example, many argued that although the opposition wants to question the ruling governments stand on the issue, it shall remain cautious of how to plan an attack on the Modi government on the territorial and military conflict, given the BJP’s ability to fan sentiments in times of such crises as was evident last year following the Balakot airstrikes. 

Lastly followed the public forum of instigating a war or how to get back at the neighbouring nation. Galtung’s theory of war journalism adds value to understanding the framing of Indian media, War journalism explains how media focuses it’s framing on violence and violent groups, usually leading overvalue aspects of violent responses to conflict and ignoring non-violent alternatives and remain biased towards only a zero-sum based analysis. Scholars argue that newswires situate, perceive, recognize, and label events by applying frameworks of politics, nationalism, or other external influence, and individuals interpret this news through reliance on these frameworks.

Hence, as we go in-depth about the public perception, we see how debates focus more on declaring a war or doing a strike or much harsher practices against the Chinese, rather than a mounting for a peaceful solution through diplomacy. In a very famous series of debates, many ex-Army men, politicians and even public were seen asking India to be prepared for war and how “we have to show that when push comes to shove, we are prepared to hit back” 

These statements were further taken down to circulate among the larger network of newswires and social media, creating a perception of how China’s wrongdoings need to be punished and can only be done by war or violence. Following the discussion when one asks about the controversial bent of the Indian media, panelists do defend these channels by saying - “And he has a very nationalist agenda, so what the hell is wrong with it? I think we need more of that.” These statements, in a manner, brings the perspective that the media in India runs with a nationalist framework, rather than doing the job of just being the informers and not the reformers of the news. 

Public Media and More Hate

Nevertheless, the aggression on media wires was followed by a bunch of steps that the public, popular figures, and politicians took to show their support. Famous ones include uninstalling and deleting profiles on Chinese applications, such as TikTok and Weechat, and boycotting anything Chinese, including food. Union minister Ramdas Athawale said “My suggestion is that restaurants and hotels that sell Chinese food should be shut down. I also request those who eat Chinese food to stop eating them, boycott them,” Famous news anchors urged their viewers to “Boycott Chinese goods, teach them a lesson… [I]f India wants to make China pay for its Galwan aggression, it’s time to boycott everything that’s made in China.” When India banned 59 Chinese apps, this decision was celebrated and quoted as a digital strike on China, strike being a famous reference to the airstrike against Pakistan as a countermeasure for the Uri attacks in September 2016. Newswires claimed this sheer suddenness, unexpected nature, and unpredictability of the move is a huge victory for the nation.   

Wolfsfeld argues that news coverage and influential framing of events are much more likely to intensify conflicts than to subdue them. As some audiences may occasionally be able to look beyond their national ethnocentrism, most of what they see, hear, and read in the news provides constantly and act accordingly. The ongoing warmongering and nationalist narrative of the media have done little to nothing for the ‘real’ information which needs to be heard across the nation. Many security and geopolitics experts argued that these incidents needed to be understood as a new stage in Indo-China relations and the shift in global power dynamics, however little focus remains on these aspects of the clash.  

A number of Indians of Chinese descent held a protests in Kolkata against China's activities. Picture Credit: Indian Express/Partha Paul

The question also arises - what has hate mongering done for India so far? Certainly, nothing in terms of improving relations with China or channeling peaceful diplomacy to solve the situation rather has created several other issues that play along the pre-existing fault lines in Indian society. Several reports  claim that Chinese citizens living in India are now facing serious threats due to rising public aggression. Police advised Chinese nationals to avoid going out in public and to protect themselves from violent anti-Chinese street protests.  

Importantly, Indians of the Northeast, who share similar features with Chinese people, continue to face regular racial aggression, which escalated majorly throughout the CoVID-19 pandemic increased in India. The growing aggression is  certainly bound to mount cases of violence or verbal attacks on Northeastern people, or Indian citizens of Chinese descent.

As nationalistic talking points dominate mainstream reporting, several scholars have tried their best to provide a much diverse view to the point through op-eds. However, the issue remains the same, the aggression and hate that lies in the current Indian environment owes a big chunk of thanks to the news, wrapped up beautifully in nationalist and anti-peace frames, and being served to the public day and night. Lives have been lost, businesses have been burned, what good has the hate-framed news did for India? Newswires are bound to be the catalyst of the society, bringing the true colors of the world and presenting the result in a calculated manner, however, the story remains twisted in this case and the cycle continues for days to come.  


Prateek Srivastava is completing his Masters in International Politics from KU Leuven Belgium, is an incoming graduate student at CEU Department of History and did his undergraduate studies at the University of Cincinnati, USA. His research interests include violence, politics, religion and migration in South Asia. He was the Scripps Howard Communication Fellow for the World Affairs Council in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, reciving a grant of $2000. Prateek has published widely on South Asian politics, including his first book,Identity and Diaspora. The University of Cincinnati awarded him,Undergraduate Research Achievement Award in April 2019 for the same. Prateek is currently researching inequalities, ethnicity and violence with a special focus on media in South Asia.

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