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War of the waves over Himalayas


Joseph Goebbels, who masterminded Nazi propaganda, may be smiling in his grave as three Asian neighbors, caught in bitter border tussles, seem to be falling back on the German’s favorite soft power tool-the radio waves.

In the border town of Jhoolaghat in Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district bordering Nepal, Pramod Kumar Bhatt, a provision store owner and part time journalist, listens with dismay to a Nepal FM radio channel which has been broadcasting Nepali songs calling for the return of areas in Uttarakhand, including Lipulekh, Limpiyadura and Kalapani.

Bhatt’s provisions store-which used to serve Nepalese from across the border in better times-lies on the Indian side of a bridge over the Kali River that separates the two countries.

Nepal claims the three areas, Lipulekh, Limpiyadura and Kalapani, which together cover about 370 sq km. India controls the strategic Lipulekh mountain pass which connects Uttarakhand with Tibet in China.

Lifts-28 June 2020-1On June 19, Nepal’s parliament, through a constitutional amendment, adopted a redrawn political map that included the three disputed areas. The redrawing of the map has stirred tensions between India and Nepal.

A new road through the strategic mountain pass was built by India, fanned tensions with Nepal, though the two countries have centuries-old ties described as “Beti and Rotikirishta” (close social ties). These ties are now eroded and people to people relations have become one of hate and mistrust, Bhatt told South Asian Monitor over phone from Jhoolaghat. Covid-19 too made a big difference to the ties for until the Covid-19 outbreak, thousands of people from Chulaghatin Dhasarathchand Nagar of Baitida district in Nepal’s Sudurpaschim Pradesh or Far Western Province would come to buy provisions, Bhatt recalled.

To bolster its propaganda campaign to back Kathmandu’s claim on the disputed areas, a number of Nepalese FM channels close to the Indian border have started beaming anti-India songs peppered with speeches delivered by Nepalese Maoist leaders, noted Prithoragarh-based senior journalist Prem Punetha. And people on the Indian side listen as Nepali songs are very popular. 

“Of late, some of the FM channels and websites have started bombarding anti-India songs which call for the return of the disputed areas. There are a dozen FM radio channels in the two bordering Nepal districts of Darchula and Baitidawhich air anti-India songs in between news bulletins and other shows,” Punetha told SAM over phone.

Since remote border villages have little access to satellite television channels or have very weak internet penetration, FM and community radios are very popular with the locals and the Nepal FM channels are wiping up nationalistic fervor along the border region.  “The propaganda is blatant,” Punetha added.

Among the anti-India songs is: “Hamrai ho Kalapani, hamrai ho Lipulekh, Hamrai ho Limpiyadhura…lutekohamrojaamin...lautai deo hamrobhoomi. (Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura belongs to Nepal…Return the land that you have stolen from us).

Nepalese FM channels like Kalapani Radio, Naya Nepal, Mallikarjun Radio, Darchula Radio, Radio Sarathi, Lok Darpan, Nigrahi Radio, Sarthi FM, Sunset Radio, and Niglashaini FM are accessible across villages and towns like Darchula and Jhoolaghat in Pithoragarh.

“The people on both sides of the border share linguistic and cultural bonds. But the anti-India propaganda has adversely affected people to people relations,” Punetha rued.

Lifts-28 June 2020-2There is also a glut of anti-India videos that have surfaced on YouTube channels and some of the content is outright vulgar and disturbing, adds Pramod Kumar Bhatt.

Like Bhatt, hundreds of residents on the Indian side, who were regular listeners, have stopped listening to Nepalese FM channels of late.“Some songs even demand that Darjeeling Hills (in Indian state of West Bengal) be returned to Nepal,” Punetha pointed out.

Nepal and China have been angered by Delhi’s moves in recent months, said a Kathmandu-based security analyst, who did not want to be named.

Nepal’s belligerent posturing comes amid heightened tension in disputed Ladakh, where nuclear-armed India and China are locked in a bitter standoff.

India also is not lagging behind in these wave propagandas. The Indian state-run public broadcaster Prasar Bharati is ensuring that the Indian viewpoint on geo-political issues reaches people on the northern borders. Tibetan and Chinese radio world services have been revamped.

Lifts-28 June 2020-3All India Radio’s (AIR) Tibetan and Chinese World Services which earlier focused on Tibetan culture and news, now give more time to commentaries on current affairs and the Indian viewpoint on China, said an official with the AIR’s External Services Division.

On June 17, two days after the bloody hand-to-hand combat between Indian and Chinese forces in the Galwan Valley, Prasar Bharati posted a tweet urging people to listen to the Tibetan World Service offered by AIR. “Listen to All India Radio's Tibetan World Service for authentic news and programmes for and from Tibet. @AkashvaniAIR”, the Indian state-owned broadcaster tweeted. The Tibetan World Services can also be accessed on YouTube and in the text format, Akashvani said.

AIR’s Tibetan language service was started in 1956-after the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950-but was briefly suspended. It was revived before the Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama, fled the country to take refuge in India in March 1959. The broadcasts are made from stations in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

“Tibetan World Service was used to prick China”, says former CEO of Prasar Bharati Jawhar Sircar. “The Chinese have the notion that India is harboring Tibetan terrorists,” he told South Asian Monitor.

Since the Chinese have been jamming AIR’s shortwave radio transmissions the Tibetan and Chinese World Services will now be available on YouTube, direct-to-home (DTH) satellite dish platform and a mobile app.

Lifts-28 June 2020-4“This apart, people from Bhutan and Nepal who have access to the DTH networks via satellite transmission too can watch the Tibetan World Service,” an AIR official told South Asian Monitor on phone from Delhi.

China watchers, however, say that such “soft power” may not work with the Chinese. Kolkata-based security analyst Binoda Kumar Mishra said: “In China, India is on the suspicious list. We can’t change that perception overnight.” Mishra, who is Director of the Calcutta-based Centre for Studies in International Relations and Development (CSIRD), said that India cannot match China in propaganda.

Even as the Indian public broadcaster was ramping up its external services division’s programme, the Bangla radio channel and multimedia web platform-Akashvani Moitree-was suspended for a couple of months due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Lifts-28 June 2020-5“It was not possible for the station to continue with the daily broadcast due to the shortage of announcers. The services restarted early in June in a truncated manner and is being live streamed on the YouTube channel of AIR’s Bangla World Services from Delhi,” an official, who did not wish to be named, said.

Akashvani Moitree, which was first started as a news and commentary radio service in 1971 during the Bangladesh Liberation movement, was discontinued in 2010.

The Bangla World Service was repackaged and re-launched by the Modi-government in 2016, as a bilateral outreach to strengthen India’s shaky relations with Bangladesh and as a part of its cultural diplomacy.

It is the first-of-its kind radio service that provides a platform for content creation and sharing of cultural heritage between the two countries. The service is available to listeners in Bangladesh, India and the Bengali Diaspora through its multimedia website airworldservice.org and mobile apps which have live-streaming, text and video content.