The old saying is that a picture (photograph in present context) is worth a thousand words. But as the wit remarked, it takes words to make this point. One is advised often in enough, to ‘read between the lines’ to make real sense of the printed word. Similarly, when looking at an image it is imperative that we don’t forget that the ‘frame’ that includes objects of interest also excludes other, maybe, equally interesting or important things. Going by captions can be misleading.
This chain of thought has been triggered in the mind of the writer of these lines by two photos published recently in Indian newspapers on their front pages. The first to appear was a sepia-toned photograph officially released by the Indian Army showing a large group of Chinese soldiers against the snow-covered barren landscape of Ladakh. They were ‘armed to teeth’ with weapons like spears, spiked and barbed wire-covered wooden clubs, and if you looked hard enough maybe a pick axe could be spotted. It’s ironic that the two nuclear powers are having a confrontation with stone and Iron Age fighting implements.
We have heard enough in recent months that both India and China have banned firearms in this sector to prevent any accidental conflagration. Good thing. But, how can we forget that this failed to avert the bloody clash in the Galwan Valley in mid-June? Unarmed combat can also kill and maim brutally. Deniability is important for an aggressor and accidents can be blamed for the casualties on either side. But more important than all this is the question of timing.
What was this photograph meant to convey? The Chinese, it is no secret, have amassed troops in large numbers and deployed tanks, missiles and aircraft as well. India has matched this swiftly with state-of-the-art weapons systems. There have also been news items that the Chinese have fired in the air to scare away Indian soldiers. One Tibetan lost his life when he stepped on a landmine. Should we expect a repeat of June 15 before the winter sets in—another dangerous skirmish fought with shovels and axes, sticks and stones? The Chinese government and media have already warned India that if it doesn’t withdraw from ‘strategic heights it has captured’, the harsh winter and accidents may extract a heavy price in terms of soldiers’ lives.
The second photograph that followed in its footsteps was snapped after the Moscow meeting between the Indian and Chinese Foreign Ministers. Warm handshakes and bear hugs are out in these hard Covid times so interpreting body language and inscrutable smiles is rendered more difficult. We saw Dr Jaishankar wearing a broad if somewhat forced smile with hands gracefully folded in Namaste. His Chinese counterpart looked a little less gleeful and only someone clutching at straws could discover an embryonic smile on his stiff lips.
Does this mean that the Indian side had scored more points in this much-hyped diplomatic exchange? All such illusions were shattered when both sides were constrained to issue clarifications to the joint statement. It’s clear that China and India have different, almost reconcilable perceptions regarding the border. As long as this divergence persists there can be no hope of ‘high level’ talks that can achieve a breakthrough. The meetings on the sidelines of the SCO conference between the Indian and Chinese Defence Ministers turned out to be nothing more than mutually recriminatory slanging match.The ball is back in the court of high-level local military commanders.
To return to the pictures. What are they telling us? Are we facing a barbaric adversary—unreasonable and viscerally vengeful—regardless of the costs it might involve? Or, the only hope to reduce the chances of a devastating war—even if limited, prolonged and low-intensity—are talks? There is little enthusiasm in the country to treat the Five Points agreed upon in Moscow akin to the by-now-infamous Panchsheel in mid-1950s. The ‘Power of Five’ had lost its magic long ago.
The juxtaposition of these two pictures can only be confusing. Are we determined to push back and defeat a diabolical and repeatedly treacherous enemy or once again falling into the trap of diplomatic commitments? How fast the images of bonhomie between Modi and Xi—the smiling super leaders in Wuhan, Sabarmati and Mahabalipuram—have faded? Didn’t those pictures lull India into a false sense of security?
Some other photographs, stamp-sized and printed as a strip, deserve an aside. Delhi Police has added in a supplementary charge-sheets the names of respected academics, documentary makers, social activists as instigators/abettors of communal riots in Delhi. Depending on our own political partisanship we may treat this as a Rogues Gallery or Wall of Martyrs to the cause of Freedom. Isn’t this a case of telling a pictorial tale to damn without a fair trial? email@example.com
Former professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University