Last week, a suicide bomber killed 40 Indian soldiers in Kashmir. An armed group based in Pakistan, Jesh-e-Mohammed (JeM), has claimed responsibility for the worst such attack in more than 70 years.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government in New Delhi has accused the Pakistani government of backing the group and many Indian news outlets, have gone further, calling for a crackdown on so-called "anti-nationals" at home, who they describe as "terrorist sympathisers".

"Every time an incident like this happens, before the government can respond, before the army can respond, before the military responds, the media immediately jumps the gun, asking for war," points out documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak.

There is no denying where the demand for justice comes from or the news value of the story because, for the Indian media, this story ticks so many boxes: Kashmir, Pakistan and the army. The attack came just as campaigning begins for a national election that is just months away, something the Hindi right and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) capitalising on.

"What they've basically done is they've very quickly kind of mobilised their forces to essentially see if they can actually shape this, and hammer it into kind of their classic narrative of Hindus versus Muslims. The Muslim as the figure of the outsider, the Congress is a weak party, liberals as you know 'anti-national traitors' and so on," according to Rohit Chopra, associate professor at Santa Clara University.

What makes Indian news channels unique is that there are so many of them, far more than any other country. And as political debate in India has grown more polarised, often over Prime Minister Modi's brand of Hindu nationalism, TV output has become more debased. And when that kind of coverage is fed into the Indian social media messaging machine, the effect can be dangerous.

"It's interesting how social media and television - at least some news channels - have actually been hand in hand when it comes to setting the narrative for the current mood," says journalist Kunal Purohit.

Between WhatsApp, Tik Tok, Share Chat, Line and Hike, India is awash with social media and messaging apps. There are 200 million users on WhatsApp alone, making the country the app's largest domestic market. And when WhatsApp changed its rules recently, placing new limits on the forwarding of group messages, it did so after first field-testing those changes in India, an implicit admission of the social and political problems WhatsApp has exacerbated there.

With elections coming and the BJP leading the way, all parties now want to make the most of the apps at their disposal and are doing so without voters necessarily realising they're being played, whose messages they're reading.

Shakuntala Banaji - Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics

Rohit Chopra - Associate professor, Santa Clara University

Sanjay Kak - Documentary filmmaker

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Associated Press 24 May 2019 12:30 CEST

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