Vivek Haldar

How the first Gulf War brought modernity to India

I came across this article in an old Wired issue about how cable and dish TV overtook India rapidly in 1990, when the first Gulf War started. It brought back some memories.

For countless Indian city dwellers, January 1990 will be remembered as the month when the world at large - long an impenetrable nut - was finally cracked open. As US troops assaulted Iraq, the satellite revolution struck India with equal force.

I remember the time vividly. I was in high school. Wars were something we read about in history textbooks. But here was a live one, happening in my time, right now. And it was on TV. The fledgling CNN left no stone unturned in bringing us non-stop footage. Sad as it sounds, the truth is that the human cost was lost on most of us viewers. This was TV, dammit! It was – dare I say it? – entertainment.

But more significantly, it was a dazzling display of technology. It was the first war fought (at least by the US side) with modern technology. Everyday, we were exposed to reports of missiles that covered hundreds, even thousands, of miles to strike a particular window in a particular building. We were taken on gigantic aircraft carriers, floating cities unto themselves. We went with pilots on sorties over Baghdad, “lighting it up like a Christmas tree.”

The first images of the 42-day Mideast war mesmerized most viewers - nighttime television pictures of targeted Iraqi bunkers and buildings, many in downtown Baghdad, being surgically destroyed by precision-guided bombs dropped by stealthy aircraft. The crosshairs of an aircraft high-tech laser targeting system lined up on the rooftop of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, moments later a laser-seeking 2,000 pound bomb blew the building apart.

And when we were not watching the military-industrial complex peacocking, we were soaking in its cultural counterpart. Baywatch. MTV. Moonlighting. We didn’t even have to filter the crap. Only the hits were re-broadcast. Suddenly our culture seemed parochial. Suddenly our things seemed archaic, clunky.

In 1991, the Indian government finally abandoned Nehru’s socialist market ideology and began to embrace a market open to the world and free of governmental shackles. Did the hockey-stick adoption of cable TV, and the cultural jolt that came with it, contribute to setting the stage for this? Certainly. Once you’ve seen precision long-range missiles and MTV, it’s hard to justify a closed market.

It did feel like somebody had flipped a switch. There was no going back. The Gulf war brought India into the 21st century.