Over the last week, Jammu and Kashmir was in news again because of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit post abrogation of Article 370 on 5 August 2019. He announced a major development and employment initiative with the Central government projects worth Rs 20,000 crore and another Rs 38,000 crore of private investment in the pipeline.
A day before Modi’s visit, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said: “The three wings of our defence forces want the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) to be removed from Jammu and Kashmir as soon as possible.” The defence minister also said that internal security is not the Indian Army’s job but that of the police and central paramilitary forces.
It is heartening to note that the Modi government, at last, is determined to find an apolitical solution by winning the hearts and minds of the people despite the sudden rise in violence in J&K in April. Amid all the positive signalling, the public relations officer (PRO) of the Ministry of Defence in Jammu, unfortunately, scored a self-goal that put a question mark on the apolitical and secular status of the Army, particularly with respect to counterinsurgency operations in J&K.
Under pressure from Right-wing handles on Twitter, he deleted a tweet highlighting the secular traditions of the Army and its successful strategy of “people-friendly operations”. His actions raised apprehensions about the inroads made by neo-nationalists and religious fundamentalists into the rank and file of the Army.
An indefensible action
On 21 April at 4:35 p.m. the Jammu PRO tweeted: “Keeping alive the traditions of secularism, an Iftaar was organised by the Indian Army at Arnora in Doda district,” along with photographs showing General Officer Commanding of the Delta Force of Rashtriya Rifles interacting with local Muslims and a uniformed person offering namaz with civilians.
Seven hours later, Sudarshan News chairman and managing director and editor-in-chief, Suresh Chavhanke, quoting this tweet, tweeted: “Ab ye bimari Bhartiya sena mein bhi ghuss gayi hai? Dukhad…” (Now this disease has spread even in the Indian Army? Sad). The comment drew widespread support from Right-wing handles on Twitter. But rather than ignoring or countering this obnoxious tweet, the PRO deleted his original tweet, putting a question mark over the Army’s intentions with respect to holding such events and severely denting its apolitical and secular image.
Interestingly, this was probably the first time a major neo-nationalist/Right-wing fundamentalist outlet criticised the armed forces. Until now, they were ruthlessly berating and “sending to Pakistan” all those who sought accountability of the armed forces with respect to reforms, operational inefficiency, alleged violation of human rights and other misdemeanours. Much against their own ethos, the armed forces in the past used this support for brazen, indefensible actions like the “human shield incident” or carriage of casualties packed in cartons. Probably shocked by this unexpected criticism for its traditional and legitimate actions, the PRO, individually, or under the directions of his superiors, beat a hasty retreat by deleting his tweet.
The action of the PRO spells ominous portents for the apolitical and secular credentials of the armed forces. A politicised military is one that identifies itself with a political ideology and, in its extreme manifestation, becomes a political stakeholder to usurp power. The founders of the nation and military leadership had absolute clarity on the issue. Our Constitution lays down civilian control over the armed forces and the latter takes an oath on the same.
India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru symbolically made the Teen Murti Bhavan, formerly the Flag Staff House and residence of the British Commander-in-Chief of forces, his official residence. Field Marshal K. M. Cariappa, the first Commander-in-Chief and later the Chief of Army Staff was responsible for ‘Indianisation’ of the Army and laid the foundation for its apolitical character.
Soon after taking over as the Commander-in-Chief, he wrote to all officers: “Politics in the Army is a poison. Keep off it”. That when he himself was indiscreet in publicly airing his views on India’s preferred economic model, he was formally advised by Nehru, in writing, in October 1952 to give fewer press conferences and stick to safer subjects, only proves the point.
An apolitical military, through its leadership, is able to give impartial advice to a civilian government irrespective of the ideology of the political party in power. Its apolitical and secular ethos ensures non-partisan conduct in counterinsurgency operations and while dealing with communal riots when called out for aid to civil authorities. Most of the insurgencies in India have been driven by ethnic/language/religious/cultural identity, which is different from that of the majority.
Indian Army’s counterinsurgency model of people-friendly operations — “iron fist in a velvet glove” i.e. an iron fist for the terrorists and the velvet glove for the people — is the most successful in the world. Winning the hearts and minds of the misguided or coerced population is the core of this policy. ‘Operation Sadbhavna’ has been used to provide administrative facilities in remote areas. Special outreach programmes through religious and cultural bonding are an essential feature of this policy. The Indian Army is a multi-religious/ethnic/cultural institution reflecting the ethos of our Constitution. Bonding with the people is enmeshed in its operational conduct. Most of our intelligence inputs come from people.
There has been no formal clarification issued either by the controlling authority, i.e. the MoD or by Northern Command and 16 Corps, the military formations for whom public relations are carried out, with respect to the conduct of the PRO, Jammu. Their silence makes them complicit by default if not by design. However, it is to the credit of the Army that religious outreach has not stopped.
Corrective action is warranted
There is an urgent requirement for corrective action. The MoD, the controlling authority for public relations, must issue a formal apology to restore the confidence of the public. The deleted tweet must be reposted on Twitter and its deletion regretted. The defence minister and the military hierarchy must reiterate the secular beliefs and conduct of the armed forces.
It is also time for the MoD and the military to revamp their public relations. At present, the PROs and Additional Directorate General of Public Information and equivalents in the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force are not transparent and lack credibility. They either do not act or are too slow to respond to embarrassing news/incidents. There is always an attempt to doctor operational information that is easily seen through and lampooned on social media. No formal briefings are given to the media. A public relations campaign can not be run on manipulative leaks reproduced as “reliable source-based information”. The coverage of the conflict in Eastern Ladakh is probably the worst ever in recent military history. We lost the perception battle to China.
The inefficiency of the military’s public relations by default allows neo-nationalists and religious fundamentalists to seize the initiative to defend its indefensible actions creating an impression that it is in cohort with them. Even in this instant case, it is the neo-nationalists who are defending the deletion of the tweet and striking at the secular ethos of the armed forces. A simple reposting of the tweet can redress the damage. Inaction not only amounts to moral cowardice, but will reinforce the impression that one more stride has been taken towards the politicisation of the armed forces.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)