Narendra Modi govt has reduced surgical strikes to a WhatsApp-era jumla.
By escalating a series of minor military actions into a war for the WhatsApp era, the Modi government risks reducing the ‘surgical strikes’ to a jumla.
Every generation in India has seen a war or a major skirmish. Each can be identified not only by the persona of its Prime Minister, but also by the nature of the media at the time.
The Independence generation (1947-48 and 1962), Jawaharlal Nehru, with crackling and static radio and a small newspaper presence; 1965, Lal Bahadur Shastri and the feeling that the humiliation of 1962 at the hands of China was avenged by saving Kashmir from Pakistan, topped by the first capture of the Haji Pir Pass that India had to write away at the negotiating table, reported by Films Division through its news reviews; 1971, the first and only full-fledged military victory for India when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, the era of All India Radio news (broadcaster Surajit Sengupta was the only journalist present when Pakistan’s eastern theatre commander Lt General A.A.K. Niazi signed the instrument of surrender in Dhaka on 16 December that year) and a breathless Bengali press.
Indira Gandhi was also the Prime Minister when the Indians beat back the Chinese in a bloody skirmish in Nathu La in 1967. Probably because of the remoteness of the place at that time, no journalist was actually present at the spot.
Rajiv Gandhi came close to seeing a war after yet another face-off with the Chinese at Sumdorong Chu, a narrow river valley in Arunachal, reported breathlessly by India’s English language press in 1987 as the “loudspeaker war”. Rajiv Gandhi also saw military action with General Sundarji conducting Operation Brasstacks near the western border that had Pakistan also mobilising forces, again reported by the English press.
Rajiv Gandhi’s military adventure in Sri Lanka was reported widely by the Tamil and English press. But it was years before the dissection of that overseas expedition came to be described as a folly.
In 1999, Kargil became India’s first television war when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister. Not each of these skirmishes were wars in reality, they were either encounters or, at most, battles in limited frontiers. They were fodder for the media in the age that defined it.
Operation Parakram, the year-and-a-half-long stand-off and full-scale military mobilisation under Vajpayee that followed the attack on Parliament on 13 December, 2001, almost led to a change in the military-media mindset. The Indian Army had sent letters to media-houses, both print and television, to nominate journalists who may be embedded with its units in the event of full-scale hostilities with Pakistan. The mobilisation was called off without a war but it had already seen more than 700 Indian soldiers killed in firing along the LoC and in mining and de-mining processes along the border.
True, not every Indian Prime Minister has seen a war or something pretending to be it. But every bloody skirmish has defined Indian media.
And, so now, the selfie era of WhatsApp and Instagram with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In January 2016, terrorists had infiltrated the Pathankot airbase, one of India’s most sensitive military establishments. They held the forces at bay for three days. An officer seconded to the National Security Guard from the Army, a Lieutenant Colonel, was killed in dubious circumstances, smartphone in hand, during mopping-up operations. Reportage of the event angered a generation inside and outside the military.
Nine months later, on 18 September, terrorists infiltrated into India and burnt down the Uri garrison in which 19 soldiers were killed.
This was too much for the selfie-generation to bear. Then Northern Army commander Lt General D.S. Hooda (retired) is on record as saying that his troops were asking what were they to do now.
On the night of 28-29 September, teams from two battalions of the Indian Army’s para-commandos infiltrated across the LoC and took down what was reported as five terrorist launchpads, almost replicating, in reverse, the action the terrorists had taken against the Uri garrison.
On the morning of 29 September, most journalists on the defence beat were summoned to the Indian Army headquarters by a mysterious message: the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) would brief. It was, to say the least, unusual. Lt General Ranbir Singh, the DGMO, (now Northern Army Commander) read out a terse statement announcing and using the phrase “surgical strikes”.
The media went berserk. Few knew what “surgical strikes” even meant. But there was a lust that was being satisfied after the humiliations of Pathankot and Uri.
It was, and continues to be, the hallmark of the Modi government’s mindset.
In the briefing late that morning or early afternoon, Lt General Ranbir Singh did not take any questions on or off record. He left immediately after reading out the statement.
Military operations may not be detailed by the commanders leading them, until after much later, or never — we had learnt this through years of reading history and covering wars.
The government and the BJP began almost instant celebrations. Elections in Uttar Pradesh were also drawing close. But in the heat of that moment, a perspective was fuzzy.
Strangely now, two years after the event, the government is celebrating “Parakram Parv”, a three-day festival of the “surgical strikes”. Why now?
“We are celebrating it because we want to tell the people of India the kind of sacrifice and valour which the Indian Army shows,” said defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman. “In the surgical strikes we have actually hit back at an enemy who was a coward.”
That still begs the question why this year and not last year as well?
It is not that the Modi government is totally ahistorical, unlike, arguably, the selfie generation. In its first year in power, it commemorated the 1965 war (when Lal Bahadur Shastri was the Prime Minister) in grand fashion, again with a huge spread and simulations on the India Gate lawns.
It is probably because of a mindset that demands selective history to serve political aims. As Shekhar Gupta, Editor-in-Chief of The Print, has pointed out, the government is celebrating the surgical strikes just three days after the 53rd anniversary of the 1965 war that has now been conveniently forgotten.
Air Chief Marshal S.Y. Savur (retired) who played a catalytic role in deploying assets during the full-scale mobilisation in 2001-2002, has emphasised the irony of naming the current celebration “Parakram Parv”. The last mobilisation was called “Operation Parakram”. It ended tragically for more than 700 soldiers in a war that never happened.
The issue here is not so much the celebration of debatable military victories. It is about perceiving them from one end of the selfie-stick to see what is fed into the screen at the other end of it: Grainy black-and-white images of shots being fired and shadowy figures being taken down. They can be shared, forwarded, scrolled and passed from hand-held device to hand-held device.
Most military veterans are aghast that the government should be holding a “festival” for the surgical strikes.
The medium is the message.