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Modi govt’s silence on China gave ‘satellite warriors’ a free run. India will rue the damages

If the LAC crisis prolongs, the satellite warriors will only get better at their interpretations and Modi govt's silence will be seen as capitulation or a cover-up.

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The Ladakh stand-off has boosted transparency, for it has given greater visibility to a species of information soldiers who could be described as ‘Satellite Warriors’. These individuals, who are mostly housed in either think tanks or media, are increasingly the main sources of satellite imagery, informing the Indian and international public about China’s military moves. Their interpretations based on commercially available satellite imagery often vary from the official descriptions of the situation on the ground. Without any official interpretations contradicting their claim, the satellite warriors are having a free run while Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statements, even if they refer only to Galwan, are increasingly looking like lies attempting to hide in plain sight.

The last time the Modi government made compromises with China, at Doklam in 2017, the satellite warriors were small in number and their impact was marginalised by the projection of Doklam as a victory. The fact that the ‘victory’ was short-lived and restricted to stopping China from building a road with a particular alignment, did not get traction because the story hid the truth despite all the efforts of a few satellite warriors. The truth of China’s perfidy in Doklam is available through satellite photographs and is yet to reach the popular imagination. The Balakot strike in 2019 witnessed satellite warriors from India, Pakistan and other countries in an information battle space, which involved providing proof of strikes as a success or failure.


Also read: PM Modi’s silence on LAC stand-off is benefiting China. India must change its script


Occupying the information space

The role of satellite warriors in the current Ladakh stand-off is markedly different. They are at the forefront of putting out information in the public domain and seem to be fighting the Modi government, which prefers to deal with them by either pretending they do not exist or that they do not matter. Only time will tell whether this is a wise policy to adopt, unless things are so bad that silence is the only seemingly handy option and it does not matter what the public will assume.

The Modi government’s failure to communicate its version in a cohesive manner has been apparent since the beginning of the crisis in Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The differing statements of Prime Minister Modi, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh being the prime example. To depend upon the Prime Minister’s popularity and vacate the information space could be an invitation for political grief, because China’s actions on the border have the psychological component as their cornerstone. Information projection is crucial for India’s image on the global stage, for the world is watching how India is standing up to the big bully, China.


Also read: Modi’s rajniti unable to tackle India’s three big crises. Time for lokniti


All is not hunky-dory

The uncontested space gives satellite warriors a free run. They may be well-intentioned in seeking to bring the truth to the public but they can also be a source of misinformation due to misinterpretation on account of lack of military expertise, having seen the ground only through satellite photographs. These satellite warriors can also be manipulated by China to project its military strength through subtle and deliberate exposure of military deployments. Ruses like making maps on the ground conveying planning for hostilities, are deliberately exposed to be picked up by the satellite warriors and utilised to intimidate and mislead a gullible public. The satellite warriors can, therefore, unknowingly become pawns in China’s psychological warfare.

The official capacity for satellite intelligence is beyond that of satellite warriors because the information is sourced from diverse satellites and interpreted by people with military expertise and ground knowledge. The reason the Modi government has ignored the satellite warriors is possibly because of the latter’s limited reach among Indians. Barring a few, the Indian print and television media have kept a respectable distance from the reports and claims of satellite warriors. Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp have been the main platforms that provide unrestricted flow of images but one that reaches a very niche audience. Domestic audience, by and large, is presumably largely unexposed to the satellite warriors.

On the international stage, their revelations have an audience that include the strategic cognoscenti, intelligence agencies and the political decision-makers. The views of such sections can influence perceptions of political leadership and consequent decision-making. This again can be wished away by assuming that most parts of the globe are too involved with the challenging situation wrought by Covid-19, to be interested in the India-China stand-off and the forays of the satellite warriors. In the short term, this is an acceptable argument. But it ignores the consequences in the longer term. If the crisis prolongs, the satellite warriors will only get better at their interpretations and the silence of the Modi government may be seen as a capitulation or a cover-up.


Also read: To check China’s hostility, India, Taiwan and Japan need an intelligence-sharing alliance


India might rue the current policy

The policy adopted so far to deal with a new player on the information stage, who has the potential to bring bad news to the public, is certainly in need of a review. There is no need to contest directly any of the satellite warriors. Instead, official images suitably interpreted must speak of the ground reality that has to be in consonance with the statements of political leaders and official spokespersons.

Governments lying to the public is a universal phenomenon and could even be justified in the name of statecraft. But what is galling in the current situation is that through silence, there is growing suspicion that the Modi government is involved in a cover-up and is accompanied by the assumption that international opinion does not matter.

Images and headlines gain attention far more than any other form of expression. The advent of satellite warriors is not a passing occurrence that is going to go away with the crisis in Ladakh. It can stay to haunt the Modi government and provide grist to the mill, to those forces who are inimically inclined towards India. The damages thus caused may eventually find their place in the annals of history. For sure, the satellite warriors will grow in strength and India may rue the ostrich policy currently being practised.

Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon is the Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bangalore and Former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He is the author of The Strategy Trap: India and Pakistan Under the Nuclear Shadow. Views are personal.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Desperate attempts to make something out of nothing. Really can’t make out the Big lie that the author is searching for. Should be listed under fiction.

  2. I have generally been a supporter of BJP lead by Modi. I have overlooked the minor shortcomings of this government. Now, for the first time, I am unable to believe the PM’s statement that none has entered India’s territory, nor anyone holding India’s territory. If none had entered what was the brouhaha about? Why was there a murderous fight?

    Secrecy helps only the enemy. Our ignorance is used for disinformatin blitzkreig. Indian public will be mislead. Nehru also committed the same blunder in the run up to 1962 debacle. One fails to understand what is the need for secrecy in releasing satallite images of what was the position of both armies in Galwan and Pangong Tso on say before 6th May and thereafter. Public would have rallied around the government more forcefully.

  3. Completely agreed, Indian government should tell the truth and the Indian media should not produce war like hysteria. Let the matter be solved by table talk which is the only solution.

  4. Nepal trying to appease China shall be tomorrow’s Taiwan if they continue to follow this policy and then Nepalese shall seek refuge in india like people from Taiwan
    Who would like to live in communist rule

  5. Satellite warriors are a new breed and even if they add confusion to the picture most of the time, it is not a big issue as their presence does add more information on the unfolding situation. The author seems to be worried about government reticence on such warriors and need to come clean on the facts. However, it is not worthwhile for the government to get involved in almost real time ‘war’ with these warriors. The truth will prevails finally.

    I am however worried about insinuations of the author about Dhoklam. If China beefs up infrastructure in area controlled by it, there is hardly anything India can do except matching up to them on our side so that Chinese do not get upper hand in future. Similar logic applies to LAC. Let us not hit Modi just to support and carry forward one’s ideological proclivities.

  6. I agree to a certain extent. The gov needs to be more forthcoming with the situation by itself. This gov especially, because it has made it a habit to glorify even its smallest achievements, its silence therefore comes across as more worrying and projects that something is wrong. I wish our gov all the best.

  7. I agree, in a certain way. The government needs to communicate better with the people, especially because this government has made it a habit to glorify even it’s slightest of achievements. Hence, when this government keeps such a steadfast silence for so long, it projects to the people that there’s something to worry about.

  8. Why don’t you donkeys write on Xi Jin Ping’s silence.? You guys are bent on demeaning the good work done by India. You are a paid channel of our enemies.

    • Dilbert, you’re staying true to your name’s cartoon origins. Xi is speaking through his actions. His labradoodle Lijian Zhou gives press conferences & spreads his master’s propaganda every day, often with respect to India.

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