Millennium Post

Decoding media glare on Army

Decoding media glare on Army
The Indian Army is an excellent fighting force, and has few parallels in the world. But  of  late, the image of the soldier is diminishing which calls for immediate action. This is happening because the forces have to face divergent pulls and pressures which are different today than from yesteryears. Institutions have a long memory, take time to change. On the other hand, the Army has to operate in a dynamic environment, with an active press and a changing civil society which are able to apply pressure and push for changes.

Thus, it is the Army that is perceived at times to be unable to ‘keep up’ with the societal fluctuations, and due to its strict procedures, it is not able to present its side of the story with the dynamism expected of it. It has prolonged deployment in counter-insurgency operations leading to uncanny situations. Armies are trained, equipped, geared and made ready for the primary task which is to protect the nation from external threat. But today judgement is passed on it for how well it does its secondary task. In short, people tend to judge the doctor by how well the nurse performs.

The Army simply has no answer to live media carrying out television debates beaming live to
soldiers’ bedrooms the twists and turns of various scams. In a democracy, this is the one thing that is acceptable, adds to transparency. But when quite often, officers are on the mat for becoming ketchup colonels, booze brigadiers, generals fighting over various issues and scams, some of which like the Sukna have been set aside by the Armed Forces Tribunal — the stage is set for a soldier to question: ‘What am I serving for, is this my officer class like?’ Does the Army need to change its value system? In fact, when threatened it must reinforce the old values, but its manner of interaction with the media, its manner of conduct when deployed in prolonged counter-insurgency operations, requires a holistic look and not a knee-jerk reaction.

After the recent firing at Budgam, in which two young boys were killed, the Army admitted that it was a “mistake” and a violation of rules of engagement. The Army also said that it would complete its inquiry within ten days and take action against the guilty. The legal catch here is that once the Army Commander has agreed it is a mistake, are all procedural inquiries on the subject irrelevant?
On the other hand, while the law enforcers are guilty, in the wake of protests and all good work done by the Army during the recent floods in that area and the fact that elections were around the corner, pressure was going up from civil society, reckless teenagers were moving in a vehicle to a restricted area, isn’t there also a need for civil society to look inwards as well?

The ground reality is that because armed sentries are there everywhere in view of the live threat posed by terrorists, such incidents are bound to recur. If there is accidental firing, and a whole host of other scenarios, will the Army now admit to its mistake every time before an inquiry? This could well have happened in Delhi, but the issue inevitably takes a different colour in Jammu and Kashmir. Will the soldier be blamed before an inquiry? Some time ago, a paramilitary force in Delhi waited for its inquiry to take place, before having the added burden of having put the blame on any one. Loss of life is regrettable but loss of soldiers’ morale critical and difficult to restore.

The greatest strength of the forces lies in its intangibles: such as, morale, training, ethos and value system, bonded by discipline. The Sukna scam and the Budgam incident touch upon all these intangibles, especially discipline and training. The Budgam affair was at best an operational cum training issue. By declaring the soldiers guilty before inquiry, a whole host of issues, which are morale-sensitive, have been opened up. Are these even debatable?  The Sukna scam AFT judgment opens up another can of worms, which the Army needs to take to its logical conclusion. If the military justice system is shown in poor light, won’t its soldiers need an answer?

Television debates do need some introspection. The debates on geostrategy, arms and equipment do become interesting, but when discipline is debated or discussed yet nuts and bolts of the ground situation are generally not known, the picture becomes confusing. Of course, the media needs to report the various scams, it needs to show all the dead wood, but it should exercise its judgement, on what will be the impact on the morale of the soldier?  

In the Sukna scam not an inch of Army land was involved, there was no trickery or fraud: then how come the word scam was used for a so-called issue of ‘No Objection Certificate’ (NOC)? Discipline is the very key to a soldier’s being and to impact on his sense of discipline, needs sense of responsibility from all, including the political class, who have left us equipment deficient. The impact of  the movie Haider which shows the soldiers in poor light  has also come at this juncture and what is the ‘langar gup’ one wonders.  

How should the Army react in inadvertent cases? It should go back to the Chetwode credo, of safety, honour and welfare of nation first, soldier next and its commanders last. This implies, supreme national interest first, completion of inquiries before pronouncing soldiers guilty second, and the various twists and turns of scams and age related issues last and not on prime time television because of TRP.

The Army has had a long stint in counter-insurgency operations. This tells on training there is a need to cut down exposure in counter-insurgency, but the drawdown from foreign forces in Afghanistan opens up a  different scenario and weakening of Army from the border areas improbable. The forces therefore, need to settle these issues in house. The entire issue is of faith and the generals need to have 56-inch chests while interacting with civil society and take on ‘bullets’ flying at the aam sipahi.

The author is a retired brigadier
C S Thapa

C S Thapa

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