Death of a soldier
Mahatma Gandhi survives as the icon of Indian aspirations in most adverse situations. This is largely because his thoughts continue to have a universal appeal despite some of it having been delivered nearly over 100 years ago. Mahatma had a detailed opinion on the functioning of the Indian media too. At one point he said, "…There is no doubt that newspapers have done great service.
Their defects are therefore overlooked. But, to my mind, they have done no less harm. ...On the whole, it would seem that the existence of newspapers promotes good and evil in equal measure."
Mahatma's observations have been the starting point of my recent interaction with the officers of Defence Services that happened in batches on different occasions over the past six months. The purpose of interaction was to acquaint them on how to deal with the ever-changing media scenario. The talks largely focused on how to deal with the media in conflict situations.
In military parlance, conflict situation exists when you are engaged in a war or with the subversive elements generally with the reference to the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and parts of North-East.
However, the past week presented a situation where a Lance Naik committed suicide after a video carrying a surreptitiously conducted interview on the poor soldier went viral. According to newspaper reports, Lance Naik Roy Mathew, aged 33, had spoken to wife and younger brother expressing apprehensions about the sting video uploaded by news website 'The Quint', in which he had spoken on the "sahayak" or "buddy" system in the Indian Army.
Mathew was found hanging from the ceiling of an abandoned barrack in the Deolali Army Cantonment last week. The website has since removed the video titled, "Soldier or Servant?" uploaded on February 23, where Mathew had spoken about doing personal chores for his superior officer.
According to newspaper reports, Mathew's phone remained switched off after he last talked to his wife and brother on February 23 and they had no news about him thereafter. The worried family sent a petition to the Army Chief, through local MP Suresh Kodikunnil, seeking a probe into the incident. Then on Thursday, they were informed about his death.
Following the incident, the Army issued a press release stating that "guilt" may have driven Mathew to commit suicide. "Preliminary investigations have now revealed that the suicide may be the result of a series of events which were triggered by media personnel managing to video-graph the deceased by asking leading questions on his duty as buddy without his knowledge. It is very likely that the guilt factor of letting down his superiors or conveying false impression to an unknown individual led him to take the extreme step," it said.
The press release went to clarify that he was not facing any proceedings as "the identities of the army personnel in (video) clipping were hidden, and thereby not known to the Army. Hence, there is no question of any enquiry that could have been ordered against the deceased", it said. More intriguingly, the release said, "From February 25 onwards, this individual was declared absent without leave and apprehension roll was registered with the police as per existing order, till the body was recovered from an abandoned barrack."
This brings us to a very precarious situation: deciding who caused the death of the soldier. First, let me share with you that the title of today's Notebook is inspired from 1949 American play "Death of a Salesman", authored by Arthur Miller and not the 1986 Australian movie titled "Death of a Soldier". The play harped on the individual dreams in the capitalist society, dovetailing with the larger American dream. In search of their individual dream, each becomes a salesman of sorts.
Here we are faced with the situation of each newsperson trying to outdo the 'sales' of the other, not caring two figs for any ethics or sanctity, and in the absence of any regulator, any fear of punishment. Thus, institutions liked the armed forces, too, come on their radar to cook spicy tales like the one which was crafted for the website in the question.
The incident also shows the poor handling of the situation by the Army, especially its information wing. The issue of 'sahayaks' has been under the scanner for some time. Those handling information and media in the Army should have seen this coming. When the crisis actually took place, the Army found itself ill-equipped to handle it.
There are several other contentious issues which would come to the forefront with the increased interaction between the media and military services. The situation cannot be handled by trying to cocoon oneself. That cannot happen as the Army doesn't exist in wilderness but is girdled by civilian establishments, especially in the urban areas. With the rise of social media facilitated by ever improving technology, the skills of media awareness and media relations, too, have been sharpened.
In media, the services' establishments today has an adversary which is not trained or encouraged to practice laid down ethics.
Rather, there are no ethics existing as far as the television and the social media goes. They have to be seen (not as the much-hackneyed saying goes) as the fourth pillar of democracy but as powerful non-state players. Media, as Gandhi said, "promotes good and evil in equal measure."
Mahatma's challenge was to get media to promote the good more than the evil, and he largely succeeded at it. So should be the challenge of those "handling media relations" in the military or other government services. How Gandhi succeeded at it: another day, in another Notebook.
(Sidharth Mishra is President, Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice and Consulting Editor, Millennium Post. The views expressed are strictly personal.)