Millennium Post

The (un)social media

The ongoing ‘online battle’ in Kashmir Valley is subject to abuse.

Trust is the single most significant casualty in Kashmir. Trust-deficit amongst the various stakeholders is manifesting in the ongoing battle of the 'online' domain. Social media is equally, an instrument of empowerment, as it is, of abuse. The concept of 'sousveillance' which entails the recording and the subsequent public mainstreaming of an activity, by a participant (or witness) to an activity, is the latest weapon in Kashmir to ensnare the opponent, amongst the conflicting parties. The recent Arab Spring saw an invaluable role of social media in shaping the contentious street debates that facilitated the "mobilisation, empowerment, shaping opinions, and influencing change." The demonstrated ability of the social media to instigate, inflame or activate public opinion is beyond doubt.

Moral outrage is the standard currency of exchange, when a video surfaces showing armed CRPF jawans maintaining utmost restraint in the face of constant heckling and extreme provocation by Kashmiri youths, similarly, videos of a Kashmiri stone-pelter tied to an army jeep as a 'human shield', against further mob frenzy, is an exact opposite optic of the ground situation. Both incidents are realities of the ground situation that get contextualised differently depending on whose side of the argument, one is. However, in a conflict zone that has already borne an internet sensation in Burhan Wani, the expanded use and abuse of social media are inevitable.

The accompanying 'morality play' is the reflexive and reductive consequence of these situational virals that find themselves on the public platforms like WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, and other means of 'forwards' that are then, given a more expanded context. Immediately, the binary of 'us versus them' plays out from Kanyakumari to even Peshawar, with justifications of individual perspectives that readily invoke rationales of uber-patriotism, secessionism to hopelessness.

But, terrorism in a 'moral state' like India is a complex business that necessitates almost utopian demands on the security forces in the face of deathly danger, whilst, suggesting a certain 'accommodation' and 'understanding' of the provocative and deadly acts by the 'misguided youth.' That these 'misguided youth' have no Geneva Convention or moral grandstanding to honour, invariably leads to a societal angst and ire that divides opinions on the security forces in the country. This 'online battle' in the Valley is an unequal one with the scales tilted strongly in favour of the militants versus the security forces, as the soldiers have an operational code-of-conduct, national/international policies and considerations, and even certain institutional instincts that invariably ties-back one hand of the soldier in the Valley. Adding to the pent up pressure on the sword-arm of the executive i.e. Armed Forces, is the mandated 'silence' following any act, operation or situation that leaves the institution virtually voiceless in the face of a public barrage of questions and perceptions. The political executive, especially in the Kashmir Valley is the last to stand-up for any operational consideration of the security forces – this, unfortunately, leaves the field to the equally regressive hyper-nationalists to defend the forces on the social media platforms, with often misplaced and political logics, that wrongfully posture as the perspective of the security forces.

Reality is that the Chief of the Indian Army Staff has actively engaged in discussions with the Governor, Chief Minister of J&K, NSA, besides his own top brass to take stock of the situation – a prudent assurance to take timely action against the personnel is delicately nuanced with an unmistakable steel in his words when he echoes the denominator principle, "The local youth should understand the security forces are showing restraint, which should not be misconstrued as weakness. Instead, the security forces are showing patience and are giving them an opportunity to shun violence". To say any less or to the contrary would have equated the Armed Forces to the 'misguided youth,' on human rights violations – this is consistent and unequivocal stand the Indian soldier pays to uphold the tenets of a 'moral state.'

While the Indian Army 'saves' the lives of the trapped paramilitary personnel in the 'human shield' incident, they face the parallel ignominy of a FIR registered against the involved unit. The Army has rightfully clarified that it does not approve of the tactic deployed in the incident. It is aware of the selective umbrage expressed by the valley politicians, every time a soldier errs. If anything, the Army is paying the price for political mismanagement that goes back many decades and accounts for political parties of all denominations, without exception. Political engagement and rapprochement is clearly missing from the Valley – Kashmir is not a 'military' creation, and neither does it have a 'military' solution, solely.

It is important to the state that the Indian Armed Forces (unlike Pakistan) do not have an independent 'will' of their own other than that of the Government. The institution has a formal system of redressal and penalty whenever an act of omission or commission occurs. Contrary to the voices of jingoism, the Armed Forces do not take a political or personal stand on any issue. It is a professional body that is designed for kinetic operations, subject to the laid down conditions. In Kashmir, the Armed Forces have an extremely disadvantageous position of partaking operations for which they are not fundamentally designed (where the administration, politicians and the police forces have already thrown in the towel), where the local politicians make ingenious commentary on the forces and the locals make the Indian soldier the leitmotif of their frustrations. Yet, the model conduct that warrants certain behavioural action like officers leading from the front explains why, unlike any other Armed Forces (including US, Russia, Israel, or UK) the officer-to-soldier fatality ratio is the highest for the Indian Army.

But, errors happen, and they are not condoned by the institution, even if contextually there could be a justification (like in the 'human shield' case). It is this unwavering and almost inhuman existence by the Indian soldier that needs recognition. 'Online battles' are a new reality that will only increase, but it is not just the stone-pelter who has only failed his Indian soldier – it is the local politician, the administrator, and the state police officials that have allowed the situation to deteriorate to such an extent, that the last man standing in the 'Olive Green' is only expected to hold-up to the exacting standards, when everything else around him has failed. While this is how it should be, neither the 'state' nor the 'misguided youth' (or their benefactors on both sides of LOC) can claim a record, remotely close to that of the Indian soldier, despite wrongs like 'human shield', that get more than their share of screen and mind space.

(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retired) is Former Lt Governor of Andaman& Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. The views expressed are strictly personal.)
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