With the increasing use of social media for instant communication, the armed services need to find a quick solution to this new challenge they face, says Nitin A Gokhale.
Fighting a well-trained, heavily-armed enemy is routine for the Indian Army in Kashmir. It, however, appears clueless in the face of an almost daily ambush by warriors of the social media.
While brave troops eliminated six suicide attackers in Uri on Friday, December 5, in less than six hours, the army leadership is fighting a losing battle of perception triggered by a couple of WhatsApp messages apparently sent by junior army officers.
The message, referring to the Uri attack and the heavy initial casualties suffered by the army reads: 'As per reports, soldiers on the sentry duty on the army camp did not fire upon the approaching terrorist vehicle due to caution imposed on them after the Anantnag incident.'
The message continues: 'When (the) Anantnag incident took place last month, the corps commander of the 15 Corps and army commander of the Northern Command had both called it a mistake... Should not the Army Cdr (commander) and Corps cdr (commander) consider resigning for this goof up.'
'Generals should stop playing to (the) gallery and mind their own business and allow soldiers to do their job.'
Perhaps aware of this perception fuelled by the WhatsApp message and the earlier criticism by veterans about the army admitting that its troops had made a mistake in killing two teenaged boys, the Northern Army Commander, Lieutenant General D S Hooda on Saturday wrote to all the divisional commanders in Jammu and Kashmir to adopt a new approach to fighting Pakistan's proxy war and make sure junior officers and men do not fall prey to 'messages that sway sentiments.'
'The print, electronic and social media are powerful tools which sway not only public opinion, but also the sentiments of our own officers and men,' General Hooda in his letter said.
'Let us not fall prey to them. The only way to counter this is by our own courage of conviction that what we are doing is professionally correct and honourable,' the general added.
'The army is deployed in J&K to do a job and we will do it to the best of our ability. Mistakes will happen. Let me assure you that I have a clear understanding of the difficulties under which we operate and that nobody will be unfairly harmed. This clear message must go out to all units.'
General Hooda's concern is not misplaced. For the past couple of years, the armed forces in general and the army in particular are faced with increasing intrusion of social media in its internal discourse.
Senior officers have often spoken about several instances of unverified, half-true and distorted reports quickly spreading across units and formations, thanks to the proliferation of Twitter and WhatsApp platforms.
Many examples abound:
- During the infamous beheading incident in Poonch in January 2013, Twitter messages generated a frenzy of extreme opinions.
- Portions of an unusual internal lecture by the commandant of a premier training institute were circulated on Whatsapp, embarrassing him.
- A critical comment -- later found to false -- about the members of the 7th Pay Commission 'gallivanting' and picnicking in Ladakh raced through Google groups and Facebook pages three-four months ago.
- In at least half a dozen cases in the Indian Air Force its personnel were found to have been 'trapped' by adversaries (read Pakistan's ISI) while chatting on Facebook.
Alarmed by these and many more such incidents, the military is searching for the right answers, but in absence of a coherent 'social media' policy, none of the services have been able to device an appropriate response so far.
One suggestion has been to open dedicated Facebook pages for formations and employ a Twitter handle for the topmost three-star operational commanders so that they can instantly -- and internally -- communicate the correct position to officers and men.
For instance, the Northern Army Commander can have a 'bulletin board' or a Twitter handle on the army's 'intranet' to clarify matters or issue a statement to put things in perspective.
In absence of such a mechanism, senior officers admit, they have to depend upon the media to convey their thoughts.
"The media does not always play ball or carry the statement in full even if we issue a clarification, further distorting the message," a top army officer confessed to me last month.
Even in the Uri incident, veterans point out that the initial casualties suffered by the army were part due to bad luck and part because of the suicidal nature of the attack and not due to any restraint imposed on troops.
"To link the deaths in Uri to the earlier stand taken by the army in the Anantnag/Badgam incident is stretching the reality," a veteran commander says.
But such is the nature of the social media beast that it has forced the army to fight a battle of perception both within the force and outside.
With increasing use of social media for instant communication, the services better find a quick solution to the challenge they face or else continue to remain on the back foot despite doing sterling work in combating the proxy war in Kashmir.
Image: Soldiers engage in gun battle with terrorists in Uri, December 5, 2014. Photograph: PTI photo