Why our armed forces need to talk to the media more often

Brig SK Chatterji (retd)
Brig SK Chatterji (retd)Jun 17, 2017 | 19:08

Why our armed forces need to talk to the media more often

Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat has been in the news, for reasons right or wrong, a little too often for some time now. It has also led to a few salvos being fired by politicians, primarily from the as such forlorn Opposition benches, and the odd academician. Three recent digs at the Army chief that dug too hard and deep are worth mulling over.


In the first one, an academic, Partha Chatterjee — in an article that went into the act of Major Leetul Gogoi tying up a shawl weaver alleged to be a stone pelter to his vehicle, when the officer was ordered to rescue polling staff in Kashmir Valley — compared the army chief with British-era Brigadier-General Dyer of Jallianwala Bagh infamy.

The comparison is really too convoluted to call for any discussion. At best, responsible media houses could introspect whether or not their publications are public blackboards on which anyone is permitted to write, or is it their business to also ensure that whatever is written has a logic of its own; inbuilt.

Some politicians had also commented sharply after a Commendation Card was given to Major Gogoi and the chief stood by his officer in front of the press.

The chief's comments on the Indian capability to meet a two-and-half-front war was the trigger that set in motion another set of responses from our politicians. Congress leader Sandeep Dixit, a well-established politician, compared the chief to a "Sadak kaa Goonda (a road-side Goon)" soon after the chief talked about our capabilities in a two-and-half-front threat scenario.


Fortunately, Dixit's party disassociated itself from his comments. Dixit, on his part, has displayed etiquette rather rare among our political players and has since withdrawn his remarks and apologised. However, Left leader Brinda Karat defended Dixit and went on to suggest that General Rawat was undermining the status of his post while making such controversial statements.


General Bipin Rawat is not the first to have talked about two-and-half-fronts. The issue has been discussed too often in the public domain to be of any relevance either from a security or diplomatic point of view. However, before the issues raised by the politicians are evaluated, it is important to take stock of a singular 21st-century imperative.

In today's world, media is omnipresent. Militaries read the writing on the wall and most modern armed forces have started factoring it in their doctrines and operational concepts. The First Gulf War was almost run live in American homes. India's armed forces have also incorporated media in operational plans as a force multiplier.

The Kargil War was covered in great detail by our media. The stark truth is: the military can no longer shun the media, irrespective of what our politicians perceive.


Our politicians need to understand that the army chief is either addressing or attending some or the other gathering every other day. He is definitely aware of how far he should stretch himself within the constraints of security needs and protocols. Since it is impossible to keep the journalists away from the chief, the hypersensitivity of our politicians to the chief interacting with the media can, perhaps, only be addressed by debarring the media from every such event. However, such a step could impose a heavy penalty.

Public support for military operations is critical to any war effort, especially so in democracies. It's unlikely that operations anywhere can carry on for a protracted period of time without public support and such support can only be generated by utilising media as freely as possible.

It's often said that the war in Vietnam was lost by the US more in the streets of New York with its citizens no longer keen to pursue the war effort, rather than the battlefields of the war-hit southeast Asian country. Should the Indian Army keep itself isolated from the media in J&K, even if they win the battle in Kashmir Valley, they will possibly lose the war in Delhi.

The surge of journalists to obtain a small bite of the chief is because the Indian citizen wants to hear the narrative from the army chief's mouth. The reporters corner him because they know that's what their readers/viewers want. It would be futile to imagine that the political leadership's statements would be adequate in open societies.

The support of the people for its military is hugely important for the morale of soldiers, too. If there isn't enough public support for a military campaign, the morale at the battlefront also dips. At whose behest is the soldier undertaking the risks and uncertainties of war? If the people back home don't want the war, the soldier also becomes reticent. It can lead to a substantial downslide in operational capabilities.

It's the business of the chief to build the soldier-citizen relationship, with media as the means for his outreach. It's also the task of the political leadership, both ruling and the Opposition, to facilitate the healthy growth of such a bonding. Going a step further, the military, when deployed for operations to combat an insurgency, needs a full-fledged media campaign to wean the populace away from the insurgents.


Perhaps, the larger part of the battle is won if a rift is created between the locals and the insurgents and the former develop faith in the capability of the forces deployed to protect them from harm.

The populace needs to live without the fear of terrorist reprisals. If they also develop faith in the government, perhaps not too many bullets will need to be fired. Soft power would have got us closer to victory. At every step of such an exercise, a continuous and interactive relationship with the media is mandatory.

If we reduce the employment of soft power, we will only increase the employment of hard power, much to the advantage of the terrorists. However, lest it be concluded that only the media and the military can subordinate an insurgency, it needs to be stated that the challenge also lies in delivering results.

Perceptions of the populace cannot be influenced to the point where they disassociate themselves from the terrorists and take an overt stance against them till such time as governance remains mired in deep-rooted corruption or political initiatives lack appeal.

The military leadership also requires the media to send a message to its rank and file and their families. There is no military social media platform comparable to Whatsapp, Facebook or such similar platforms.

If the army chief has to pass a message to its rank and file and their families that he will stand by his men, an essential ingredient for boosting morale, these platforms allow the widest reach. The current chief has done so in the past, displaying an understanding of the scope of media utilisation.

The other issue that needs a bit of debate is the insinuation that the army chief echoes the government's stance. It would be interesting to survey how army chiefs in other countries, especially democracies, relate with the government. Close to home, which is that political party we have that will, when in power, like to have an army chief who delivers anti-government statements every other day?

The chiefs of the three services have to be on the same page as the government. Yes, there are issues on which they may have different views and they must express it forcefully when required. If the government still feels otherwise, they may resign as a last resort, and thus bring into public domain issues that compromise the security of the nation. In the bargain, bring about public pressure and stall political expediency. Surely, citizens will honour such chiefs.

Field Marshal SHFJ Maneckshaw insisting on being given additional time to prepare his army before launching a battle for Bangladesh is a typical example. He talked tough and got Indira Gandhi to see the logic. But, surely and preferably, that's not an every morning recipe to be shared between the chief executive of the sate and his army chief.

Army chiefs often apprise the top political leadership of the gaps in defence preparedness. One such advice by an ex-chief, Gen VK Singh, had caused quite a furore. It's important that such advisors are truthful, professional and focussed. However, the leadership of our armed forces is definitely not expected to air its differences with the government in the public domain.

As media continues to grow, it will need to be utilised better by the armed forces. The citizen will also demand that those at the helm, entrusted with the onerous task of defending the nation, appear on media platforms personally — and more often.

In most such appearances, military commanders will have to provide a balanced view on issues the armed forces are faced with. Our politicians will need to desist from politicising the remarks of the military leadership and from creating uncalled-for controversies.

A substantial percentage of the political leadership needs a better understanding of national security, while some others are caught in a time warp as well as unable to comprehend the influence of such issues as technological progress, media's omnipresence and the utilisation of soft power to complement the hard power of the armed forces.

Last updated: June 17, 2017 | 19:08
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