The omnipresence of media has a given a new dimension to every incident that the forces are involved in irrespective of the fact that the commander leading the troops at the site, could be a young officer. There is also a tendency to highlight every comment a senior military commander makes even in the academic environs of seminars. Under the circumstances what is the best approach in terms of media engagement? The author analyses two incidents and provides a few answers.
Does Anonymity Suit the Armed Forces?
“Strong teams win tough matches” is a proven maxim and it applies specially to the Armed Forces, where tightly knit teams battle all odds for the magical ‘unit izzat’. Some brave hearts even make the supreme sacrifice in the process.
Only a few get recognised but it is largely the unsung hero, who makes the victory possible. War memorials, all over the world eulogise the unknown warrior and their collective spirit. The same analogy applies to hybrid war and even peacetime challenges. Notwithstanding, the foregoing, some young officers and soldiers (also referred to as ‘strategic corporals’), get caught up in headlines due to circumstances mostly beyond their control. While they may grab some momentary fame but in the long run they end up being losers.
Recently, two company commanders, Major Ganguly and Major Aditya had got embroiled in the maelstrom of TRP hungry channels. A moot and obvious question lurks- Are they not entitled to their share of privacy, which is a universal right?
Whatever Major Ganguly did was unconventional and a sort of quick-fix ‘jugaad’ that probably many similarly placed junior leaders have indulged in and got away. It was most baffling that authorities, who after initial rush of publicity should have protected his privacy decided to thrust him into the spotlight again.
Why should he have been asked to hold a press conference? This raises the next question- should we over hype our heroes specially those involved in covert operations? The recent trend of parading them in literary festivals and other events is a double edged sword. It puts these officers in harms’ way; in some cases gives them a larger than life image: and a swollen head. Special Forces all over the world follow a code of secrecy, faceless warriors in shadows, reinforcing collectivism of teams.
The case about filing of FIR naming Maj Aditya, a young company commander, despite the fact that he was not even present at the scene of incident is another worrying example. Although, the Supreme court verdict adequately stalls such attempts; it only confirms the sinister design by certain elements to tarnish the officer’s reputation.
As per informed opinion, it was planned as a sort of retribution by locals after his recent success in eliminating dreaded terrorists. Could FIR in such cases be filed against a unit or appointment without personalising it?
Protection of soldiers is the bounden duty of the State as is being seen in Britain, where unscrupulous lawyers have brought up a mini tsunami of litigation in collusion with Iraqi nationals for compensation and criminal liability against soldiers deployed in Iraq eight years after their tour of duty. It forced Theresa May, British PM to reiterate, “it is a national obligation to protect armed forces from vexatious complaints”.
We need to draw appropriate lessons and set up proper legal organisations with qualified staff (on long tenures), supported by documentation to build up institutional memory. This is necessary to protect soldiers operating in disturbed areas as units and personnel move away on rotation, with passage of time records are not available and locals are often forced to gang up against them.
It is even more unfortunate that Maj Aditya’s father had to seek intervention of Supreme Court, reducing it to family issue. It is indeed worrying that a parent doesn’t trust the system to protect his son, who after commissioning is an officer first and a son later. Even if an intervention was required, it could have been done at the behest of Regimental Association. If officers follow the Chetwode motto of placing nation and soldiers before self, nation also has obvious reciprocal obligations.
While senior leaders have to be seen and heard especially by troops they command yet it has to be carefully calibrated. The holy grail of anonymity in academic exchanges is the famous set of Chatham House rules. These rules are now being increasingly flouted due to proliferation of social media, channel wars and headline hunting journalists.
Despite repeated appeals by seminar organisers, most journalists milk and twist every controversial statement and probability of such bytes hitting headlines is directly proportional to rank and appointment of speaker.
Our Army Chief was recently caught up in such a situation, when his statements made in good faith in seminars spawned a cascade of media reports and reactions. A similar effort was made to give a mischievous twist to statements by two Army Commanders in a seminar at a university.
It’s obvious that as you grow in rank, far more discretion is required to ensure anonymity! It appears that it’s curtains for the hallowed Chatham House conventions and it will probably be safe to assume that these rules now apply only in closed door discussions, where journalists are not present.
Notwithstanding the hazards, those at the helm should, while using utmost discretion, state their points with clarity be it a press conference or a seminar. Such activities as seminars will lose their relevance if we don’t have a balanced analysis presented by senior professional in the field.
At the junior levels, it would be better to project synergised teams rather than only an individual as a gladiator. Such projection needs to be handled by officers trained to engage with the media. Such an approach will also keep the individual anonymous and be more conducive to his safety.
Lt Gen KJ Singh (Retired)