On the digital front

To restore stability in Kashmir, security forces must provide a counter-narrative to the psychological warfare on social media

Written by Syed Ata Hasnain | Published:April 22, 2017 12:00 am
(Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

In today’s environment of omnipresent social media, itchy fingers create controversy. Natural patience is stretched in the quest to be the first to like, comment and, especially, take exception to another view. Short visuals sans narratives are the most dangerous, leaving half-baked perceptions to be expressed. Nothing exemplifies this better than the recent video of a Kashmiri, Farooq Dar, seen tied to the front of an army vehicle, ostensibly as a human shield against stone-throwing during the recent election in the Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency. Many were horrified and voices not in support of the action could be heard, even from the uniformed community.

However, the revelation of the narrative surrounding the circumstances which led to the decision of a young company commander of 53 Rashtriya Rifles (RR) to resort to this action brought greater unity in the positive opinion outside Kashmir. Yet, this event does throw up the need for nimbleness in monitoring, assessing nuisance value and creating an immediate counter-narrative, in these days of psychological warfare through social media. On the ethical aspect of the decision of the company commander, opinion will continue to remain divided among those involved in or supporting the agitation on the streets of the Valley, common citizens in the rest of India and those who have worn the uniform and operated in conditions of hybrid war. An explanation of this event is needed for the public to understand why the government is backing the army on the defence of the officer, which has, unfortunately, once again spiralled into an “us versus them” affair in Kashmir’s sensitive political and security landscape.
Young army officers are trained and over time acquire an instinctive capability to respond to extraordinary contingencies. In the unpredictability of the battlefield, one can hardly hazard a guess about the circumstances surrounding the next situation. This is multiplied manifold in a hybrid conflict where the domains of threats are diverse and unfamiliar.

In soldiering, the entire notion of camaraderie and team spirit has a different meaning. Leaving behind the body of a fallen comrade is considered sacrilege; many a time, a military leader may risk losing more lives to retrieve the mortal remains of a teammate. The decision is entirely that of the officer-in-charge. It is seldom questioned.

Thi situation in this context was indeed challenging: An SOS message from a small ITBP and JK Police team at a polling booth facing a near-death situation with a bloodthirsty mob baying for their blood was responded to by Major Gogoi of 53 RR with a quick reaction team which was obstructed from reaching the site due to intense stone-throwing.

His decision was perhaps instinctive — grabbing hold of Farooq Dar, who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and trussing him to the vehicle while announcing threats to those obstructing the way. He got the policemen out safely, caused no injuries to anyone. He did bruise the egos of anti-national elements who were actually courting disaster if a more robust response from an army unit would have occurred. Such responses do well for a messaging effect and the efficiency image of the army. We are in the serious business of getting Kashmir back on the track to stability; anything which helps in damage control is sensible. That which contributes to more divisiveness plays into the adversary’s hands. Social media handling is, therefore, important.

Obviously, the situation in the Valley has deteriorated, even in the face of clichéd utterances of the need for outreach and engagement. These are terms which no one cares to define and are loosely bandied about. Who is to be engaged and reached out to is what the government is also at odds to decide. The Hurriyat is reportedly irrelevant. A diffused, invisible leadership is running the agitation. Its mentors in Pakistan appear to be exhorting it with a notion of reaching the proverbial “tipping point”.

There is a huge Pakistan-based propaganda effort which has continued through the winter months — the flash mobs at encounter sites have not come from nowhere. This has been found to be the best method of baiting the security forces into no-win situations, with young men throwing challenges to our troops. Pakistan’s efforts are based on its enhancing strategic confidence riding on the back of a few positives which have emerged in its foreign policy. It could treat the summer of 2017 as the make or break year. More contrived bait will be laid out to result in events which will cause more alienation.

This is the time to restore balance and stability. Among the main areas of focus for the security establishment must remain the elusive policy of counter-propaganda, which has to be the responsibility of a single agency. If Pakistan perceives that it can wrest the Valley or J&K away, with its own territory remaining unimpinged, it is a failure of our strategic messaging.

With the experience gained from the demonetisation exercise, it should not be difficult to trace a couple of thousand bank accounts in the Valley, which fuel the agitation. The control on social media — already underway as an emergent measure — will be resisted by rights groups.

The ideological narrative which is attempting to link the Valley with radical Islam has to be countered with the assistance of other Indian Muslims and a nationalist Muslim clergy. But the most important thing is to find consensus in the polity; politics and ideologies cannot be allowed to pull us apart. In the midst of all this, which is essentially a rebalancing of strategy, a pragmatic leadership would keep lines open to those who respect the Indian Constitution. It is well known that even as rabble rousers rule the streets, there is a silent majority which is still awaiting the proverbial engagement. Ensuring that we do not lose this segment in our act of rebalancing will be a major challenge.

The writer is former GOC of the  Srinagar-based 15 Corps and Fellow, Delhi Policy Group and Vivekananda International Foundation
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