The march to spectacle

Army faces a tough mob in front of it. But it has more to fear from the mob behind it, egging it on

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: May 29, 2017 10:39 am
army, indian army, army india, kashmir tensions, kashmir crisis, india news The threat emanates from an unlikely source. Whether we like it or not, we live in an age of spectacle, where the dominant political idiom is a seemingly unmediated conversation with the public. (Representational)

The relationship between the Indian Army and Indian democracy might be entering new and unchartered waters. The ethical and constitutional issues in the incident involving Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi using a human shield have been discussed well by two columns (‘Why Major Gogoi is wrong’, by Omar Abdullah, IE, May 24, here and ‘A blemished medal’, by Praveen Swami, IE, May 25 here). But there is a larger institutional transformation underway that does not bode well, either for democracy or the army. A professional army needs three things: Broad social legitimacy where the worth and excellence of the institution is recognised; a clear set of political goals and a legal framework within which it can operate; and the right degree of professional autonomy, where it can exercise judgment based on the highest professional standards. The “human shield” crisis has revealed that all three are under more threat than we recognised.

The threat emanates from an unlikely source. Whether we like it or not, we live in an age of spectacle, where the dominant political idiom is a seemingly unmediated conversation with the public. It used to be that you were nobody if you did not have money or power; now, that is sometimes not necessary, and often, it is not sufficient. Politics has become a frenzied contest over unmediated representation, with an impatience for all institutions and processes. But that has also inflected other institutions. Parts of many institutions, including the judiciary and bureaucracy, have also convinced themselves that merely doing their professional jobs will not get them social legitimacy or visibility. Something else, some splash, was required. In boring terminology, this is called communication. But underlying it is a shift in the norms of social legitimacy. You are nobody if you have not trended. This is disfiguring many institutions.

The army is becoming a double victim of this. There is no doubt about the army’s social legitimacy. It has also had to do our dirty work for us. But there is a growing sense in the army that it was being socially marginalised. In quotidian terms, everything from the OROP, to shifting norms of social acclaim, convinced many in the army that it was being given short shrift. Second, there always have been, and should be, people who ask questions of the army. And a professional army will answer them professionally. If it is institutionally strong, it can remind people that it even court-martials officers for wrongful killing, as it did after the Machil incident.

But those who really question the army are always politically insignificant. Yet, the media has managed to create the impression that the biggest challenge the Indian Army faces is assorted human rights activists out of control. This is patent nonsense. But the society of spectacle has exaggerated the suspicion under which the army operates; it has created imaginary internal enemies for the Indian Army.

The widespread support for Major Gogoi, both inside and outside the army, has little to do with operational considerations or the wisdom of the action. Instead, the issue has become a symbol of standing up for the army. In this sense, the army is being drawn into a vortex where a quiet, dignified and assumed acknowledgment of its professionalism will no longer be enough. It will constantly have to be granted its place in a society of spectacle. Chasing media phantoms disfigured other institutions. There is a danger this rot can afflict the army as well. It may begin to measure its social legitimacy in a different way.

Two other things are drawing the army into this vortex. The first is the giving in to the need for cutting short processes. Just as a practical matter, the controversy was dying down; there was a process on to assess the incident. The tearing hurry in which the commendation to Major Gogoi was issued undermines the credibility of its processes. It created the impression that the army was not thinking professionally. It was thinking more about teaching its supposed media critics a lesson.

But most importantly, war is becoming a spectacle as well. From Uri to the recent cross-border firings to destroy Pakistani bunker posts, the circulation of videos prompts the question: Who are you trying to convince? How effective you are will be judged by whether you achieve your goals of a lasting, secure peace. But this TV war will be a disaster for the army for three reasons. It will make achieving objectives more difficult. It is not that operations or cross-border firing were not done before. But we had the good sense to understand that giving the adversary the option of a quiet way out is also part of sensible strategy. After a routine operation, the adversary may or may not escalate; after a publicised operation, he will have only one option: To escalate.

TV wars give a much distorted picture of war. The Americans landed in the quagmires they did in Iraq because generations of political elites, post-Vietnam, began to internalise the fantasy that war was like a video game. It created a set of false expectations of what the means at the disposal of the army could achieve. Does the army really want the public to be asking in a frenzied way, “Under X government, you fired at bunkers, why are you not firing now?” “If Major Gogoi’s tactic was really so well-judged, and within the law, why does not the army use it more?” It is shocking how much the latter question is being asked. The army’s professional autonomy cannot be maintained if there is an expectation that it will constantly produce war videos.

The spectacle of those operations will distort the political goals we set for the army. It may create operational pressures of the kind it will find it hard to withstand. Finally, the army will always run up against the problem of incompatible constituencies. The entire effort behind the Major Gogoi operation seems to have been premised upon the idea that it is India that needs to be shown that the army can stand up for its own. But surely, it is in the army’s interest to win over Kashmiris, a constituency this one act has alienated even more.

Civil-military relations are not just about the government and the army. They are fundamentally mediated through the public. The form of that mediation has a huge impact on the army. The current form of mediation is placing spectacle at front and centre. The army is facing a tough mob in front of it; but it has even more to fear in the long run from the mob behind it, egging it on.


The writer is president, CPR Delhi and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’  

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  1. I
    Jun 1, 2017 at 12:58 am
    Muslims of India Look how your compatriots belittle you and your religion. It's time for you and all muslims of India to fight a civil war and seek independence from the brutal oppressive Hindu Rashtra also known as India. Muslims of India unite lets rebel against this Hindu country and send all the Hindus to drown in Indian ocean
    1. S
      May 30, 2017 at 2:59 pm
      @ ATAL , you joker , you want Congress party to power, they ruined the country for the last 60 years, so many corruption, all congress politician are so corrupted, what ever reported in the media is only tip of the Ice berg. Have you ever heared the BJP involved in corruption for the last three years, You are a BJP baiter, thats why you are closing your eyes and baiting on BJP's any action. Iam not a BJP men either, but I have learnt to distinguish between truth and deceit, You see the truth through the prism of your conscious, how India is marching under the leadership of Shri Modi Ji, There is no good leader in Congress, Why? you dont find any good leader in the age old party and you pledged the party to Foreign lady who try to control the national politics, can any Indian become PM of other sovereign country even if he/she born in that nation and a natural citizenship, leave alone if married and settle like Sojia JI, spineless people like you only support corrupted pary
      1. S
        May 30, 2017 at 1:28 pm
        This is a result of "Reservations-Extortion" creep since 1945. Nothing can escape the cancer of politics in India. Judiciary or Army. In the first place, the Army should never operate within its own borders. This is Police Work. But the Police? Like India's Judges, Bureaucracy and Politicians, they are a by word for extortion and incompetence. India's republic is more closely wedded to the idea of a free lunch through extortion or reservations for preferred castes, tribes, religions and the nouveau kleptocracy than any kind of governance. This was what the founding fathers and their Cons ution decreed,
        1. S
          May 30, 2017 at 1:26 pm
          In India, "secular" has come to mean "pro minority", particularly "pro Moslem". India's enemy in Kashmir is stan's Ghazwa e Hind. There are no Kashmiris in Kashmir after they were ethnically cleansed out by the Moslems. To expect the Indian Army to fight Islam without fighting Islam is an act of legerdemain that only a member of the extended family that loots together to stay together can be capable of. Make no mistake, Kashmir is under alien occupation. There are no Kashmiris in Kashmir after 1990. What exists is an infestation that rightly belongs in one of the two unsafe zones that were created out of India in 1947 by the treacherous British stooges who ruled India at that time. Islam is not going to give up Ghazwa- e- Hind. This is WAR.
          1. J
            Johari Hari
            May 30, 2017 at 8:10 am
            So called journo, human right activist and people like minded you i.e. Praveen swami, Rana ayyub, nikhil wagle, b dutt etc etc. Are so griddy 4 money that u can ur mother also. Thanks 2 social media now there is no take 4 pres utes. 1 q to writer of this article what should be done in that condition where hounarable major gogai, if he open fire than u peaple bark genocide... And moreover army man police persons also have human right and live with dignity not only terrorists and stone peltor and pres utes.
            1. I
              Indian Abroadf
              May 30, 2017 at 1:18 am
              I question the relevance of this kind pf thought process and personalities like Pratap Bhanu Mehta. They are demoralizing Indian Army and putting doubt in mind of people about the sincerity and effectiveness of new policy of Modi govt and Army. Pseudo-secular minority appeasing policy has completely failed. If India wants a different outcome it has to adopt a different policy. Modi govt and Indian Army are doing exactly the same.
              1. B
                Babu Gupta
                May 30, 2017 at 1:16 am
                Stones and eggs will never bother brave Indian military. Stupid, dishonest, almost anti national writers like you bothers army. But people of India awake now and have come to realize how India has suffered under skewed secularism (where every thing anti Hindu became secular) and every thing criticizing Indian establishments became a sign of justified liberal intellectualism. Shame on the jounalists questioning, criticizing and doubting Indian military.
                1. M
                  May 30, 2017 at 1:02 am
                  As a tax payer I fund the army in kashmir. I am happy that award is given to those who save lives of the youths, especially those who are misled by separatists to stone pelting. Gen Gogoi saves youths so deserves to be awarded. Why should he be pulled for questioning for saving the lives of youths. The media is not helping here to guide suicide bombers or stone pelter youths from stan or india respectively. The media doesn't want to help the innocent youths who are being threatended to join the stone pelting mobs. The media should encourage the parents of the youths to express their anger at separatists who burn schools and threaten their children, but the media pays no heed to them.
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