In the last year and a half, two images that went viral on the social media have come to represent the Indian army in Jammu and Kashmir. The first image was of a civilian tied to the front of a jeep and paraded through several villages as a warning to those who pelt stones on the security forces as a matter of habit.
Of course, several people from the retired military community decried this, but the army leadership held it up as an example of initiative and quick-thinking by the officer on the ground. To leave no one in doubt about what the army leadership thought of this action, the young officer was awarded the army chief’s commendation even before the army-ordered court of enquiry could be completed.
It’s another matter that last month the same officer was indicted on charges of fraternising with a local Kashmiri woman (against the rules) and shifted out from his unit pending a summary of evidence, following which he may even be court-martialled. Had this officer not succumbed to hubris and taken a Kashmiri girl into a Srinagar hotel, he could have easily lived off the glory of last year.
The second image is more recent. On September 14, a photograph of a dead militant being dragged by chains after an encounter surfaced on social media. This image was soon joined by another, in which a civilian was seen taking a selfie with the same body. It turned out that this body was of one of the three militants killed in the Reasi district of Jammu and Kashmir.
Apparently, it is a normal practice, an SOP in fact, to tie the body of the dead terrorist/militant with a rope or chain and turn it over to check for booby-traps. This is a military drill which is done quietly. Once the body is sanitised, only then it is laid out in the open, without any shackles and often covered with a white shroud. The guiding principal is that in death all humans are equal, and each body deserves the same respect. The Indian army has always abided by this.
However, in the Reasi incident, not only did it appear that the body was being dragged, it was being done in the full glare of the civilian population, which is how a local could take a selfie. No journalist, forget civilians, can reach an encounter site unless allowed by the security forces. Even when the media teams reach encounter sites to cover it live, they are always kept behind the barricade and in most cases, the message that they put out is determined by the army. That’s the price of access. And why not?
Given this, the only plausible explanation for the above incidents is that the army allowed these events to be photographed. Why would the army do something that brings it criticism and ruins its carefully nurtured image of being a people’s army? Well, once again the plausible explanation is that the wise men in the army have decided that this is the message it wants conveyed to the civilian population of Kashmir. That if you don’t fall in line, forget dignity, we will rob you of even basic humanity. The criticism from bleeding heart ‘human rights types’ would be silenced by the overwhelming support of its nationalist fan base.
In this respect, its calculations are correct. The unofficial spokesperson of the army on social media quickly silenced the critics by telling them that pulling a dead terrorist’s body with a rope is par for the course. The card-carrying nationalists went a step further, heaping abuses not only on the dead man’s body but also on the living critics of this photo-op.
I believe that the above incidents and the way they were projected on the social media have been deliberate, thought-through moves, because perception management is a serious business in the army. It is a deliberate effort involving painstaking planning and closely-monitored execution to convey a specific image among the people.
Sure enough, it is handled at a very senior level. According to a senior retired officer, “Perception management is akin to advertising. Like in advertising, we need to get a specific message across to the target audience.”
If the above incidents were freak cases, then the army would have gone in damage control mode, which it hasn’t. This begs a question. From ‘jee janab’ and being people’s army, why has the army taken this turn? Is it because the ground situation is no longer what it was during those years when the army taught its personnel to greet Kashmiris with a polite ‘As-salamu aleikum’?
If the ground situation is not the same now, then what has caused its deterioration to this extent that the army has to not only flex its muscles, but also show that it is flexing the muscles? What had made the ground situation so good then that the iron fist was concealed inside a velvet glove? Are these not valid questions that the army should be asking itself and the political leadership instead of making fatuous claims about improvement in the ground situation?
The truth is, in the last 20 years, the situation in Kashmir has never been as bad as it is today. Forget about talking to Pakistan, the government has no opening with the local people either. Mainstream politicians have been discredited; and the separatists branded as criminals. Reaching out to the people of Kashmir is an empty slogan, because you don’t talk or negotiate with people, you do so with the representatives of the people. And who represents the people of Kashmir today?
The brutal answer is, nobody has a clue.
Hence, the government has to deploy the army to maintain a semblance of calm. The age of winning the hearts and minds is over. That battle was always difficult to win. Now it has not only been lost but has been acknowledged to have been lost. People have lost the fear of the uniform. In fact, they now smell the fear in the uniform. That is why the iron fist must be bared. In Kashmir, in the hope that it will cow down the locals; and on social media, so that the nationalistic citizenry believe that the army retains the upper hand.
In the bargain, human lives are being wasted away, both in the uniform and outside.
Ghazala Wahab is the executive editor of Force magazine.