Thursday, 2 March 2017
ONE of General Bipin Rawat's early concerns into his tenure is social media. He had barely taken charge of the Army when the BSF trooper at a post under Army jurisdiction, along the Line of Control, sent out a social-media salvo on poor food being served. It set off posts by uniformed personnel, including Army soldiers, similarly exercised by myriad perceived impositions on them, such as “Sahayak” (batman or soldier-helper) duties.
The Army has since revisited its social media policy. Essentially, its call for restraint is intended to keep personnel from washing dirty linen in public. Tightening internal grievance redress, the Chief has opened a direct line of access to his staff in case lower levels fail to prove responsive. On the batman system, there are innovative proposals in the pipeline, at least for peace stations, substituting for soldiers undertaking domestic work in officer accommodation.
It is apparent that the Army has constructively seized opportunity to make the necessary, if overdue, changes. However, there is one aspect that is likely to have missed its eye. It is the extent of right-wing trope being exchanged on social media in military networks. It is now so commonplace as to be unremarkable. It is unexceptionable therefore in case the Army is oblivious to this. Precisely for this reason, the matter needs airing.
The trend of social media penetration of right-wing jargon, thinking, positions and propaganda line began at the same time as in other middle class social media groups, sometime prior to the last General Election in 2014. It is now in the open that the “Modi wave” was partially manufactured in troll factories by paid agents and committed volunteers.
The Army was no exception to this trend since its officer class is middle class. The earlier insulation of the Army in its cantonments and being tied down to its professional till has been eroded in the internet and mobile age. Consequently, the political winds that swept the dysfunctional UPA II government away found their way into the minds of the officer corps.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that liberal voices on social media networks were feeble and easily overwhelmed. Protest was silenced through cyber bullying, with the majority being silent spectators. Political posts were widely shared, most with a degree of endorsement. It is easy in retrospect to identify that the Army had its share of what have since come to be called bhakts. These self-anointed monitors outshouted any group managers who dared intervene on groups ranging from old-boy networks of military schools, course-mate groups to battalion groups.
While earlier, politics was a taboo subject in officers' messes, and perhaps continues to be so, reservation on espousing a political line failed to extend to regulating the social media behaviour of members of the armed forces. The enthusiasm for the conservative party's victory is explicable as it is in keeping with the universal political inclination of an officer corps; the attractions of the allusion to development; its anti-corruption packaging; and the BJP’s largely pro-security agenda.
The problem is that the ideological baggage that attends the politics of the BJP — Hindutva — was part of the package. One popular propaganda line that was seemingly heartily consumed — judging from its traffic on the social media group — was the conflation of the two “others” in the Hindutva worldview, the Indian Muslim with Pakistan.
This was easy to sell since a majority of the military has been through Kashmir and has seen the Pakistani hand at play. Exposed to the media attention to the terror attacks in the hinterland, that seldom went beyond the reporting on the blasts to the investigations that have attended these blasts, the theme of a strong government was easily sold. Lately, the letting off by courts of Muslims incarcerated for alleged complicity in the blasts suggests that India was well into the post-truth age before the term was coined.
Any collateral damage in terms of marginalisation of the minority and social relationships was found acceptable. The distasteful experience of this writer on social media chatter on Army groups led to his withdrawing from the three social media groups comprising his military cohort and former comrades. It was not so much on account of religious affiliation but constraints on expression of a liberal worldview encountered.
The military leadership needs alerting to this unseemly underside of social media. The military's social media policy is a work-in-progress. It needs updating with stipulations on the content that is exchanged. While self-regulation is best, it has proven insufficient. This has implications for the freedom of expression intrinsic to social media. A case can be made that those who do not wish to receive such posts can opt to leave. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it divides the officer corps, leaving the turf to the cultural nationalists in uniform, for whom patriotism is just not enough. The Army’s social media policy has further steps to take. It needs to be possessive of its social turf. Its cohesion and apolitical nature is at stake.