Saturday, 27 June 2020

Unpublished article - June 

Information war as India’s default strategy
(abridged and updated)

The current day India-China faceoff in Ladakh that has exacted a toll of 20 Indian soldiers has put into spotlight the phenomenon of control of information by the state for its ends. This article examines this in an India-Pakistan context, highlighting that information operations directed by the state at the citizenry is now almost a default state strategy. The article focuses on implications for democratic control of the state, the agent, by the principal, the electorate, in a democracy. If the state manipulates the information domain in a manner as to impact enlightened understanding of citizens of their choices and options, including those that impact electoral verdicts, such manipulation in terms of its extant and extent needs examination.
Information war as default strategy
Though China is the new primary threat, power asymmetry compels placatory behaviour, such as settling for talks with an unattainable aim of reversion to a status quo ante in Ladakh. Compensating for and obscuring this appeasement, would entail greater vigour, if not aggression, in pursuit of strategies elsewhere.
Counter intuitively, in democratic India, information operations must be acknowledged. The famed troll army of the ruling party is well known. The trolls succeeded handsomely once before when the economic downturn that foreshadowed elections was papered over by recourse to the Pakistani bogey in the Pulwama-Balakot-Naushera episode, allowing Modi to sweep back into power. Therefore, for it to be a strategy in the repertoire of the regime is sensible from regime stability and perpetuation point of view. The diversionary drumbeat keeps attention away from significant national priorities, such as the lockdown brought-on migrant crisis and the tanking-in of the national security edifice in face of the Chinese challenge in Ladakh.
That it is a preferred strategy can be seen from the manner it has approached the two crises this year, COVID-19 and the one with China in Ladakh. Tactics in the COVID-19 diversionary strategy were the beating utensils, lighting lamps, showering petals on hospitals from helicopters, aerobatic displays with no spectators under lockdown conditions and band concerts in hospital silent zones. From the Ladakh crisis, an example is the alleged number of Chinese casualties, put at a tidy 43, by intelligence sources, to reassure Indians that India had the upper hand in the Galwan skirmish.
The pre-COVID-19 and pre-Galwan incident targets are ready on hand: Pakistan, Kashmir and India’s Muslims. The regime’s self-congratulatory list of ‘achievements’ inevitably comprises three points, indicating the collapsing of the three targets into one: the triple talaq bill; rendering Article 370 vacant; and surgical strikes. India’s favoured Kautilyan framework, has Pakistan as the external abettor of an internal – Muslim-centric - threat, considered as most dangerous.
There is a pre-existing decades-long narrative of the Indian Muslim minority as an internal security threat in Hindutva canonical texts. The Indian Muslim as target of the narrative acquired further impetus under conditions of the COVID-19 lockdown; the Tablighi Jamaat episode is evidence. Take for instance, an example is of an article on bio-warfare on the website of a military think tank under the headquarters reporting to the Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, the Center for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS). Seemingly innocuously timed with the Tablighi Jamaat episode, the article egregiously notes, “the terrorist with fidyan (sic) mind set on getting infected will try spreading it to the target groups by intermingling with them….He however, may take care not to infect the group / community whose support or sympathy he continues to seek in achieving his larger aim (Sharma 2020).” In another instance, the Kashmir police’s director general implausibly averred that Pakistan was sending in COVID-19 inflicted to spread the disease in Kashmir. Though not as explicitly, the corps commander in Srinagar also made a similar allegation.
In relation to Kashmir, information war is the much-in-evidence complement to security operations internally. Take for instance Ram Madhav’s view that, “the people of J&K decided to give the new status a chance. That is the reason why the region has been largely quiet in the last nine months. The detractors would attribute this calm to the excessive presence of security forces and arrests of leaders.” The heavy deployment of troops and COVID-19 are competing explanations why, “people are not on the streets pelting stones and shouting azadi.” That these do not find mention is dead give-away of the information war underpinnings of his observation, that papers over the intensified operations there accounting for some 100 militants this year.
Ram Madhav also attempts to portray normalcy, writing, “The most significant change that has been brought about by the Narendra Modi government was to stop looking at Kashmir from a Pakistani or a terrorist prism.” Evidence of information war obfuscation is in the next steps he projects: taking back Pakistan Occupied Kashmir for fulfilling the Akhand Bharat concept. Information war is to distract from the reality within, targeting concerned Indians as much as India’s external interlocutors distressed by human rights violations.
Information warfare targeting citizen-voters will likely continue to divert attention from the uphill economic battle ahead. Policy missteps, such as the return of migrant labour to home states, will need obscuring, as will the differentiation in the shouldering of the pain of recovery in favour of the corporates as against the masses. The ongoing scapegoating of Muslims, including calls for an economic boycott, can be expected to worsen. Marginalising the minority, a prerequisite for normalising a non-secular, ‘Hindu India’, requires intensification of information war. The ramifications have heightened in light of the set back to the regime in Ladakh, requiring greater diversionary operations, and therefore, the probability of an intensified focus on scapegoating an existing target, India’s Muslims including Kashmiris.
Implications for democracy
The reservation here is that what is good for the right wing is not necessarily good for the country. Even though in the constitutional scheme a democratically elected government can exercise its mandate of setting the national agenda, it cannot be taken as self-evident that it would do so in the national interest. Instead, political interests prevail in national policy and decision-making, in this case, the need for a majoritarian hold on polity and governance in perpetuity.
India’s Pakistan strategy has little to do with the arguments of Realists: that strategy determinants are balances of power and the constellation of forces and threats. Instead, the under theorized perspective, that national security strategy emerges from internal wellsprings in domestic politics, is pertinent in India’s case. Factors in the external environment, such as an inimical neighour, Pakistan, at best provide a rationale for strategies that are instead predominantly internally motivated and directed, with the dividend also being sought in the internal political domain.
In strategic circles, there is a marked absence of sensitivity to the primary internal security threat faced by India - Hindutva extremism - that has hollowed out national institutions. For instance, a security think tank lists only Jammu and Kashmir, North East and Left Wing Extremism, as internal security challenges. Since Hindutva extremists are not listed as a threat, and, instead, what Hindutva extremism takes as threats constitute the internal threat perception. The agenda of the security discourse is thus a doctored one.
Whereas for Pakistan, information war is largely external-foe centric, in the Indian security discourse, purveyed by a subverted media suitably embellished, the external and internal foes are increasingly being collapsed into one: Pakistan and India’s Muslims, including Kashmiris. This makes the Indian information war more dangerous than the one conducted by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. The targeting of Indian citizens, through a pliant media, with information war is not in the national interest but is in the interest of the right-wing political formations.
Finally, examples abound of instruments of state being appropriated as information war conduits. In instances akin to propaganda by deed are the manner the investigations and prosecution proceeds against Muslim activists in the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests and, in relation to leftists, in the Bhima Koregaon case. In the latter, the information war gambit, that some were in a conspiracy to kill the prime minister, is stark.
The stakes of falling to information operations of the state’s instruments are high for India. It can imperil liberal democracy, constitutionalism, secularism, federalism, unity in diversity and its freedom and equality. A check on the ruling formation’s agenda from within the government is unlikely. There is little incentive for a government with a parliamentary majority and an agenda for national transformation into a majoritarian state, to change course on ways and means that have yielded political dividend so far. Citizens as enlightened voters must reckon for themselves whether they consent to continue as targets of information war. If not, then they need to use their vote appropriately to push back.