Saturday, 30 April 2022

On the deletion of the iftar tweet

The recent episode of a ‘deleted tweet’ has set of warning bells in the military commentariat on the possible infusion into the military of majoritarian communalism. The defence Public Relations Officer (PRO) in Jammu – who is an army man - had put out a tweet on the army’s keeping secular traditions alive by its Rashtriya Rifles Force in Doda hosting an iftar function for locals. Taking umbrage, a Hindutva-allied media worthy, Suresh Chavhanke, called it evidence of the army being infected with the ‘disease’ (bimari) of secularism.

It’s likely that the deletion of the tweet was at the behest of the PRO’s hierarchy in the civilian Directorate of Public Relations (DPR) at the Ministry of Defence. Even so, there is a link of the PR with the information warfare branch of the operational headquarters, 16 Corps. That the army did not remonstrate with the PR hierarchy enough prior to the deletion and has since not insisted on its reinsertion – to some - indicates the portents, made worse by its seeming ambivalence on secularism.

The army had sufficient ammunition to push-back on directions received by the Jammu PRO. Not only was the event part of its public outreach, normal in counter insurgency environments where ‘winning hearts and minds’ is a doctrinal principle, but also because there is nothing to being ashamed of in subscribing to secularism. So long as secularism is in the preamble of the Constitution, which the military is sworn to defend, there is no shying away from being secular. Besides, a diverse army requires secularism as glue for cohesion, a prerequisite for operational effectiveness.

The army is familiar with all this. A look at the twitter handles of the two Corps involved in counter insurgency respectively on either side of the Pir Panjals indicate there has been the traditional outreach to locals by field formations during Ramzan. Interestingly, so is the case with the Srinagar DPR handle – the counterpart of the Jammu PRO – that also puts out effusive tweets on army-furthered inter-communal harmony.

On the contrary, the Jammu DPR twitter handle is remiss in studiously avoiding Muslim religious observances. The lone instance when it dwelt on a religious observance of Muslims now stands deleted. It has otherwise been faithfully reflecting the fraternization of the military with host communities, be it in Muslim or Hindu predominant areas. It also put out a tweet on the Baisakhi interaction of a Sikh military outfit and people in their area. It carries the military interfacing with the Muslim community on Yoga Day and other such commemorative days, as the Earth Day. It is clear from 16 Corps twitter handle that the military continues make inroads into the good books of the people in Muslim pockets including through participating with Muslims in observing Ramzan breaking of fast.

The question is what holds up the Jammu DPR from reflecting this activity as do the other twitter handles reporting to both the DPR and the army information warfare relevant, public information hierarchies?

It is apparent that he has his marching orders from prior to this episode and was wrapped on the knuckles for departing from them. It is also clear that it is not an autonomous, idiosyncratic action on the part of the PRO, but policy for his handle made outside of the DPR – since the DPR Srinagar representative suffers no such restricting on depicting Muslims in religious observance. Since the inner workings of the regime will only be clear on hindsight when on its departure memoirs and social media posts clarify aspects as this, only plausible theories can be guide for now.

Presuming the Jammu PRO’s twitter handle has a following in Jammu region, the answer lies in Jammu politics. The civilian minders of the PRO - outside of the DPR - are aware that there is an election on the cards, which may be as early as this autumn. The delimitation exercise drawing to a close now has given an advantage to Jammu, improving on its seat share in the legislative assembly for the Union Territory (UT). Some of the constituencies along the ethnic faultline between the two communities on the Pir Panjals have been reengineered to enable Hindu majorities, which could potentially make the difference to who gets the majority in the UT legislature. Winning the Jammu region would stand the ruling party at the Center, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), well to take over the reins in Srinagar, anointing a Hindu chief minister in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) for the first time.

No stone can be left unturned towards this end, an aim of the majoritarian party particularly interested in seeing its writ run in J&K. Indeed, the Article 370 related Constitutional exercise can be taken as forerunner. Therefore, the Jammu PRO has to be deployed in compliance with the policy the ruling party follows in rest of India in its election strategy: polarization. The handle cannot afford to go soft on Muslims, show bonhomie between Muslims and the military. Showing such fraternization does no good for polarization, in which the Muslims are instead to be seen as the threatening Other. A consolidation of the Hindu vote bank requires intercommunity bonds be rent asunder. Showing the Muslim inhabited areas relatively stable does little to build the narrative of threat necessary for polarization. If the secular army is seen as mixing with Muslims without reservations, it would create dissonance in the mind’s eye of voters targeted by the narrative.

Muslims in the areas of 16 Corps, south of the Pir Panjal and part of the mentioned borderline constituencies, hold a key to the election result. Such blanketing them out is one part of the strategy. Its other prongs will likely unfold over the summer in the run up to elections. One is already on the cards. A Muslim former police officer from the southern belt, who created the notorious police outfit, Special Task Force, is set to woo Dogri speaking Muslims. However, the BJP has learnt its lessons from the coup pulled off by the Gupkar Alliance when it denied the BJP a favourable outcome in the local body - the district development council - elections. Though the Alliance has had ups and downs, including the departure of one of its constituents, it is contemplating fighting the upcoming elections as one. Therefore, there are other tricks up the BJP sleeve, including declaring some Muslim majority constituencies only tenable by Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes candidates, thereby undercutting the Alliance, since the SC candidates are per force Hindu. Along with its perceived allies in the Valley, such as the People’s Alliance and the Apni Party and the majority BJP-supported independents, the BJP hopes to stride home confidently.

This is the context of the resounding silence of the DPR’s Jammu representative. That this is not a policy for DPR as such indicates that someone outside the defence ministry hierarchy calls the shots in Jammu. It is easy to include the minister in the prime minister’s office, Jammuite Dr. Jitendra Singh, in such a speculative list. He was part of the delimitation exercise as the BJP member. It is possible that the order to delete the tweet therefore has origin outside both hierarchies: the defence ministry and the military. This explains why it could not be contested with any vigour, centralization being a long standing characteristic of the regime.

The good part is that the ministry and the military are not entirely on different and separate pages, even though the ministry can be faulted for letting the military down in not pushing back against unreasonable directions from external quarters in what is essentially its ambit. The bad part is that elements of the defence sector can be selectively intruded into to carry out the behest of the ruling party. Since the defence sector is traditionally taken as bipartisan, this is unacceptable, though in the context of the times, not unexpected.

While this time round, only the DPR has been trampled on, tomorrow it could be worse with the military being asked to be compliant to some or other unreasonable diktat. Preventing this requires the commanding general in the northern theatre take a stand. He must unequivocally adopt a porcupine or hedgehog like posture against any manipulation of the military domain for parochial political purposes.

For now the military has gone quite a way in a tacit pushback, highlighting the participation of its Badami Bagh-based formation head, General DP Pandey, in the prayers and repast after the breaking of the fast by his fellow soldiers and locals. General DP Pandey’s photos are all over social media in a pose reminiscent of Hrithik Roshan’s portrayal of Akbar in Jodha Akbar. Whereas a routine annual event, that its observance has been avidly disseminated appears to be a deliberate blow to the right wing’s insinuation that the military suffers from the secularism virus. Instead, the military is wishing to unmistakably demonstrate that this is indeed the case and all for the good of national security.

This round has been won by the military. There are rounds still ahead in the bout. As they say, ‘Abhi toh picture baki hai dost.’ It must recharge between rounds on the fount of its traditional trinity: apolitical, secular, professional. It is equally clear from the contretemps that the army remains in the cross hairs of the right wing. The right wing has taken a 100 yeas to get this far. It is not averse to losing some rounds in their winning the bout, finally. The ultimate round will be when they mount a challenge to secularism, unhinging it from the basic structure of the Constitution. Through small victories in rounds such as this time round over the tweet, the military does well to deter such a challenge. Its standing up for such principles emboldens the political spectrum, relatively flattened by repeated electoral defeats, to get its act together. All is not lost if institutions continue to stand.

If this proves insufficient and when push comes to shove on the basic structure, the military must seek the prompt of the dharma in the circumstance. The received wisdom from the West has it that the military has no part in such circumstance, but events in Trumpian United States suggest that this part of the theory on civil-military relations stands superseded even in the Mecca of civil-military relations theorizing. The yet-to-be-named Chief of Defence Staff and his army counterpart, General Pande, assisted by newly appointed Vice Chief, General Raju, have their role cut out, though all this will remain unsaid in their mandate.