Thursday, 7 April 2022

Chinar Corps under the scanner

Does its screening of The Kashmir Files matter?

As a tweeple, I have had a marginal existence in the cyber-world. My tweets do not normally score more than in upper double digits of hits. When inflated by a friendly boost from some or other cyber-world heavyweight, a few manage a four digits worth of hits. This piece is about one tweet that managed to get to an unfamiliar level of mid-four digits.

The tweet in question expressed my disappointment that the army thought it kosher to screen The Kashmir Files in the Chinar Auditorium at the Badami Bagh cantonment, Srinagar.

Reportedly, the movie was routinely screened for a week for movie goers in cantonments. On the surface, it is unremarkable that a movie that’s set post-Covid box-office records to have a run at the theater as its weekly fixture. Military families in remote stations must partake of national life, consuming cultural artifacts alongside the rest of the country being one way of sharing the nation’s idiom. It would be churlish to deny them their small delights – watching current hits - in a challenging environment. Besides it would be patronizing to believe that they don’t have a mind of their own and can be conditioned by a film’s well known drift. Some with multiple tenures in the Valley know enough to absorb only the relevant from the infinite open-domain resources of internet.

However, from the replies the tweet elicited, there was also a ‘screening’ – perhaps multiple - for select Kashmiris, including Kashmiri Pandits. This lends a pause.

A tweet in reply had it that ‘an endeavour was made to provide ppl (people) from all stratas (sic) of society to view a feature film which they otherwise had no means to watch!” Another reported that, “In fact, cause I’m a writer, I was politely requested to write an honest review.” An editor of Outlook, who attended a screening as part of his wider tour of the Valley, reported that the intent was to spread a ‘nationalistic message’. Since the phrase is in quotes, it may have been his uniformed minder’s words, with the minder either being from the publicity or Information Warfare Cell of the headquarters, Chinar Corps. As evidence of some success in information warfare activity, a couple of response tweets carried messaging from Kashmiris inviting their brethren Kashmiri Pandits back to the Valley, though unverifiable if this was in the aftermath of watching the film.

My original reaction to the Outlook piece informing of this bit of conveying of ‘nationalistic message’ by the Army to Kashmiris was prompted by knowledge that the film has turned out a political hot-potato. Though as admitted in an earlier post I have not watched it and have no intention of doing so, my impression of the movie is from the several critical commentaries I have read of it.

So what makes the Chinar Corps think there is a ‘nationalistic message’ in the movie that needs passing on to Kashmiris? The answer is easy: the prime minister and assorted political bigwigs have declaimed on the movie’s worth. Worse would be if the Chinar Corps itself thinks the same. Since, it’s a political movie – with the director admitting to an ‘agenda’ – the Chinar Corps’s action bears scrutiny.

The yardstick for forming a view on this has been received by the Indian Army at inception. The two extracts below help the reader make up her mind. It is interesting that there are no equally compelling writings or speeches by Indians that I can recall as easily which I could add here or use instead. Mahatma Gandhi’s words to visiting military officers, including General Thimayya, when queried on what should be their attitude to the freedom movement, comes close.

Clearly, the Indian Army has so readily taken on an apolitical character that no one post Independence thought it suitable to reiterate its necessity. Is it that this acceptance and internalization of the apolitical characteristic of militaries has made Indian Army complacent on this score that it does not reflect any more on what apolitical means in changing times? Alternatively, to refer to the apolitical identity would be to tacitly admit it is under stress, so no one wishes to rock the boat?

The two extracts below are from addresses to gentlemen cadets at Indian Military Academy, where the induction took place of intake fresh from a civilian, political, world. The colonialists wanted to alert those entering the Army to drop that part of their identity as they got into the uniform. The first is from Sir Philip Chetwode, who inaugurated the Academy on 10 December 1932. He said:

“I venture to offer you two pieces of advice. Firstly, the Indian young man of education seems very attracted by politics. May I urge you to remember that politics do not, and cannot, find any place in Army life. An Army can have no politics. It is the paid servant of the people, and is at the disposal of the Government of the day, whatever may be the political complexion of that Government. Once there is any suspicion that an Army, or any part of it, is biased politically, from that moment the Army has lost the hill, confidence of the nation who pays for it. It is no longer impartial, and that way lies chaos and civil war.”

The government at the time was a colonial one that needed the army on its side, when the freedom movement was getting into stride, so the emphasis on being apolitical is well taken. On Independence, in his address, General Roy Bucher, the British Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, retained till General Cariappa then engaged in chasing Pakistani raiders out of Kashmir was elevated to the highest rank, in his address in May 1948 said along similar lines:

“What then are hallmarks of a good officer – the outward and the visible signs? Firstly, I would put Devotion to the Service. The interest of the Army must come first in our thoughts and in your actions all the time. Remember that the Army and indeed all the Services, are the servants of the Government in power at the time and the political complexion of a particular Government makes not the slightest difference to the fact. As soldier you are not concerned with politics. There is nothing wrong in your having political opinions and in your expressing them with moderation in private conversation but that is a very different matter to expressing political opinions in public or allowing such opinion to influence your actions in any way. No army which concerns itself with politics is ever of any value. Its discipline is poor, its morale is rotten and its reliability and efficiency is bound to be of the lowest order. You have only to look at certain foreign armies which are constant mixed up in politics to realize the truth of what I say. It follows, therefore, that the Army has never the slightest right to question the policy of the Government. Implicit obedience to the orders issued by the Government is essential and only in this manner with the interests of the country be fully served. And so you see that devotion to the Service implies devotion to the Country as well.”

So does the Chinar Corps get away? It needs proving that theirs’ is not an apolitical act, a rather subjective proposition about which all manner of opinion can be mistaken as sound.

Chinar Corps is not on an island. It is well aware that there is a political cultural churn towards majoritarianism, with the ruling party as the flag-bearer. This has not superseded the erstwhile liberal-secular democratic system in which citizenship is of equals, as yet. The ruling dispensation for its part has exerted every sinew to shift the goal posts. The Kashmir Files is a right wing artifact to advance the political agenda and ideology of the right wing. No wonder it found appreciation at the highest level.

Importantly, Chinar Corps, being the lead in counter insurgency in the Valley and conversant with the period the movie covers, best knows the departures from the reality made in the movie. That the movie has uniformly shown all Kashmiri Muslims as repulsive should alert it to the suitability or otherwise for it to sponsor its viewing in Kashmir.

Indeed, it is arguable there is no need for the movie to have figured in the routine bill of fare for entertainment of troops and families at that military station housing the headquarters of the nation’s lead counter insurgency security force dealing with the country’s most significant national security problem. By all means off-duty troops can access any entertainment option of their choice, but considering that they are at the spear end of this national endeavour at ending the insurgency, their attitudes are significant. Inappropriate conditioning and exposures are avoidable.

If injected with hate – as the movie has reportedly done viewers in rest of India – how it impacts their dealing with the center of gravity of insurgency – the people – can reasonably be negatively conjectured. This makes professionalism of Chinar Corps suspect, since it reveals an absence of client orientation: the principal clients being the hapless Kashmiris on whose body politic and bodies, insurgency and its counter is playing out.

That military members are entitled to political opinions is their individual right. They don’t cease being citizens, only are citizens with added responsibility. However, none can use the vantage of an appointment to further a political position. In this case, Chinar Corps handle has the distinction of putting out the lone tweet wishing the prime minister on his birthday in an obsequious, unmilitary way. This is compounded by Chinar Corps’ act under scrutiny here, which if unremarked sets up a trend.

It can be argued that routine ‘A’ and Information Warfare matters don’t distract the commanding general, who takes a ‘wide-angled view’ instead – as was the leadership model favoured by General Arjun Ray for counter insurgent leadership at the operational level in his Kashmir Diary. A wide-angled view implies a political sensitivity and knowledge there-from of boundaries. Such sensitivity is not self-evident from this case. Apprehension of the reverse being the case cannot but surface, in that, the leadership may not be averse to propagating the content the movie projects.

A critique of the position taken here can well be that by making this an ‘issue’ politicization of a triviality is to the detriment of the force. It is itself politicization, the factor the article riles against. As – hopefully – demonstrated above, viewing of the movie either by Kashmiris or by counter insurgents does nothing to advance counter insurgency aims. In fact, it sets the clock back, not by harking back but by upending the reality in doing so. Neither is truth nor history trivial.

Trivialising both is instead to the detriment of the force. By all means, manipulating the truth is part of statecraft and the ‘internal’ – military members - are a legitimate target of information operations. They can be exposed to a sanitized version of the reality and preserved from counter narratives. However, in this case, there is no call for them to be exposed to demonization of Kashmiris, considering their role. The enemy is not the people. Chinar Corps’ action does not lend confidence that was merely holding up a mirror to Kashmiris, since the image is a distorted one, contorted by the political leanings of its creator. Are we to believe Chinar Corps was persuaded by the movie?

The Chinar Corps action provide yet another peg to make the wider point that though the military may not be interested in politics, but politics - as it is turning out - is interested in the military. Politics provides the context to a military’s role and its showing on its mandate. Changes in political culture potentially have knock-on changes in strategic culture and organizational culture. Therefore, the military will not be spared the political turn to India, just as no Constitutional institution has.

As a self-regarding institution with a national – as against a partisan and parochial – focus, it must maintain its apolitical character. If its self-regulation is found wanting in this, it is liable to be alerted by the attentive public, civil society and contending political forces. These have a right – if not a duty – to intercede for the sake of the Republic. Believing that their doing so is politicization, as against what they are alerting against, is instead to be political. At any rate the military cannot be a participant in the tumult – such as in this case by providing a forum for the movie – lest the military - a political novice - end up being (ab)(mis)used by a side or other.

NoteIt is for another post whether and to what extent being apolitical in a circumstance of political change favours the change and is therefore to be political.