In the early hours of Saturday, at least five men launched a daring attack on an air force base in Punjab’s Pathankot district. They are believed to be members of the Jaish-e-Mohammad terror group, who slipped over the border from Pakistan. In the 15-hour battle that followed, five attackers and three Indian Air Force personnel were killed.
Given the strategic value of the target and the audacity of the plan, the attack seemed to recall the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai. However, unlike the 2008 attacks on the commercial capital, the intelligence inputs on this occasion were specific and the attack was thwarted to a large extent.
Another notable difference between Pathankot and Mumbai was the way in which the media reported the attacks. No crucial footage was aired that could have given anything away to handlers in another location, there was a delayed broadcast of combing operations and an attempt was made to stick to the facts. The media clearly seemed to have learned from its Mumbai misadventure.
However, while the media curbed its enthusiasm, the army and the security apparatus seem to have performed a vanishing act altogether.
Busy with combat operations through the day, they failed to brief the media on non-vital specifics of the operations – what had been done, who the perpetrators were and what was left to be achieved.
It is an army practice not to officially comment on an ongoing operation – but therein lies the problem.
Hunt for information
Reporting on the 26/11 attacks was distorted by a fog of rumours. This was because of the absence of official communication from the government and the security forces. In the postmortems that followed, media self-regulation and official briefings were suggested as standard protocol in such cases. While the media seemingly held up its end of the bargain during the Pathankot attack, the same cannot be said for the army.
While there was no information blackout, there was no official briefing during the encounter. Selective leaks to the media continued through the day, fuelling source-based journalism. News trickled through about the number of attackers, their path of entry, and details of their call logs linking them to them to Jaish-e-Mohammed.
While the army officially maintained a stoic silence on television and on Twitter, there was plenty of unconfirmed information coming out.
Unfortunately, such information has as much value as gossip picked up at a party and does little to bolster India’s case as a serious victim of Pakistani terror. Staying mum certainly isn’t going to win India the war of perception.
Communication during a terror attack is imperative to control the narrative that is going out to the world – certainly more so when BBC labels the Pakistani terrorists as “gunmen” and Pakistan issues innocent statements saying it will “eliminate terror” (but bypasses questions about the origin of the terror).
In such a situation, it would have been befitting for the army’s public relations officer to brief the world media regularly about the source of the infiltrators, their calls to the handlers in Pakistan and their nationality. Surely the army has the experience to decide just what information flows out, even as the operation to flush out the terrorists is live. India can follow protocol and hand over dossiers to Pakistan a few months down the line when the dust has settled – but hasn't proven to be very effective in the past. Once again, New Delhi has failed to capitalise on the moment.
Lack of clarity
Instead, India seemed content being self-congratulatory through the day. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh tried to maintain a balance, saying that while India “wanted friendship with Pakistan, terrorism will be given a befitting reply”. The minister didn’t quite elaborate about how a 15-hour gunbattle with terrorists was a befitting reply. The prime minister and the defence minister remained silent, even on Twitter.
Less than six hours into the gunbattle, with no information forthcoming from the government, so-called experts of all hues took centrestage on television, sharing their own versions of what could have happened and what should be done.
“Let us sort these terror groups, if Pakistan can’t” said one belligerent retired general, while some Pakistani experts claimed that there was no Jaish in Pakistan to begin with. While Indian soldiers were being killed in Pathankot, a political battle had broken out between the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress over the futility of Narendra Modi’s impromptu visit to Pakistan last week.
The army (and the political class) are doing the men in uniform a grave disservice by failing to fight the information battle.
Akash Banerjee is a former journalist who worked with Times Now and India Today Television. He now works as Associate Vice-President for the Times Group’s Radio Mirchi.