India is caught in a national security storm. Kashmir is burning – not just with pitched battles between security forces and stone-pelting youth but also with an image crisis for the government. The state is seen as taking draconian measures by imposing physical and cyber curfews that punish all for the fault of a few.
In the hinterland of East and Central India, the Naxalites have opened a second front against Indian security forces and are dealing a bigger blow than many cross-border operations. India lost half as many men in the Maoist attack on a Central Reserve Police Force troop in Sukma,Chhatisgarh, which killed at least 25 personnel, as we did during the capture of Tololing or Tiger Hill, two pivotal operations during the 1999 Kargil conflict. And that was against seasoned Pakistani troops – not home-grown insurgency.
China is sabre-rattling in Arunachal Pradesh and encircling India from the north by linking up with Pakistan and simultaneously dominating the southern seas with a force much larger than what the Indian Navy or even the defence ministry can hope to muster in the near future. India’s much-vaunted defence procurement and internal security overhaul is far from operational readiness. The recent resurgence of Naxalite violence could have had tacit or even overt support from India’s communist adversary. Add to this the increasing vigilantism that has the potential to escalate into communal riots that, at the very least, will take up the resources and mind-share of the security forces and at worst, could spiral out of control.
Despite the blusterous reassurances of affected leaders, the morale of security forces is under stress. The Armed Forces are piqued about inequities in finance and status. Whether such emotions are just is not a moot point. What is key is that security forces are disheartened by the fact that their ground realities, decisions and improvisations are being questioned by armchair experts, who more often than not, have not done a day’s soldiering.
They wonder about the sincerity of announcing ex-gratia payments of up to Rs 50 lakh for families of the CRPF men killed in the Sukma attack. They are bewildered that their government would be more forthcoming in rewarding their deaths than in resourcing and training them to stay alive. In certain states, the posts of Director Generals of Police for training are supposed to be parking slots for out-of-favour officers and the populace of those segments pay the price.
The building blocks of a comprehensive national security strategy are morale, resources, leadership, united sense of purpose and above all, strategic communication. India cannot allow the latter to be narrowly defined or hijacked by a few.
The unique nature of psychological operations is that they are asymmetric. A small team of well-equipped and well-trained storytelling talent can mount a devastating campaign against a much larger adversary. This is what India’s adversaries, indigenous as well as external, are doing. It is pity that a nation that weaves stories for Hollywood is floundering under the psychological operations against it.
Any military man worth his salt will testify that battles are not won by larger armies, more firepower or superior weaponry. If that was the magic formula – Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and countless other battlefronts would have had different endings. Instead, battles are won by the unification of the entire state, including all sections of the masses, politicians, media, armed forces, bureaucracy and above all, regional interests, aligned in exactly the same direction. That is every nation’s core strength – and the lack thereof its Achilles heel.
It is turning out to be India’s Waterloo that narrow narratives, which often misrepresent the picture, are influencing majority views. The state is throwing kinetic power against psychological operations, as they are doing in Kashmir and to fight insurgency. That is akin to shooting arrows at ghosts. It simply will not work.
In the internet age, if the communication skills of one side are superior to that of the other, all of the people can indeed be fooled most of the time. And that is the handicap India must fix first.
India needs to take the battle against its adversaries to the domain in which it is being attacked – strategic communication. India should focus on exposing the flawed parts of the narratives about Kashmir and Naxalism.
For a nation that has a thousand TV channels and is the highest content generator of all social media platforms, why is it failing to expose the truth about the lack of development and oppression in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir or Baluchistan? Why is it not highlighting the atrocities against minorities and corruption of leaders in Pakistan and China?
Why doesn’t it expose the luxurious lifestyle of the leaders of separatist movements and their children, who advocate a jihadi death for others’ children? Why doesn’t India give prominence to the stories of families who have lost their dear ones to the rapacious greed of terrorism?
India needs to tell the stories of Naxalism too. The state – regardless of who is in power – claims that this is a seditious insurgency. The Left indicts it as a failure of the state. Countless TV hours, resources, decades and innocent lives are lost with both sides digging to their narrative without resolution. After every Sukma, there are strident calls for unleashing the full force of the state on Maoists – which, time after time – only swells the latter’s ranks because of the high-handedness that is inevitable during such operations. All this while, a country that is more interested in cricket remains clueless about what has posed largest threat to its nationhood for decades.
And it is not just media that is accountable. Every citizen is supposed to be a policeman sans uniform. By extension, they are also storytellers without press accreditation.
India is not just a country – it is an idea, a concept and a centuries-old experiment. Ideas can neither be imposed nor held together by force. Instead, they are glued with narratives that are meant for a larger purpose and a greater good. If India has to win a battle for the mind, then it needs to arraign all our forces and in tackling our adversaries in this dimension. Else, India might as well be shooting arrows at ghosts.
The author is the founding CEO of NATGRID and a former soldier. His Twitter handle is @captraman. Views are personal.