Why media may do more harm than good by hyperventilating on jawans' legitimate grievances

The recent controversy around Indian soldiers taking to the social media to post their grievances against the line of command and tough service conditions has been quickly seized as an opportunity to pin down the NDA government over its nationalism stance. An argument is being propounded that while Narendra Modi-led BJP has been instrumental in whipping up a frothy brand of hyper-nationalism and have lionised the jawans for political gains, the government has actually shown scant regard for the welfare of the soldiers who have become mutinous due to neglect.

Image of Tej Bahadur Yadav. Image Courtesy: YouTube

Image of Tej Bahadur Yadav. Image Courtesy: YouTube

This is a devastating political message aimed at showing BJP's nationalism as fake and fraudulent. There is nothing wrong with the realpolitik at work here. In a democracy, media and critics are free to criticise and launch scathing attacks on the government and the Opposition are well within their rights to choose their communicative strategy. To a certain extent, the BJP is reaping the harvest of its own hyper-patriotic agenda which it had adopted as an electoral leitmotif. It must take the potshots on its chin.

But there is a bigger danger in this narrative. Not only does this account take stupendous liberties with facts, by using the Indian soldier as a pawn in a bigger political game it runs the danger of doing irreparable damage to an institution that survives on discipline, obedience, regulation and a tight chain of command. Not just in India, armies and paramilitary forces everywhere in the world operate on a set of strict service rules, the breach of which is considered a serious offence and may ultimately lead to insubordination and anarchy.

The signs are ominous. General Bipin Rawat, the new Chief of Army Staff, in his first news conference since assuming office was forced to address the issue after four more jawans went public with their protests following the viral video posted by Tej Bahadur Yadav on 8 January.

General Rawat promised to urgently look into the communication breakdown along the line of command and announced across-the-formation installation of "suggestion-cum-complaint boxes" that would be monitored directly by his office. "A soldier is a soldier. He should not shy away from penning his name as the identity will be kept secret. They should come directly to us. If they are dissatisfied with the action they can use other means," the COAS said in New Delhi on Friday.

The Army chief's fervent appeal — that jawans should either make use of the "excellent redressal system" or take recourse to complaint boxes instead of going to social media — is indicative of the tricky terrain he finds himself in. If army jawans and members of paramilitary forces bypass the established system and start airing their complaints directly to the public through mainstream or other social media channels, it poses an unbelievable structural challenge for the government and the Army.

Hyperventilating media has exacerbated the quandary by painting the entire command structure of Uniformed officers with the same brush. There has been no attempt made to verify the facts. Sweeping generalisations have been made about the state of the armed forces and the condition of the jawans.

We must be careful here. This is not to suggest, even for a moment, that the grievances aired by the jawans are not genuine. The nature of the complaints point to enduring systemic failures where the man on the post has often been subjected to grueling schedules, punishing duty regimens and untold suffering owing to corruption in the ranks.

The Indian armed forces remain a venerated institution. But to suggest that they have remained untouched by corruption is preposterous. Despite the Army chief's insistence that the redressal mechanism is "excellent", there have obviously been lacunae in the system leading to accumulated frustration that has finally resulted in the eruption of volcanic anger.

But this sensitive issue cannot be addressed by media hyperventilation, or by painting all Uniformed officers as villains. All it does is encourages the jawans to look for solutions externally instead of internally that threatens the very fabric of the institution.

"Forget going public for redressal, the internal mechanism is so strong that one need not even approach commanding officer. Wars are not fought with weak systems. There are SOPs (standard operating procedures), laid down rules and high level of grievance redressal mechanism. Outside intervention is not needed. Besides discipline, it’s the brotherhood that binds the entire force in one fabric. During operations, there is no jawans, no officers – they are all equal. In my three decades of service as an officer, I have spent 20 years with the jawans on field eating the same food that they do, sharing the same space they live," defence and security affairs analyst Col (retd) Jaibans Singh, who was a part of military operations in Sri Lanka, Jammu and Kashmir and the North East, told Debobrat Ghose of Firstpost.

There is a serious discussion to be made on whether colonial legacy of sahayaks or buddy system in armed forces has outlived its usefulness. Encouragingly, the new COAS seems amenable to a relook at the established processes. The videos being posted by the jawans is an excellent opportunity for the government and security establishment to plug the loopholes and launch long-awaited reforms. However, it will be a dishonor to the sentiment of the soldiers who have risked their careers in airing the complaints and would even be counterproductive to their aims if the grievance videos are used for rhetorical bombast or narrow political ends.


Updated Date: Jan 14, 2017 15:29 PM

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