“What I'm talking to you today is from a commander talking to the troops he is commanding, I don't think it finds any place in the media.”
Ironically, two weeks after Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi spoke these words in a closed-door address to his command, the transcript of the speech was posted on media websites and being debated on television channels and on social media.
The speech by Lt Gen Bakshi, now in public domain for all to see, was clearly for an internal audience, probably meant to put to rest talks and speculations that would undoubtedly have been going around in his command.
A commander is not obliged to share the rationale of his decisions with his command. Yet, if he chooses to do so, he cannot be faulted for it. And Lt Gen Bakshi was candid in doing so when he spoke about his desire not to resign in the hope of clearing his name. He had been dragged into a controversy because of anonymous letters alleging corruption that were doing the rounds a few months before the government was to take the decision for appointment of the army chief.
The fact that such letters had been sent, and that the government had carried out discrete investigations on receiving them (which, incidentally, had absolved him of any wrongdoing), was public knowledge. So in addressing the issue head-on and spelling out his stand on them to his command, the Lt General was only doing what any commander worth his salt would – prevent his name being tarnished by unseemly rumours.
Unfortunately, matters that are meant for a specific audience, for a specific purpose, when viewed without the advantage of context, can appear differently and stoke unwarranted controversy. It was probably with that in mind that the Lt General had opined that it had no place in the media.
While the media plays a critical role as the fourth pillar of democracy (with social media fast taking on the role of the fifth), it needs to be prudent while reporting such issues and must gain complete understanding of the context and possible implications.
And the recent spate of ‘crib videos’ by the personnel of various paramilitary and armed forces are a good example. The first few of them quickly went viral on social media, and were picked up by mainstream media with equal promptness.
Till the sheer numbers of ‘me too’ videos resulted in them no longer being newsworthy. But by then, the damage had been done, and the government had already reacted by ordering enquiries.
Action is Never Taken on Anonymous Complaints
These two seemingly unconnected events bring to fore a very important question that the media, and more importantly, the government, must ask themselves. That is, how far and on what issues should they get involved in the routine administrative matters of the security forces on the basis of complaints that do not follow the established chain of command.
For instance, the established practice within the army is that anonymous letters or complaints that don’t follow the chain of command are never acted upon.
The rationale is simple – there are adequate mechanisms in place wherein a genuine grievance can be raised, including provisions for escalation in the event of inaction.
So whether it is corruption by a senior commander or a complaint against bad food, there is nothing that can’t be addressed by adhering to the process – provided that the complainant is willing to substantiate the complaint beyond wild allegations and innuendo.
Giving credence to anonymous letters or social media videos by acting on them opens up a Pandora’s box, as the sheer volume of videos posted after the sensation caused by the first video has shown.
In such a scenario, every individual with a grudge against his seniors would be encouraged to publicly air real or imagined grievances. This is a low-cost/no-cost option that can wreak havoc with the morale of the security forces and effectiveness of their chain of command, incentivising the vested interests to take this route.
Tackling Those with Vested Interests
Let’s take a hypothetical scenario. In approximately three years, the next army chief is going to be chosen. Since this government has already made it clear that seniority isn’t sacrosanct, what would stop the vested interests from planting anonymous letters and/or social media posts against all the front-runners in the hope of affecting the selection process? What would the government ignore, and what would it investigate or follow up?
Rather than being confronted with such a dilemma, it would be better for the government (and the media) to re-think on how they would like to deal with such complaints in future.
A good practice would be to completely ignore all anonymous complaints, and at the same time, have a mechanism for rapid escalation for complainants who have been denied justice while following the established mechanism.
(The writer is a retired colonel of the Indian Army and currently a research fellow at the Ministry of Defence, writing the official history of India’s participation in World War I. He can be reached @ragarwal. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)