‘Loose Missiles’ on TV Harm Army, Yet ‘Code of Conduct’ Avoidable
If decades in uniform haven’t instilled a sense of responsibility in veterans no code is going to make a difference.
A storm blew up on the electronic media space recently with a retired Indian Army Major General angrily ranting on a Hindi news channel. Discussing the targeting of Kashmiri Pandits in Jan 1990, he is reported to have passionately shouted “Khoon ka badla khoon, balatkaar ka badla balatkaar” (Blood for blood, rape for rape). It sent the panel and the anchor in a tizzy with objections and demands to take back the words. It also sent the world of armed forces veterans into a spiral of condemnation for their colleague’s utter lack of sensitivity, wrong choice of words and negative projection of what is considered the most disciplined body of citizens in India.
Social media groups of armed forces veterans are abuzz with criticism focused on the officer with oblique references to several others for bringing the community to shame in the eyes of millions of Indian citizens who normally place all veterans on a pedestal for their service to the nation. It also sent the Army’s hearts and minds campaign in Kashmir, an ever ongoing effort, into criticism from the locals and gave ammunition to Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations wing to pounce upon.
An Unsuitable Affiliate Harms More than a Suitable Adversary
The veteran Major General with allegedly none too ethical a past even in service, has been on the television circuit for some time, making appearances probably where none others from his fraternity wish to be seen. That the veteran General Officer belongs to the logistics stream with not a hint of experience in handling even sub-tactical, leave alone operational and strategic issues in the challenging field of counter terrorist and LoC operations in J&K is not just a co-incidence.
This throws up two important issues into debate. First whether any and every veteran who perceives himself a potential television commentator, with the very heady label – ‘strategic and defence expert’, is really suited for what should be a very serious responsibility.
What officers on such panels must demonstrate is the middle path, national interest, sense of history and context, mixed with level-headedness, and ability to speak softly.
Second, and very interestingly, the television blooper by the veteran General Officer embarrassing not only the veteran community but the entire uniformed fraternity, has thrown the debate on ‘code of conduct’ wide open. Especially so in the wake of a revelation by the recently retired Adjutant General of the Indian Army, Lt Gen Ashwani Kumar, that the Army hierarchy was toying with the idea of introduction of a code of conduct for the veteran community.
The serving Army hierarchy would obviously have received a shot in the arm after it had been taken to the cleaners by the veteran community on the thought process.
If 30-40 years in uniform have not instilled a sense of responsibility in a veteran no code is going to make a difference.
Veterans on TV: Bane or Boon?
With reference to context of television debates, for the last seven or eight years the Indian electronic media has been overtaken by intense interest in matters of military security. This is almost in sync with deterioration of the security situation in J&K and the rising tide of global war or terror (GWOT). I always considered this as a positive development due to India’s extremely weak strategic culture, due to which the general public never seemed to get any focused information on matters military.
Call it the Nehruvian hangover, if you may, because the military was the last thing on Nehru’s mind as far as nation building was concerned. The general disdain for the Indian military in official circles did not seep into public sentiment which continued to eulogize it. Thus, the arrival of a couple of strategic military experts on television screens was welcomed. It has stayed that way with some well-informed, experienced and articulate veterans lending their weight to the debates.
The unfortunate part is that the expansion of channels has opened the scope for several more such analysts.
Making of a Controversial Panelist
Veteran experts, rightly experienced and schooled, desist from going to anything but the high profile channels in English and Hindi thus leaving the field open to others to fill the void. That is how people with limited capability, experience and articulation labeling themselves as strategic experts find their way into the media.
It is heady for their families and social circle of friends too but the world of television debates demands not just experience but ability to think on one’s feet, extrapolating many a situation to different context and keeping the response more grey than jumping into black and white opinions. Armed Forces officers are brought up on a diet of specifics, of doables and of result orientation. This approach does not work on TV where social sensitivities, political savviness, and strategic orientation must form the rules.
Literality isn’t anything to go by. What officers on such panels must demonstrate is the middle path, national interest, sense of history and context, mixed with level-headedness, and ability to speak softly.
Should We Have ‘Cleared’ Strategic Experts Like in Pakistan?
Interestingly, Pakistan has of late created a field of ‘cleared strategic experts’ from its armed forces and only they are permitted to speak on television. However, comparing Pakistan and India is like apples and oranges, particularly in the field of personal freedoms. This should not influence us one bit. Influential and respected military veterans should use the medium of social media through the umpteen existent groups to advise newcomers on the pitfalls of entering media space and how to retain their personal and community’s dignity.
The veteran society and, more importantly, the peer groups themselves, have it in them to exercise the unwritten serviceman’s code .
There are some among the public who justify the veteran’s rant considering the enormity of the event on 19 Jan 1990, which saw the eviction, harassment and killing of innocent Kashmiri Pandits as part of Pakistan’s ploy to wrest J&K. However, sane societies—while never condoning such heinous acts—will never seek revenge, only justice. Can we hope to restore order to J&K and create conditions to welcome the Kashmiri Pandits if we continue to seek revenge, the most irrational among human emotions?
Self-Regulation Better Than ‘Code of Conduct’
The second issue, of Code of Conduct, is not something to be dismissed in few words and needs debate with greater rationality. If 30-40 years in uniform have not instilled a sense of responsibility in a veteran no code is going to make a difference.
Tethering veterans to a code would rob them off their basic rights of freedom of action and expression; mere receipt of pension cannot compromise on this. If it is to avoid such bloopers as the one under discussion, which paint the serving and veteran community in none too favourable colours, then clearly that would be an overreaction. The veteran society and, more importantly, the peer groups themselves, have it in them to exercise the unwritten serviceman’s code and perhaps temporarily ostracize such veterans for their unethical acts.
(The writer, a former GOC of the Army’s 15 Corps, is now the Chancellor of Kashmir University. He can be reached at @atahasnain53. 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.)
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