Writing on China or criticising the government is not an anti-national activity
Within hours of reports of an unarmed clash between Indian and Chinese troops in the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh, videos of cowering PLA soldiers started circulating on social media. In one grainy video, the PLA troops appeared to be begging Indian soldiers for mercy, even as the latter were hitting them with sticks.
I first saw this on a WhatsApp group, where it was shared by an army veteran with a comment that this is how the Indian Army taught PLA a lesson in Tawang. I dismissed the video as harmless propaganda, which all forces do as part of psychological warfare. However, a navy veteran on the same group pointed out to the shoddiness of the video. He noticed the surprising absence of snow for December in Yangtse, the site of the clash. It seems like an old and stock video, he concluded. Some got after him for questioning the army, ignoring his basic point—propaganda has to be realistic if it has to achieve its objective.
Something similar happened on Twitter. An army veteran with a huge fan base shared an image of troops trudging in knee-deep snow with heavy load with a cryptic comment—And you question the bravery of these soldiers. Though he hadn’t specified which soldiers these were, it was assumed, given the comments below, that he referred to them as Indian Army soldiers, until an ITBP officer pointed out that these were ITBP troopers carrying rations to their posts. A few thanked the army veteran for highlighting the hardships of the ITBP soldiers, but most accused him of deliberate misrepresentation.
Poor propaganda backfires. Poor propaganda is a mark of poor imagination, which is a function of reading and reflection. When you do neither, you are forced to hide behind the courage of a soldier. And even that is often done poorly.
The Tawang incident was also used by intellectually inclined veterans to reflect upon the 1962 war. A nonstop series of articles were forwarded to me in the last two weeks of December. Some were commemorative, some pointed out the critical mistakes made during that war, some decried the role politicians and bureaucrats played, some referred to the Henderson-Brooks-Bhagat report to castigate the government of the day (read, Nehru) and some wrote about the lessons of ’62. I skimmed through these mainly to see if at all there was a reference to the present-day threat from China or the kind of war which may be imposed upon India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘era of war is over’ statement notwithstanding. There were none.
With Tawang on my mind, for this Indian Army special issue, I requested a few veterans to write on the capabilities that the land force needs to build, both in the short and medium term, to address the threat from China. All of them declined. Most wanted to comment on Russia-Ukraine war. One retired army officer wanted to write on QUAD and the Indo-Pacific and how the ocean would offset the land threat. To my polite refusal to these, one said that as a magazine FORCE is too focussed on tactical issues, whereas he writes on strategic matters. I don’t think he realised that he was diminishing his own service by referring to army capability-building as a ‘tactical matter.’
Ironically, many of these veterans happily write on terrorism and counter-terrorism. Fighting terrorism is not a tactical issue, capability-building against China is.
I would like to believe that most assume this posture because they are wary of committing anything on paper pertaining to China lest they annoy the powers that be. I would not want to think that this reluctance to comment on a possible future war against China stems from ignorance, much less, anxiety.
In the absence of meaningful discourse, most resort to rhetoric and hyperbole, quite like the politicians. For instance, recently, defence minister Rajnath Singh was in Arunachal Pradesh to inaugurate a bridge. In response to a question on China, he said, “If conflict is imposed on us, we have strongly fought against it and will do so in the future. For this, we should always remain prepared and we are prepared.” But rhetoric only works as speech or as propaganda on social media, where sloganeering can pass off as policy; and valour of soldiers as war-preparedness. Even to an ignoramus, it will look odd as an article, hence the reticence.
The argument that the outlook of veterans must not be taken as reflective of military thinking is only partially correct. Retired officers who remain engaged with their domain, either as advisors to policymakers or guest lecturers at military training institutes have the potential to influence opinions and in some respect policy. For instance, the recent Agnipath scheme, which has stemmed from the labour of one such retired officer.
Hence, it is incumbent on these retired officers to stay abreast of developments in their domain. Writing about these issues will only sharpen their thinking on these matters. This is not in the interest of public discourse alone, but also in the interest of young officers who get a chance to challenge their intellect by reading complex concepts outside their precis. Learning, after all, is what you get outside the school.