Sunday, May 25, 2008

As Soldiers Put Their Lives on the Line

Arun Shourie

Hostilities have but to commence and a rash of strategists erupts: indeed, it seems that everyone, except the ones actually running it, knows how to run the war. Just as suddenly, intelligence agencies start planting stories: every agency, it seems, knew what was going to happen, every agency sent warnings, but every other agency scuppered its reports; every paper, every commentator suddenly seems to know what which top-secret agency has told Government.

While these two rules apply universally, one applies specially to democracies like ours. In the first week, the nationalist response is so strong that even the opposition feels it prudent to endorse what is being done. Just a while later, sensing that the sky has cleared, opposition parties revert to extracting political mileage. In this age -- of momentary attention spans, of mental rhythms set by fleeting electronic images - the patriotic interval lasts less than a week. And once that week of mandatory abstinence is over, once again every half-truth, every concoction is good enough by which to traduce others.

"Kargil shows that the Lahore bus ride was a flop," the opposition charges, and adds the sound-bite for TV cameras, "The Prime Minister went on a ride, in fact he was taken for a ride." "The brazenness with which Pakistan has sent even regulars from its Army shows that the much-touted Lahore Declaration was not worth the paper it was written on," it pronounces.

The function such declarations serve is that they become the standard by which the conduct of the signatories is judged. That Pakistan just the other day had signed agreements with India, and that in plain violation of them it has sent its men and materials to occupy our territory has been of decisive significance in putting it in the dock. On the other side, that the Indian Prime Minister went so far is taken as testimony of India's earnest desire to ensure harmonious relations, to set aside the history of mutual bitterness. Together the two elements are among the major factors which have persuaded governments the world over -- including governments which have been not just the supporters but the props of Pakistan -- that the responsibility for the current situation rests squarely with Pakistan. But here, "Vajpayee was taken for a ride."

Look at it the other way. The Simla Agreement has been violated by Pakistan throughout these years, and that on the testimony of successive Congress governments too. Does that mean that in signing it Indira Gandhi and the rest were taken for a ride? Just recall the clauses, and contrast them with what Pakistan has been doing all these years -- during most of which Congress governments were in office here.

Article 1, Clause 2: that the two countries shall settle their differences through bilateral negotiations or by any other peaceful means mutually agreed upon between them -- for 25 years Pakistan has been screeching about Kashmir at every international gathering. Clause 2 again: that neither side shall unilaterally alter the situation, and that both sides shall prevent the organization, assistance or encouragement of any act detrimental to peaceful and harmonious relations between the two countries -- Pakistan has spared no effort to break India through insurgency, terrorism, secession. Clause 3: that both countries shall respect each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty, that they shall not interfere in each other's internal affairs. Clause 5: that the two shall respect each other's national unity, territorial integrity etc. Clause 6: that the two shall refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity etc. of each other.

Article 4: that in Jammu and Kashmir the Line of Control resulting from the cease fire of December 17, 1971 shall be respected by both sides..., that neither side shall seek to alter it unilaterally..., that both sides shall refrain from the threat or use of force in violation of this Line.

Now, in every particular instance, what Pakistan has been doing since 1971 has been in complete contravention of its provisions. Even this current incursion into Kargil is an eightfold violation of the Simla Agreement. Yet, Congressmen hold up the signing of that Agreement as the highpoint of statesmanship, and the signing of the Lahore Declaration as that of self-deception!

"But after 1971 we never lowered our guard," said one of these voluble Congress-spokesmen the other day during a TV discussion. Is it because you were always alert that Pakistan was able to organise such a lethal insurrection in Punjab -- one that cost the country 21,000 lives? Is it because your guard was always up that Pakistan was able to almost wrench Kashmir from the country during 1990 and 1996 -- an episode that cost the country another 15,000 lives?

Indeed, even in regard to Kargil specifically, several limbs of the problem are directly traceable to the shortsighted decisions of the leaders the Congress makes such a show of revering. The launching base of this incursion has been Skardu. But our forces had taken Skardu in 1948. They were asked to withdraw, and the place was left for Pakistan to reoccupy. The very points from which Kargil is shelled these days had been taken by our forces in 1965, and again in 1971. As had Haji Pir Pass. On both occasions they were asked to withdraw, and these salients were handed back to Pakistan. Our soldiers pay the price to this day. But "We never let our guard down," the spokesmen go on claiming. And TV channels continue to broadcast the claim, newspapers continue to reproduce it.

"Even now the Government has not realised the gravity of the incursion," said the other participant. Is there anything on the ground -- in the theatre of fighting -- which gives substance to such a claim? On the contrary, there has not been one single occasion during the last fifty years when an incursion has been met with such a massive response: the number of men who have been marshalled, the calibre of weaponry which has been deployed, the airpower which has been sent in -- the scale of the reaction has certainly registered on Pakistan. But here the charge, "Even now the Government has not realised the gravity of..." TV channels broadcast such nonsense, papers reproduce it -- without asking even an elementary question.

"But why did Fernandes promise safe-passage? Our soldiers are being killed, and he is promising safe-passage to the killers!", the spokesmen exclaim, their voices rising to project patriotism.

There certainly has been one good result of this incursion: it has made Congressmen and Communists talk the nationalist's language! Till the other day, they were denouncing as a chauvinist, a xenophobe, a revanchist, anyone who used words they are using today. There is calculation in this, of course. The question of Sonia's nationality having become an issue one way or another; the current incursion, the discoveries of explosives in various cities, having led people to wonder once again whether, in such a situation, it would be prudent to hand the country over to a person about whom they know nothing -- events and issues having taken such a turn, the Congress sees that it would be fatal not to be seen as super-nationalists. There is the positive advice too of the PR men: nationalism and security have been the USPs of the BJP, snatch these.

But even when the nationalist rhetoric is triggered by such calculation, I see progress. After all, what is it that the Congress and its PR experts think will win people over? Nationalism! Till the other day, the calculus was that it is by denouncing nationalism as jingoism that votes will be garnered! Mysterious are the ways of the Almighty!

Will people not see through the pretense? Will people not see that these parties are trying to put even aggression on our country to political use?

These narrowly-focused politicians apart, the media must see the way it is being used by them, and what the effect of that is on the ability of the country to handle even grave emergencies.

The week of patriotism over, and the need for diverting attention from its fabricated mourning around Janpath becoming urgent, the Congress reverted to its threefold strategy. Hurl the unspecified, but always sweeping insinuation, and insist that it is for the other fellow to disprove it, not for you to prove it: Mohan Guruswamy, Bhagwat, the "utter failure in handling Kargil". Second, what used to be the favourite device of our "liberals", target one man: in their case, you will recall, it used to be, "Just remove Rebeiro, the common Sikh has developed so much hatred for him personally"; then it became, "Just remove KPS Gill, and the common Sikh will come rushing back"; in Kashmir, "Just remove Jagmohan"; Fernandes has been the target-of-choice this time round. Third, reinforce the impression that this Government is in disarray, that even in the face of such a grave challenge it is not able to make up its mind: so, plant stories one day that Fernandes has been ticked-off by Brijesh Mishra, the next day that Advani has been sidelined on Kargil, the day after that rival media-cells have been set up by Vajpayee and Advani!

To see how the media is yoked to, and makes itself available for doing someone else's work, recall the stories about "safe-passage" to the invaders. They conveyed the impression that this was an offer from George Fernandes. But how did the story originate?

Fernandes had called some journalists for an informal briefing. A journalist asked him whether Government would consider some proposal to give the Pakistanis "safe-passage". If a proposal to that effect comes, Fernandes said, Government could consider it.

Now, there was no proposal. What the result of considering a proposal will be -- of considering any proposal -- will surely depend on the circumstances that prevail at the time the proposal arrives: in Hazratbal, in Charar-e-Sharif the Government -- having treated terrorists to embarrassing hospitality -- in fact accorded them safe-passage; in the case of the Hazratbal siege it did more, it provided superior-class transportation to them up to the Pakistan border. In one situation, the loss of its men, the barbarity of the invaders may convince a government that not one of the enemy should be allowed to return alive. In another situation, the professional assessment may be that, while the enemy's men can all be taken out one by one, doing so will result in very heavy casualties to one's own side, and therefore, a government may decide to accord them a way out. In Hazratbal, the Government decided that the terrorists could certainly be taken out; that even the casualties might be minimal; but that the mosque was liable to be damaged, and that would give Pakistan an opportunity to galvanize the Islamic world against India. So, what the ultimate decision, after weighing a proposal, will be, is certainly not settled when one says that, if a proposal comes, it could be considered.

That is obvious. Yet, the story was put out as if Fernandes had made this as a definite offer. Denunciations followed denunciations. The impression which had been conveyed by the original twist was thereby reinforced. The work was done.

The twist apart, lobbing a hypothetical question is by itself sufficient to work the mischief. For instance, supposing a correspondent asks Fernandes, "The Pakistan Foreign Secretary says that they can use any weapon. They have nuclear weapons. If they throw a nuclear bomb on Mumbai, what will be the Government's response?"

If Fernandes says, "No one should fool himself, we will retaliate in kind," the next day's headline will be, "We will use atom bomb: Fernandes." Peacenik turns war-monger, the "news-analysts" will observe. "Height of irresponsibility," the editorials will pronounce. If, on the other hand, he says, "We are not mad, we will not kill millions just to keep up with the madness of others," the next day's headings will run, "Peacenik Fernandes bangs door on option," the "news-analysts" will recount his having been associated with peace-movements in the past, his "links" with socialist and disarmament circles in Europe, editorials will pontificate how criminally irresponsible it is for the Defence Minister of the country to foreclose a strategic option, and how this will be music to the ears of Pakistani strategists. If Fernandes says, "That is sheer speculation, it is just not possible that Pakistan will use nuclear weapons for such a strictly local engagement," the headings will be, "Ostrich Fernandes, reality will disappear if I don't see it,"....

And it is enough to get one person, any person in authority to answer a hypothetical question, it is enough to get that one person to do so just once. That one answer broadcast, all you have to do is to ask him the same question again. If he repeats his earlier answer, you have renewed grounds for your earlier lampooning of him. If he reverses it, "Fernandes somersaults on free-passage." If he strains to correct what you had put out, "Fernandes tries to wriggle out."

You can ensure the same effect by asking the same question to some other person in authority. The Prime Minister and Fernandes are standing next to each other after the launching of INS Mysore. Ask the Prime Minister, "Your Defence Minister has offered safe-passage to the intruders. What is your view on the proposal?" If the Prime Minister repeats what Fernandes had said, the earlier outrage can now be directed at him. If he does not, "PM-Defence Minister at loggerheads on safe-passage"...

The lesson for ministers is obvious. In the Kargil case, for instance, the policy has been simple, it is a one-line policy: the place will be cleared of every intruder. Operational details on the day's developments are being provided by defence and civilian officials. It is only when there is a development in regard to that single-point policy that a minister need meet the media, and then only through a formal press conference -- a conference to be limited to that new development alone.

But there is also a lesson for the media. We also owe some responsibility. Assume for a moment that all the fault for the recent "controversies" lay with Fernandes. Should we in the media not pay at least some heed to the situation in which the country is? Even in normal times, but specially in times such as these, if we spot a moth on a friend's nose, should we wield an axe to remove it?

Perhaps an example will bring home the point better. There is as much distance between the justification for the NATO strikes in Kosovo and our action in Kargil as between the heavens and earth. There is so much more on which NATO officials can be pulled up, on which they can be ridiculed in regard to the airstrikes on Yugoslavia.

But in all those press-briefings -- available for all our journalists live on TV -- have you ever seen a European or American journalist heckle or even interrupt the NATO spokesman the way we have come to think is our right to do here? Have you ever seen anyone of them treat those spokesmen as if they were the enemy whom the journalists have to trap, and make a fool of?

The advent of TV has enlarged the reach of the media. And thereby its capacity to harm. It really is essential that our journalists consider the effect of what they are doing. And that they be wary of how others - within and outside the country -- are using them, for purposes that are far removed from the interests of the country.

The Observer
June 11, 1999

No comments:

Search This Blog