Media Related Lessons From Kargil

A.K. Sachdev, Research Fellow, IDSA

The media is allergic to the uniform and resistant to "management".

— Major General Arjun Ray VSM1 Indian Army

 

Introduction

Much has been written and spoken about l'affaire Kargil since the Ides of May and, without doubt, much more will be articulated about it in the months to come. It was, as Major General Ashok Mehta called it, "India's first war on television".2 The whole episode—a manifestation of the festering and chronic problem of Kashmir— brought to the fore several issues worthy of the media's attention. The nation, to the last man, raised itself to lofty support for the soldier at the front. Discordant notes sired by political motives unleashed eristic debates on the parentage of the infiltration process. Claims and counter-claims by India and Pakistan played cacophonic ping pong, while watching nations pontificated on the hazards attendant upon non-NPT, non-CTBT states in possession of nuclear weapons. The military, in its proud tradition of detached professionalism, went about its business with an I-have-got-a-job-to-do demeanour, setting for itself well-defined, attainable military objectives and achieving them with consummate and courageous expertise. Difficult terrain and weather conditions, paucity of some pieces of equipment and accoutrement and high casualty figures did not deter them from doing their bidding. Military assets were used in pursuance of military aims and objectives defined by the national government in its political sagacity.

All this while, the media worked overtime to quench the insatiable public craving for news on Kargil. During the 1971 Indo-Pak War, according to senior journalist VC Natrajan "the press had access to forward areas when the war broke out. Neither the top brass of the armed forces nor the bureaucracy made any effort to hinder the media from reporting what was happening on the battlefront."3 Since that war, there have been great changes in the kind of TV coverage available to the common man in India—thanks to a proliferate cable TV regime and vast improvements in the field of information technology. The intervening period has also witnessed the glamorous and copious coverage of the Gulf War by CNN—rendering the TV viewer a virtual ringside spectator of the events thereof. These two factors—the refined information flow milieu and the exemplary CNN coverage of the Gulf War—should have predicated for media coverage of the Kargil episode a seamless relationship between the media on the one hand and the political/bureaucratic/military centres of influence on the other. However, Shri Prem Shankar Jha had to write (in July) that "if New Delhi does not stop treating the media, and the foreign media in particular, as enemies, it is most certainly going to lose the information war".4 Weeks after Kargil has been ousted from front-page status, the fact continues to rankle that neither the media nor the military seem content with the manner in which each engaged the other in a love-hate relationship. Simply stated, this paper argues that several lessons emerge from Kargil in this context which merit rumination over so that in the future there may accrue a working relationship between the media and the military that is professionally satisfying to both. Full gratification of the discerning media-watcher would be an added bonus.

Mass Media—Political Actor or Force Multiplier

The mass media is quite often referred to as the "Fourth Estate". However, it would be quite erroneous to presume that the importance it has, places it at the end of the pecking order of the other three estates—the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Commons (some, like Shri AG Noorani, a senior journalist, list the executive, the legislature and the judiciary as the three classic estates).5 Indeed, the impelling force the media holds in its mighty paws—TV, print and radio—is immeasurable; it possesses the potential to make or mar political power structures and is often discussed as a political actor. It could be argued that there is a definite and direct proportionality relationship between the health of a nation's democracy and the degree of freedom of its national media. Attempts to curb the media have uncertain success probabilities and can rarely be set into motion without negative fallouts. In any case, modern information technology including satellite communications, real time data transfer and internet have rendered electronic media so potent and powerful that efforts to keep it on a leash are destined to flounder. Today national media is a political and a social institution—how it discharges its perceived obligations depends on its interaction with the political and social environs that immediately surround it.

Increasingly now, nation states and non-state political actors are recognising the immense power of information warfare. Whatever be the scale or scope of an ongoing war, information warfare is an essential component thereof. It was for this reason that the combined might of the NATO military machinery, frustrated in its attempts to bring the Yugoslav people, to their knees finally declared TV stations legitimate military targets and committed what K Subrahmanyam called "one of the most heinous assaults on the freedom of information".6 On the one hand the Yugoslav resolve to man TV stations even at great personal risk to the staff, and on the other, NATO's desperate targeting of these TV stations, are both portents of the importance of the information warfare content of war. The former Chief of Army Staff, General, Shankar Roy Choudhary, in his now famous 'Ten Commandments' to Indian Army troops employed for Low Intensity Conflict Operations, exhorted them to use the media "as a force multiplier and not as a force degrader" (emphasis added). In the context of information warfare, media can be viewed as a veritable 'force multiplier' with as much of a potential for altering the course of a war as any military force multiplier with a more tangible, more visible material existence. No doubt then that Yugoslav national TV was viewed as a force multiplier by NATO and therefore attacked.

It would appear from the foregoing that whenever nations are at war, be it a legally declared one as was the 1971 Indo-Pak war, or an undeclared one like the Pak misadventure in Kargil, national media and the military need to work synergistically in the pursuit of national aims and objectives while international media needs to be turned into an ally, or at least used to advantage. Why then has the military been accused by some of having "lost the war on the information front"7 in Kargil? To be able to answer this and related questions, a brief look is felt necessary at defence journalism in India.

Defence Journalism in India

VC Natarajan and AK Chakraborty8 trace the history of defence journalism in India back to 1909 when 'Fauji Akhbar' a journal of the British Indian Army was founded; today it continues to exist in the garb of 'Sainik Samachar'. Indeed, the defence forces were the pioneers in the field of public relations in India. The British thought it fit to keep Indian public informed of the course of the war during the two World Wars wherein Indian soldiers' families benefited from the information flow. This in turn kept up the morale of the soldier at the front. The whole process was facilitated by the induction of young journalists into the defence forces; they were trained and sent to the frontline to provide coverage of the war. A Directorate of Public Relations, working directly under the Commander-in-Chief, regulated the flow of the reports from the war fronts. The British made all efforts to keep Indian correspondents from interacting with the armed forces personnel within the country—a state of affairs that lasted a long time after the British had gone.

Thus when its first war was thrust upon independent India in 1962, the military and the media were not ideally placed for efficient information flow. The media could not provide to the public an accurate picture of the situation in NEFA during the war as it was not given access to the battlefront; media persons had to be content with sitting in Tezpur and receiving official handouts. As a result, rumours and facts intermingled freely in the media coverage of the war. Perhaps the right lessons were learnt from the experiences of the 1962 war and therefore, in 1965 and 1971, the situation was quite different; the media was provided access to the forward areas and every effort was made to keep up a smooth flow of communication. Consequently, in both the wars, enemy disinformation endeavours were effectively combated. However, for various reasons, 1987 saw the beginnings of constricted defence information flow.9 In recent years, that trend has been somewhat reversed, with the military becoming 'media savvy' and acknowledging the importance of good Public Relations (PR). Ironically, the lessons in this respect seem to have been learnt more from the internal security duties the Army is increasingly being employed for, rather than from a war with an overt enemy.

Currently, the Directorate of Public Relations (Defence)—a part of the Ministry of Defence (MOD)—interacts with the media on matters related to defence forces. Through its civilian and defence services officers spread out through-out the country, it indulges in PR exercises during peacetime. However, although its raison d'etre is the defence forces, the representation of the defence forces is only at the Lieutenant Colonel/ Major and equivalent level; no specific corps/regiment/branch for these officers exists and they could be from any branch, service or arm. In contrast to their junior ranks, the Directorate is headed by an officer from the Indian Information Service who is of the rank of Director (equivalent to a Brigadier in the Army or a Director in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). However, the current incumbent is of the rank of additional Principal Information Officer (equivalent to a Major General of the Indian Army or a Joint Secretary of the IAS). Within the MOD, the Directorate comes under the Joint Secretary (P&C). In short, the bureaucracy has a complete and unquestionable hold over the organisation for handling of the media on military affairs. This was the state extant in May 1999 when the military and the media first learnt from an alert shepherd of the Kargil infiltration.

Military and the Media

If some newspaper and periodical reports are to be believed, the antiquated Officials Secret Act and adherence to its letter and spirit are very close to the heart of the defence establishment in India. It might be contextually appropriate to mention here that the Henderson Brookes Report on the 1962 war continues to be classified even today. Madhu Trehan reported the following conversation between her and an Army officer at a checkpoint en route to Kargil:

"So how long have you been here?"

"That is a military question."

"Sorry. How long do you think it will last?"

"That is a military question."

"Oh! Do you think the Pakistanis will withdraw?"

"That is a military question."

"Hmm…Which was the last movie you saw?"10

The above is a rather droll exchange which appears to have overstated a bit the case against Indian military penchant for secrecy. Nonetheless, when similar reports from other journalistic sources are read together, there does seem to be a point for the defence forces to note regarding the frequently overdone reticence. This military behaviour seems to be especially applicable to its interaction with the media, perhaps because of the media's callous handling of sensitive information and frequent adulteration of facts with feelings, wishful thinking and, even worse, irresponsible rumours. In a manner of speaking, the military seems to be obsessed with withholding information while the media seems equally determined to disclose every possible bit of information to the public.

The present COAS is philosophically quite different from the evasive image of the military man conjured up in the previous paragraph; indeed he has a reputation for propagating transparency and good communication with the media. As the Commandant of the Defence Services Staff College, he laid great stress on training the student officers—all being groomed for command and key staff appointments in the future—in the subtle skills of dealing with the media. As the COAS, he was able to convince the MOD that it would be in the interest of the services and the nation that military officers of the rank of Brigadier (or equivalent) and above be authorised to brief and interact with the media. These briefings were to be carried out at the area of operations (specifically, counter insurgency operations) by officers actually involved in operations and in the full knowledge of the ground realities. This pro-active stance in relation to the tricky business of media handling has paid dividends in terms of better information flow, enhanced morale amongst military/para military forces employed on internal security duties and a better image of the military as a whole.

However, it is pertinent to point out at this stage the nuclear role the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) plays in the projection of government policy whenever an affair with another country transpires. The Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka was steered through its not so happy stay in that country by the MEA even intruding at times into the operational realm. The media had negligible access to the area of operations and relied heavily on information provided by an MEA spokesman in New Delhi. The result was that the media at large believed what it was told—that the Army had failed in its mission. The fact that rapidly changing policies and circumstances had the Army shackled was never appreciated by the media. More than a decade later, the MEA continues to hold sway over not only the policies in relation to foreign countries, but also over what the media needs to be told.

When operations began in Kargil, the media would have liked to be kept in the picture about the military aspects by knowledgeable, operational personnel from the defence forces and the military would have liked to project non-sensitive details of operations to the media through authoritative spokesmen. Indeed, the daily media briefings were, in the initial days, conducted by senior officers from the Army and the Air Force—officers who were at the decision making level in their respective Headquarters (HQ). The Director of Offensive Operations at Air HQ (an Air Commodore), during a media briefing referred (quite rightly) to the situation in Kargil as "war". By coincidence or otherwise, his place was taken by the Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Operations), an Air Vice Marshal, for the next day's briefing. Incidentally, the Prime Minister, Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee, himself was to refer to the "war-like situation" in Kargil just a few days later (on 30 May 1999)11 while the Defence Minister, Shri George Fernandes, stated on 06 June 1999 that a "war-like situation prevails along the Line of Control".12 To return to the main point of discussion, it was not long before the daily media briefing was commandeered by the MEA with a Joint Secretary from that ministry taking the cardinal position at the daily sessions with the media. The service representation thereafter at the daily media briefings was trimmed down to the Colonel/Group Captain level. The author hastens to add that the service representatives handled the media briefings admirably and their statements were not any the less consequential than if they had been made by field/air rank officers. However, an interrogatory look is warranted at the fact that media briefings on a purely military operation were in fact presided over by the MEA. That is not to say that MEA briefings were expendable; on the contrary, the war on the diplomatic front was as important, if not more so, than the military one being waged at the LoC. The point to ponder over, however, is whether two separate briefings could have been conducted—one by the MEA and the other by the MOD. One reason for the combined briefing could be that the media persons would be saved the rush from one venue to another; this problem is easily solved by having the two briefings at the same venue and in quick succession to each other. In the view of this author, irrespective of the manner in which the daily briefings were conducted, some episodes out of the Kargil story could have been handled better; the assistance provided by the benefit of hindsight in arriving at this conclusion is acknowledged before the beginning of the next section.

Could We Have Done It Otherwise?

One feature of the media coverage during the initial part of the Kargil conflict was the rather scanty and feeble effort to highlight the fact that Kashmir was not "a long-disputed territory"13 and that the LoC was the subject of a bilateral treaty between India and Pakistan. One such endeavour by the press was an editorial page comment in The Times of India, which pointed out that "the Shimla agreement has been acknowledged by the UN and the international community".14 Eventually though, the MEA did warm up to the theme and diplomatic mileage was drawn out of this morsel of fact. The result was a perceptible shift in the US State Department stance towards India and Pakistan. In end-May, The New York Times had, in its first editorial on the subject of Kargil, sternly admonished India and Pakistan for the hostilities. By end-June the same paper had turned sympathetic towards India and had appreciated its restraint. After Nawaz Sharif's visit to the US, the paper was talking of Pakistan's bad miscalculation and chastising Islamabad.15

Then there was the matter of reports in almost all sections of the press and TV about how, during the winter months, the Army had vacated several posts that had been occupied by the infiltrators. The reports were, however, inaccurate. The areas infiltrated into were only covered by regular patrols and did not have posts that had been vacated by the Army. In subsequent statements, the Defence Minister and the COAS were at great pains to stress this point. However, the ponderable point is why the media should have made such reports in the first place.

An unnecessary controversy was raked up by some media reports that the Chief of Air Staff (CAS) had not been agreeable to the idea of carrying out air strikes during the initial days of the conflict and that the Prime Minister had had to intervene to order air strikes. It is quite unlikely that the CAS had the ultimate authority to say yes or no to the use of the air force (as implied by the media reports) even if he may have had reservations on that matter—an opinion that he would be fully entitled to as a seasoned professional. Any qualms that were existent had been about the use of Mi 35 helicopters, which were not suitable for the elevation of almost the entire area of operations. The use of fighter aircraft in anger, a decidedly escalatory course of action, would have necessitated government approval. The air option was indeed exercised after a joint briefing in the Operations Room of the Military Operations Directorate in Army HQ where the COAS and the CAS decided to present a case for doing so to the Cabinet Committee on Security.16 However, the point being made is that, following the speculative reports in some sections of the press, there was no immediate clarification issued on the subject so that irresponsible conjecture could be nipped in the bud.

The loss of two Indian fighter aircraft on May 27, 1999 was one information battle India lost in the Kargil war. A MiG 27 was lost due to an engine failure and a MiG 21 was shot down by Pakistani SAMs while its pilot was trying to locate the wreckage of the crashed MiG 27. The two aircraft were lost in the morning hours on May 27 but there was considerable delay in the issuance of an authenticated version of what had actually transpired. Meanwhile, the Pakistani PR machinery went into overdrive and splashed international media with reports that Indian fighter aircraft had intruded 15 kms into Pakistani airspace17 and had been shot down by Pakistani SAMs inside Pakistani territory. The first Indian communication to the media was made at around 16:30 hours. All refutations thereafter by Indian sources and insistence by the air force spokesman, Air Vice Marshal SK Malik, that both aircraft had been flying on the Indian side of the LoC18 served only as rearguard action. Had a pro-active stand been taken promptly the damage could have been minimised. In defence of the air force media strategy it would be worthwhile to mention the fact that throughout the period of operations, the air force gave out measured, well contemplated statements, devoid of hyperbole and painstakingly accurate in detail. As a result no statement from air force sources ever needed to be amended, modified or retracted.

Speculative reports in the press about the use of Mirage aircraft for offensive roles against targets near the LoC19 continued to appear for days without any denial or confirmation during the daily briefings or through official statements. It was only at the fag end of the whole period of air action that the Mirage employment was confirmed by air force sources.20 The only explanation is the military mind-set of divulging operational matters on a strictly need-to-know basis. It would have been understandable if the details of deployment, numbers and flying effort had been kept from the media. However, to reserve comment on the use of a particular type of aircraft was not a media friendly action, especially when the 'enemy' against whom the attacks were being carried out would have recognised the type of aircraft visually. The question then is who was the information being kept from? A similar confusion prevailed on the use of the Mirage as a platform for precision guided munitions (namely Laser Guided Bombs). Some sections of the under-informed public clamoured therefore for the use of these munitions while others lamented the use of such expensive weapon systems; neither could be reproached for their views in the absence of a clear cut official line on the matter.

An opportunity on the media front was squandered when the grossly mutilated bodies of six Indian soldiers were handed over by the Pakistanis on June 9, 1999. Earlier, the body of Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja had been handed over; there was unquestionable evidence of his having been shot dead after he had ejected from his aircraft. That barbaric act should have prepared us for fresh gruesome acts and we should have lost no time in storming the international media by providing a first hand view of the bodies and splashing explosive pictures on all newspapers and TV screens. Instead, even a full day later the bodies had been taken over, MEA and Army spokesmen could not even confirm whether organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Commission for Human Rights would be present during the post mortem.21 The effect of international media exposing the brutal Pakistani cruelty to the world in contrast to the Indian restraint (including the humane act of burying the enemy's dead at 18,000 feet) would have done the Indian cause an immense amount of good.

It may also be mentioned here that international media was, in a manner of speaking, discriminated against during the entire period of operations for "security" reasons. As one illustration of the consequent opportunity costs, India paid in terms of diplomatic footage, the BBC—often cited for its impartial coverage—showed a definite leaning away from the Indian point of view. Whatever BBC covered in Kargil, the Pakistani angle was presented to its viewers as factual statements while the Indian side was deliberately cloaked in contentious terms. Typically, whenever referring to the Pakistani occupants of positions on the Indian side of the LoC, BBC termed them as "what the Indian government is calling the infiltrators".22

Similarly, when the first dead body of a Pakistani soldier was recovered with his identification papers intact, the media reported it only in one-line statements.23 The import of the discovery was enormous but the media could not or did not give it its due importance; perhaps the absence of any conclusive evidence (a picture, or better still, the identification papers themselves) detracted from the credibility of the report. It is understood that this could not be done because of procedural delays in the authentication/inspection of the relevant documents at the appropriate level. By the time the documents could have been made available, their value to the media would have been negligible.

The debate on a possible crossing of the LoC by India into Pakistan held territory which tickled the nation's imagination for many a day was also kindled by the media, but failed to ignite into a meaningful blaze because it lacked the fuel of military inputs on the mechanics of launching attacks across the LoC.

A minor debate was also kept alive throughout the period of the operation about the daily cost of operations on the LoC. In the absence of any authoritative figure being available, the media kept up its kite flying exercises in guessing the right figure. Understandably, the estimates varied enormously from each other.

Conclusion

On June 7, 1999, the New Delhi Commissioner of Police ordered cable operators to stop relaying Pakistan Television programmes on their respective networks in view of the anti-India propaganda being carried out by that channel.24 The Central Government also gave similar orders effective from June 8 1999. The orders went unheeded in areas bordering Pakistan where TV sets could pick up PTV signals directly without the aid of cable network dish antennas. However, the implication of these orders is unequivocal—information warfare matters.

While the PTV ban highlighted the exaggerated propaganda content of that channel, Indian media was, in contrast, characterised by restraint and balance. Even Pakistani pressmen have privately acknowledged this fact. The fact that Pakistani media was effectively muzzled under the Nawaz Sharif regime had a lot to do with the matter.

These concluding remarks are not intended to summarise the various issues discussed earlier; instead it is pointed out that on matters concerned with national security and more specifically, defence related subjects, there is a need for introspection. We need to take a pragmatic look at our attitude towards considering some inconsequential pieces of information as "official secrets" and safeguarding them; perhaps regulated flow of that information would serve the national interest better. Similarly, the good old system of defence journalism—based on young, physically tough and mentally alert reporters in uniform—needs to be given a thought; the fear therein is that continuity may be achieved at the cost of objectivity. It may be pertinent to mention here that the leading national dailies had their correspondents/reporters on or very near the LoC almost throughout the duration of reportable military operations; their datelines reveal this open secret. The trend of growing importance the military attaches to relations with the media is an encouraging and healthy one that needs to be nurtured. Finally, if in future we wish to avoid the mutual dissatisfaction that was manifest during the Kargil episode, a questioning look is warranted at the organisation and functioning of the defence PR machinery. The foreseeable criticality of Information Warfare in future Kargil-like situations absolutely ordains it.

 

NOTES

1. Major General Arjun Ray, "Kashmir Diary: Psychology of Militancy", (New Delhi: Manas Publications, 1997), p. 66.

2. Major General Ashok Mehta, "Fighting the Real Battle", Sunday, July 4-10, 1999, P20.

3. VC Natarajan and AK Chakraborty, "Information War in Defence Strategy", (New Delhi: Trishul Publications, 1998), p. 97.

4. Prem Shankar Jha, "The Information War", Outlook, July 5, 1999, P14.

5. Shri AG Noorani as quoted in Media Communication Course Reading Material supplied by Indian Institute for Mass Communication, New Delhi 1996.

6. K. Subrahmanyam, "White Lies, Black Propaganda", The Times of India, New Delhi, 25 April 1999.

7. Wilson Jones, "A Communication Gap", The Pioneer, July 13, 1999.

8. V.C. Natarajan and AK Chakraborty, Ibid. pp. 19-22.

9. Ibid., p. 21.

10. Madhu Trehan, "No Comment", Outlook, July 26, 1999, p. 72.

11. War-like Situation on Loc: The Times of India, June 1, 1999.

12. "Situation in Kargil War-like, Says Fernandes", The Times of India, July 7, 1999.

13. Michael Fathers, "On the Brink", Time, July 7, 1999, p. 16.

14. Heightened Conflict, The Times of India, May 28, 1999.

15. "Kargil: How US Media Took The Cue From White House", The Indian Express, July 23, 1999.

16. Manoj Joshi, "Blasting Peace," India Today, June 7, 1999, p. 21.

17. Pakistan Downs Indian MiG, The Times of India, May 28, 1999.

18. Michael Fathers, "On The Brink," Time, June 7, 1999, p. 16.

19. "IAF Presses Mirage Into Action, The Hindustan Times, May 31, 1999.

20. "IAF Was Ready For Fourth Indo-Pak War", The Free Press Journal, Mumbai, July 13, 1999, reported Air Vice Marshal V. Patney PVSM AVSM VrC ADC, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western Air Command, speaking of Laser Guided Bombs having been used during the operation while addressing a Press Conference on July 12, 1999.

21. "Outrage at Pak Barbarism With Captured Soldiers", The Times of India, June 11, 1999.

22. BBC World (TV News Programme), June 2, 1999.

23. "Three Pak Soldiers Found Dead", The Hindustan Times, June 5, 1999.

24. "Stop Relaying PTV, Police Tell Cable Operators", The Times of India, June 6, 1999.