Upping the media ante

by Editorial

Even as Indian Army in a major operation occupied the intimidating key commanding heights and completely surprised the Chinese, the role of the electronic media was distressing and astonishing, with many news channels going to town at a time when the nation is facing a conflict situation on its borders. Getting information about the security of the country is the right of every citizen, but it needs moderation and balance, or else it would be counter-productive.

After jostling for effective control over posts in the areas of Fingers on the north bank of the Pangong Tso lake, Galwan Heights, Patrol Points 14 and 15, Gogra and Depsang in the Eastern Ladakh since April 22, the Indian Army in a facile ‘coup de main’ operation occupied the intimidating commanding heights of Black Top, Helmet Top, Gurung Hill, Magar Hill, Rezang La and Rachinla on the south bank overlooking the strategic Spanggur Gap and Pangong Tso Lake on the night of 29- 30 August and completely surprised the Chinese. By this single manoeuvre, the Indian Army totally stalemated and effectively countered the traditional Salami Slicing stratagem of the PLA entailing vicious operational blackmail as usual.

The Indians had taken just one night to play their innings in response to the sluggish batting of the Chinese over the past hundred and thirty days. It had gained the IA a favourable moral ascendancy during any future dialogue that would be held between the opposing sides. The ball was now squarely in the Chinese court. The next move belonged to the PLA. However, that is not the purpose of this narrative.

The visual media channels literally went to town with the story. Pompous claims were made that the units of the ‘normally under the cloak’ Special Frontier Force (SFF) organisation, also called Vikas, had achieved this seemingly stupendous task. Throwing all rules of circumspection to the winds, the videos of training of the Vikas troops were fished out from the archives and were played with blaring background music and laudatory comments of the articulate anchors. There was no doubt that the SFF had played a stellar role and would get the credit when the situation stabilises, but where was the hurry to prematurely post-mortem the operation before it is over?

In any case, the IA had reportedly occupied a frontage of over twenty kilometres and seized about eight to ten major posts, if not more. Surely, it was inconceivable that the SFF would accomplish this feat by itself. It was evident that it required the strength and muscles of a major formation, which was by various accounts and analyses of the experts guesstimated to be of an infantry brigade plus sup- ported by complements of other arms and services. It is nobody’s case that the organisation and capabilities of SFF are close secrets from our adversaries. The detailed information pertaining to the Establishment 22 incepted in the wake of the India-China War of 1962 is available on Google by mere press of a key.

The exploits of SFF in Chittagong hill tracts in support of the Mukti Bahini or in Turtok area are well documented and are in the open domain. However, it is imperative that the details of the employment and deployment, and to an extent even its mention, of these special units must remain under a shroud till reasonable time lapses after the conflict. The secret missions always carry this ‘professional hazard’ as a part of their mandate not to be recognised and given their due credit till well after the event is over, the brusque savour of the media channels for the TRP notwithstanding. There is another nuance connected with it. The recognition of Tibetan struggle may seemingly be a gracious act and may help to intimidate the adversary, but it would present associated problems and prove to be counter-productive if the operation is to be wound up, when there is an agreement to return to pre-April 22 position or close to it, which is what India desires.

When the nation is facing a conflict situation on its borders, it is not only distress- ing but even astonishing, that there is a demand in the media to know details of every move, every alleged transgression or incursion on the border by the adversary. It cannot be denied that it is the right of every citizen in a democratic country like India to know every piece of information relating to the security of his country, yet it needs moderation and balance. It would be naive to expect every aspect of an ongoing operational situation to be revealed for public consumption instantly, particularly when the political systems prevalent in our two adversary countries permit them to reveal nothing. Rather, it would be immensely counter-productive.

The damage done by the news broadcast of a media channel when the troops were being landed on the roof of the Hotel Taj during the terrorist strike on 26/11, which was heard by the terrorists inside the hotel and in turn relayed to their mentors in Islamabad, is a fit case in point. The shindy raised on various channels to know where ‘exactly the Chinese have intruded’ during the period since April was bewildering. Due to the advanced digital surveillance technology which is now available in the public domain, claims and counter- claims on the information provided by the authorities were flagrantly debated.

t was sad to see some well- informed and erudite veterans of the Armed Forces, now media wizards, alleging that the Government and the Indian Army Authorities were ‘lying through their teeth’. The Author holds no brief for the Establishment but his common sense about the National Security earned during thirty-six years of soldiering ventures him to assert that in a developing security situation on the border or even within the country, there is no need to announce every ‘truth’ as it eventuates. Winston Churchill once said, “The truth in war is so important that it has to be guarded by many lies around it”!

The 24×7 live broadcasts on multiple media channels permit the arm-chair experts and the anchors to dissect every nook and corner of the operational plans and their execution at length. Strangely, they forget that they have not only the benefit of ample time at their disposal, which is a major deficit with the higher and middle-rung military commanders in the field, but they also have the benefit of the retrospective wisdom. Of course, there is nothing wrong in it. But it was confounding to find sophisticated and seasoned expert anchors questioning the soundness of operational plans with an evident nascence of the tactical aspects. It was amusing to listen to one of these expert anchors asking as to why the operation to seize the unheld peaks around the Spanggur Gap could not be taken up much earlier and whether we lost valuable strategic advantage and time by this delay. It should be under-
stood that occupation of any heights ranging between 15,000 ft and 17,000 ft is a complex operation which needs a detailed appreciation of all aspects involved.

The selection, briefing and movement of troops without any ‘giveaway’ have to be undertaken deliberately. The build-up of the administrative support is more time consuming, if the positions are expected to be held over a long period against the enemy reaction. The aspects of stocking of ammunition, rations, defence stores, reinforcement and a variety of other issues are to be planned for, the stores are to be moved in the vicinity of the objectives, all supporting arms are to be deployed and medical evacuation arrangements to be made. All operational and administrative arrangements are to be completed before launch- ing the operation and this requires time. But above all this, a military commander would undertake the operation at the place and time of his choosing. The anchor may have been blissfully unaware else he would not have made such a ‘piercing’ observation! Can a famous quote be reframed to say, “War is too serious a business to be left to the media”!

Major General Shashikant Pitre is an Indian Army veteran. He has commanded an Infantry Di- vision and was the Chief of Staff of Army Training Command.

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