Monday, December 4, 2023

‘Strategic Communication’: Need of the hour in Kashmir – Defence News

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By Anubhav Shankar Goswami

Earlier in October this year, as part of Operation Sadbhavana, the Indian Army launched the Jammu and Kashmir Special Scholarship Scheme 2023. By providing financial help and scholarships to students who demonstrate remarkable talent and devotion, this project aims to close the achievement gap between rich and impoverished pupils. The scholarship programme will sponsor the education of 146 students from various districts in the valley. Each student will receive financial support of Rs 1.2 lakh.

While Op Sadbhavana began in 1997, its implementation has been more effective since the amendment of Article 370 which has brought noticeable change in the approach of local Kashmiris toward the Indian Army and the Indian state in general.

According to Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy of ORF, reducing the alienation of Kashmiri people through the narrative of the Indian state as ‘development agent’ and ‘benevolent power’ has been a key policy of New Delhi to foster state legitimacy in the Kashmir valley. The narrative is developed through the utilisation of the armed forces beyond its military utility in a development-centred approach to counter terrorism where it also assumes the role of a ‘development agent’ mandated to aid and assist a functional civilian government. This WHAM (winning hearts and minds) strategy, called operation Sadbhavana, has been implemented in Jammu and Kashmir since 1997 and has been described as a strategy of “iron fist in a velvet glove” in 2005 by former Chief of Army Staff General J.J. Singh.

However, Op Sadbhavana must not be considered as a silver bullet to eliminate terrorism in the valley. Anything that adds to the material well-being of underprivileged rural inhabitants is a worthy endeavour. Nonetheless, terrorism or insurgent movements are not merely problems of poverty. Terrorism that crops up based on religion or ethnicity or mix of both cannot be merely stamped down by substituting political rights with schools and health centres. Meeting such a national security threat requires more than a programme of economic development and raising the standard of living. It is here the role of strategic communication by counter-terrorists becomes important to defeat the religious and ethnic ideologies that drive these religio-ethnic armed movements.

Strategic Communication

The world has been undergoing an information technology revolution since the 1990s. This fundamental shift has thrown significant security difficulties and profound repercussions on how nations conduct war. Controlling the battle space’s narrative is receiving more and more attention. Military objectives, planning and contingencies are conceptualised in relation to narrative meaning. A crucial element of such a strategy, which seeks to exert some level of influence over the media so that the general public is aware of the military’s goals, is strategic communication (StratComm).

StratComm is a relatively new concept. According to Christopher Paul of Rand Corporation, “coordinated actions, messages, images, and other forms of signalling or engagement intended to inform, influence, or persuade selected audiences in support of national objectives”. In a nutshell, it proposes that in order to dissipate violent socio-political movements, a wide range of communication techniques and deliberate measures, encompassing initiatives across several agencies and non-governmental organisations, are required.

Terrorism/insurgency emanating from an ideological perspective requires a strategy that puts equal focus on winning hearts and minds of people along with killing or capturing terrorists and insurgents. Counter-terrorists have to come up with a comprehensive StratComm to tackle radical social movements and their ideology. Fred T. Krawchuk, former U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel, defines this comprehensive approach as:

“A comprehensive approach to strategic communication recognizes that the ideology a terrorist or insurgent group espouses is a critical component of these groups. Ideology serves as a recruiting tool and galvanizes foot soldiers, financiers, logisticians, and indirect supporters. It is the lifeblood of an organization. Deep-seated values, beliefs, and norms inform perspectives, influence actions, and forge networks with like-minded individuals. Ideology provides assumptions about how the world works, shapes priorities, and offers the rationale for decisions terrorists and insurgents make.”

A close look at Krawchuk’s definition emphasises that any StratComm initiative has to take the understanding of the dominant ideology and the cultural terrain of a disturbed place for its successful germination. Explaining further, he writes:

“A successful strategic communication strategy encompasses a deep understanding of why people join terrorist or insurgency groups. People join, fund, tolerate, support, and/or encourage others to join movements due to many factors, ranging from the bottom of the hierarchy of human needs and values (safety and security) to the top (self- actualization). Some people support insurgent groups because they are afraid to do anything else, or because insurgents help them meet their basic needs, such as food or housing. When people see other sources of power and decide that these alternatives are sufficiently robust to last, people switch allegiances…”

Multiple studies have already found strong correlation between positive communications and a reduction in terrorism in target areas. Therefore, it is imperative upon the Indian state to offer ‘alternative ideologies’ along with improved economic opportunity or security, to eliminate terrorism in Kashmir. Much of counter-terrorism energy should be devoted to building this new/alternative ideology. Following the amendment of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that integrated Jammu and Kashmir fully with the Indian state, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asserted that the action was aimed at putting an end to dynasty politics in the state and usher in a “Naya Kashmir” (New Kashmir) with focus on development-oriented governance. This message of Naya Kashmir needs amplification from the top to the bottom of the society. One such initiative called Radio Chinar, a community radio station by the Indian Army, broadcasts programmes that are shaping the New Kashmir on ground.

Is India taking effective StratComm in the Kashmir valley?

In Kashmir, India’s enemies have been conducting a fierce information and psychological assault. Pakistan has used its all-available state apparatuses to physically and digitally sway Kashmiris’ opinions. An institutionalised framework is required to combat the information and psychological wars, which India does not have currently. This could be ascertained from the lack of coordination between Indian security forces in waging an information war. For example, the Indian Army declared in May 2020 that going forward, the identity of the terrorist killed in an encounter won’t be publicised, and he/she will remain simply another terrorist. This was done to discourage the unjustified glorification of terrorists. However, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Jammu Kashmir Police (JKP) continue to identify slain terrorists and record their criminal deeds in official press releases. This lack of uniformity in strategic messaging by the different security organisations of the Indian government undermines efforts to counter Pakistani propaganda and narrative.

The internet and social media have also been weaponized by Islamabad to spread fake news, fabricated stories, extremist viewpoints, altered photos and videos, etc. Pakistan Armed Forces’ media and public relations wing, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), has roped in Pakistani celebrities with substantial following in the Indian sub-continent, Middle East and Turkey to create propaganda songs about supposed Indian atrocities in Kashmir. These songs, uploaded on ISPR’s YouTube channel, are blatantly hateful and fabricated. For ex, ISPR collaborated with Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan of Mitwa fame to create the Ja Chor De Meri Wadi which had rebel rousing lines like “Kashmiri hun mera khun musalman, taqt kalma”. Such lyrics sung by a popular singer are aimed at appealing to the religious identity of the Kashmiris and provoking them to wage Jihad against the Indian state. 

As of date, the Indian state’s response to Pakistani propaganda is confined around restricting YouTube channels, deleting few accounts across social media etc. For example, ISPR’s Ja Chor De Meri Wadi is longer accessible on the ISPR channel in the Indian YouTube. Nevertheless, it continues to exist on the internet. Therefore, a more credible approach would be to enhance India’s StratComm by roping its own global icons to spread the message of Naya Kashmir. In the past, Bollywood celebrities had collaborated with many successful government campaign ads that were aimed at eliminating AIDS, Tuberculosis, Malnutrition etc. Therefore, the impact of Indian celebrities in influencing public behaviour has a proven track record. The government now needs to tap their incredible influence to blunt Pakistani propaganda in the valley. Such measures and many more will safeguard the Kashmiri people from cross-border psychological targeting.

The author is PhD Scholar, Murdoch University, Research Associate, Centre for Air Power Studies. Twitter: Anubhav Shankar (@Shankar5Anubhav)

 Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.

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