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A soldier asks : Viral videos of army men – who benefits?

The Indian Army is a force which is over 13 Lakh strong, with its units located across the length and breadth of the country, from major metropolitan cities, to the remotest corners of country. A large portion of it, at any given time, is deployed in extremely hostile environments, climatically and / or made so by deployment to counter external or internal forces acting against the sovereignty and integrity of the country.

Besides carrying out its core functions – vigil, operations, and training for preparedness – it also is more or less geared to cater for its own logistics. And whenever a disaster strikes, it is also called upon in succour of citizens and property affected, whether by earthquake, flood or tsunami. And even its bitterest critics can’t deny that it has been able to deliver each and every time – in wars, counter insurgency or disaster relief, our army has been successful in meeting the challenges thrown at it.

It’s hard to imagine that such a huge organisation, carrying out complex functions of such multitude in scope and scale, can do so successfully without any room for shortcomings. Law of probability dictates that there would be errors, omissions and instances of mismanagement. Yet, what matters is the existence of mechanisms to deal with such flaws, to enforce accountability amongst those responsible, learn from the experience and continue to function with undiminished if not enhanced effectiveness.

Similarly, it is natural for a percentage of people forming such a huge ecosystem to have complaints and grievances, against the organisation or against individuals in the organisation. Again, what matters is the robustness of built-in mechanisms for redressal of such grievances. The track record of the armed forces has been praiseworthy on both these accounts. It would be impossible to continue functioning as an effective organisation with people willing to risk their limbs and lives every day in the absence of this.

Yet, of late we are witnessing videos by a handful of armed forces personnel, airing grievances, appear in social media. Mainstream media has also taken cue from these and tried to derive maximum mileage out of each such instance, sensationalizing the story and adding their two bits worth. The videos are taken at face value, without investigation, and are held as representative of the larger scheme of things.

The initial response of the lay observers to the videos highlighting grievances such as poor quality of food or exploitation of soldiers in menial work is naturally one of indignation, since the jawan commands the love and respect of common people. They’re justifiably outraged at the apparent plight of the soldiers who are braving hardships and risking their lives, yet have to reach out in apparent helplessness in this way.

However, what they don’t realize is that they’re seeing the facts from a one-sided perspective of the alleged victim. Events and circumstances leading up to the state of affairs are often glossed over, even misrepresented, by the protagonist in order to gain sympathy.

A section of the media, ever hungry for eyeballs and willing to sensationalize issues, plays a highly irresponsible role in further flaming the outrage. While common viewers on social media can be pardoned for going along with the narrative of such videos, responsible journalists can’t.

It’s their job to first ascertain the veracity of the claims and investigate the other side of the story before propagating it. For example, in the latest of such cases, a news channel not only televised the video posted by one such jawan, but also tracked him down to a transit camp in Chandigarh and broadcast his interview.

The facts of the case, as released by the army are as under –

So, the jawan in question had been punished for other offences, including being Absent Without Leave and refusal to carry out the duties he was enlisted for (he was recruited as a housekeeper in the medical corps, with duties including cleaning bedpans of patients).

However, it seems that since the issue of sahayaks has been in news of late, he decided to falsely allege that he was being harassed for refusal to function as an officer’s sahayak. The news channel did not even once verify if he was really a sahayak.

The airing of such unverified allegations by national television channels is extremely damaging to the overall fabric of the army, as it undermines the chain of command of the forces, and also serves to cause disaffection between officers and men. In fact, these are exactly the things that an enemy would want, and the media is knowingly or unwittingly doing the job for them.

What citizens must realize is that the army has a functional, robust system of grievance redressal, from the grassroots unit level right up to the Chief of Army Staff. Commanding Officer of every unit has an orderly room procedure once a week, wherein any jawan can meet him and bring out any grievance. Once a month the CO mandatorily holds a Sainik Sammelan, which is like an open house with all ranks in attendance. Here, any soldier has the freedom to bring any issue to the notice of the CO before the whole unit. The proceedings of these sammelans are recorded in a register, including the points raised by jawans, and these are periodically inspected by higher headquarters. If the complainant feels that the CO has not been fair or has been unable to solve his problem, he can file a formal complaint in writing, called ‘Redressal of Grievances’ which, depending on the issue, may go right up to the Chief. Besides, the Chief also recently shared a Whatsapp number of a cell created at his office to look into such complaints.

It’s obvious that there are ample avenues for someone genuinely wronged to seek justice within the system. The trouble is that the rigors of military service, with its gruelling routine, harsh discipline, and strict adherence to procedures, themselves sometimes appear as oppression to some. So a jawan who returns late from leave or refuses to do his authorised duty and is punished, feels that he is being wronged. Obviously the system would not offer any redressal to such cases.

Media – mainstream and social – have come to be seen as a means for instant justice by such people. However, neither they, nor people who sympathise with them based on limited knowledge, realize that though they may get their moments in the limelight, such posts will only add to their problems rather than solving them. In fact, since an act like that amounts to bypassing the command channel and posting about service matters on social media, it opens them up for further disciplinary action. The media, although aware of this, still doesn’t hesitate to hunt them down and air their stories, heedless of the consequences on the subject of their story.

Such incidents are thus harmful to the individual as well as the army as an organisation. The only beneficiaries are the media, to whom it’s just another news cycle sensationalised before the next outrage comes along. The other beneficiaries are of course, our adversaries, whose work of psychological warfare and lowering the morale of the army is cheerfully being carried out by the media.

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A former Army officer, now a Learning and Development consultant, Author of 'Delhi Durbar 1911 - The Complete Story', 'Riding the Raisina Tiger', 'Brave Men of War - Tales of Valour 1965', 'In the Line of Fire' and 'Academy - Bonded for Life'. He was also part of the panel  engaged by Ministry of Defence for writing official history of India's participation in First World War. Follow Rohit on Twitter @ragarwal

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