Army and the Social Media: Emerging Challenges
Major General Mrinal Suman
Venting of grievances by the soldiers on the social media is a new phenomenon. The recent torrent of videos has caught the services unaware. It is a challenge whose severity is bound to increase with the development and proliferation of technology. It is time serious attention is paid to address the issue as it has the potential to promote indiscipline, spread disaffection, weaken officer-man cohesion and undermine morale. While discussing the issue, three critical imperatives need to be kept in mind.
First, the quality of the contemporary soldierly stock is quite different. Earlier, rural youth with little education and limited demands joined the Indian army. They were hardy and accepted the privations of the environment without questioning them. The army of today is more ubiquitous. It draws manpower from all segments of the society. The current generation of soldiers is better educated. Having being exposed to the electronic media, their awareness level is of a much higher order.
Consequently, there has been a phenomenal rise in the expectations and aspirations of the soldiers. They have become very conscious of their position, and are sensitive to any threat, real or perceived, to their self-worth. Like the rest of the society, their value system is also undergoing major changes. They question various policies and practices, and are quick to spot iniquities and imperfections of the system.
Secondly, nature and character of the media have undergone major changes in the last few years. There has been a massive proliferation of electronic media beaming 24/7 news. As most Indian media agencies do not possess adequate resources for gathering true ground reports, most tend to presuppose details and base their reports on hearsay or conjectures. In the absence of genuine news material, they tend to concoct news to be the first to break a story.
Worse, Indian print and electronic media thrives on sensationalism. For example, repeated running of the soldiers’ videos on news channels was hardly warranted. An unhappy soldier’s shot of an over-cooked chapatti was not an issue of national concern, as was made out by the competing media. Notwithstanding the above, the media cannot be wished away. The army will have to learn to cope with its waywardness.
Thirdly, technology is a double-edged weapon. It can be a friend or a foe. In the hands of inimical elements, social media can be a lethal tool. It has unprecedented reach and can be cleverly manipulated to tweak the truth to present a distorted version of the facts. Our troops are tech-savvy and are cognizant of the power of the social media. When under stress, they may be tempted to resort to venting their disenchantment through it.
Whereas the soldiers can be deterred through the threats of disciplinary proceedings, the same cannot be said of their families, friends and sympathizers. With smartphones, it is easy to upload photographs/videos. The electronic media is always on the lookout for such anomalous news to enhance TRPs. It is a challenge that defies a straightforward solution.
The Way Forward
In a 1.3 million strong force, it is well nigh impossible to keep everyone happy. There will always be some with grievances, both perceived and real.
Three steps can be taken to contain the problem. One, efforts should be made to ensure that the time-tested norms of man-management are given additional importance to improve general satisfaction level and minimize complaints. Two, well-established mechanism of redressal of grievances should be strengthened and made more credible. Three, the environment should be made aware of the true state of affairs in the army to contain the negative fallout.
· Appreciating Soldiers’ Sensitivities
Changed environment demands a change in leadership techniques. Leaders have to learn to handle the soldiers with more compassion. Compassion does not mean dilution of discipline. On the contrary, a compassionate leader acquires moral authority and psychological ascendency over his command. Troops respect him and trust him. Willing obedience and discipline are the natural corollary.
Soldiers are facing much higher levels of stress these days. Regular contact with the families through modern telecom keeps soldiers embroiled in day to day problems faced by their families – children falling sick or not studying or ill-health of parents or troubles caused by unruly neighbours. Soldiers feel helpless and become fretful. Earlier joint family system took care of many such exigencies.
Further, with an increase in the education level of soldiers’ wives, many are highly qualified and gainfully employed. They prefer to stay at one place for the sake of their career and children’s education. Resultantly, soldiers are deprived of family support in times of emotional disturbances. At times, stress tends to become distress.
In addition, modern soldier is highly conscious of his self-esteem. Most soldiers abhor sahayak (buddy) duties and consider them to be degrading. To start with, no soldier should be detailed on these duties in the stations where families are allowed to stay. Similarly, soldiers resent being detailed to cut grass or sweep roads or maintain golf courses. All tasks related to the maintenance of cantonment facilities must be outsourced to civilian agencies.
In other words, measures must be initiated to ensure that a soldier’s sensitivities are not unduly offended. No soldier should ever be asked to perform jobs which he considers to be ‘unsoldierlike’ and humiliating. Stress and humiliation make a lethal combination, generating ‘pressure cooker effect’ that results in irrational behavior.
· Strengthening Existing Mechanism for the Redressal of Grievances
Indian army has a sound mechanism in place for the redressal of soldiers’ grievances. For personal issues, every soldier has a right to seek audience with his seniors through ‘Arzi Report’. In case his company commander is unable to solve the problem, the matter is referred to the unit commander. Level of ‘Arzi Report’ keeps getting raised, till the aggrieved soldier gets full redressal.
Senior inspecting officers invariably inspect ‘Arzi Report Registers’ of units and sub-units to gauge the overall quality of man-management. Records indicate the nature of common grievances and the degree of attention being paid to redress them.
If the Arzi Report route fails to satisfy a soldier fully, he can submit written appeal to the Chief (non-statutory complaints). All intermediate headquarters are required to study them and take necessary curative action, if within their powers. In case they are unable to resolve the matter, the case is put up to the higher authorities, till it reaches the Army Headquarters. Final decision is given by the Chief. If still unsatisfied, an aggrieved soldier can approach the Central Government through a statutory complaint.
In some units, due to the shortage of officers, a certain degree of complacency has crept in the ‘Arzi Report’ process. Written complaints rarely elicit response in the specified time-frame. Bureaucratic approach of the staff officers at the higher headquarters denies timely justice to the aggrieved. Immediate action needs to be taken to put the whole system back on track.
· Enhancing Media Awareness
For the media, attractiveness of news is directly proportional to its shock effect. As denigration sells, negative projection of all entities hogs limelight for days. The army is no exception.
As the media lacks resources and intimate knowledge of the services, it follows the easiest path of resorting to collecting bits of information to create news. Invariably such one-sided reporting turns out to be factually incorrect and damaging to the army.
On the other hand, the media justifiably faults the army for being unduly secretive and not sharing news with it. There is a need for mutual sensitization. Appreciating media’s compulsions/limitations, efforts should be made to educate it as regards army’s ethos, culture and functioning. Information should be shared with media in an honest and forthright manner, accepting weaknesses upfront to retain credibility. A well-informed media will not fall prey to some rogue videos that malign the army.
Unfortunately, the army has failed to respond to the videos in a mature manner. Instead of reposing faith in the time-tested mechanism for the redressal of grievances, the Army Chief has ordered placement of complaint boxes at all formation headquarters. It was an immature and panic reaction. Asking soldiers to forward complaints directly to him is a highly terrifying and perilous proposition. It undermines the complete chain of command, the keystone of army’s disciplinary bedrock. It is a proposition where the cure is worse than the disease.
Indian soldiers are a highly disciplined lot. They do not resort to indiscipline unless driven to it. As army’s environment is highly disciplined, hierarchal and restrictive, pent-up frustration may find expression through the social media. However, a vigilant and sympathetic leader can provide a ‘safety-valve’ to the stressed soldier through empathy and counsel. With commander’s support, he will feel reassured and relieved of all anxieties. Most complaints will cease to exist.
The system of redressal of grievances must be made more responsive and compassionate. Troops must be convinced that their genuine concerns would be attended to in a just, fair and time-bound manner. Necessary measures should be instituted to improve satisfaction level of the environment.
In the media-led world of today, perception is reality and perception is based on the image projected by the media. Therefore, the media can neither be ignored nor dismissed as irrelevant. Hence, it is necessary to keep the media apprised of all the developments, lest it is forced to release an asymmetrical story due to army’s failure to respond in time. It is equally important to accept organizational weaknesses honestly and use them as portals for corrective reforms.