It Is As Significant As The War Against Terror
Perception management in Kashmir has been and remains one of the biggest challenges for the state. Cross-border terrorism, a major concern further exacerbated by the current geo-political scenario, is just one aspect of the problem. A significant challenge before the policy planners is the management of perceptions. This is part of what the military doctrine calls Information Warfare (IW). For many years, the state has assiduously followed the Goodwill doctrine. In adhering to it, the purpose of the state was to create goodwill through outreach. The doctrine has been under severe criticism from many quarters within the establishment.
The criticism may have been misplaced. The Goodwill doctrine had the desired results when we were able to open the communication channels with the people of Kashmir. Equally, the state was able to rein in certain forces in the separatist camp and bring them into the mainstream. By following the Goodwill doctrine, the state was able to achieve specific objectives. When the extremist discourse was dominating, the state was able to create space for moderate voices. The importance of adhering to this doctrine must be recognized. Now when the discourse in Kashmir is being steered on different lines, the Goodwill doctrine still holds water. It remains relevant in the current times with an entirely different target group. Now, the Goodwill doctrine must bring into its ambit our own people who are alienated. Internally, one of the fundamental issues faced by the state in Kashmir is regarding changing the perceptions. Or till the shift happens, at least managing the perceptions on a large scale.
WHY IT IS IMPORTANT TO MANAGE PERCEPTIONS IN KASHMIR
Strategy is wisdom. Managing perceptions is essential for national security. Why? Because actions arise from perceptions. Perceptions condition the mind to act in ways that may detrimental for internal or external security. It is in this context that the state must drive perception. What is the importance of managing perceptions in Kashmir? We can understand it by way of this example. There is a village on the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway near Sangam, by the name Halamullah. The entire hamlet and the neighbouring villages along the National Highway are into the business of making cricket bats. This industry is considered to be the backbone of the local economy in the area. These villages have been into the business of making cricket bats for decades. Through this industry, employment is provided to thousands of skilled and semi-skilled labourers.
From my childhood, I have keenly observed that the cricket bat business booms when the Indian cricket team wins any tournament. The industry gets a swift boost, and the people associated with the business make handsome profit. The gains further multiply when India registers a win against arch-rival Pakistan. The domestic tourists visiting Kashmir go in for massive purchase of cricket bats on such occasions. Demand pours in from business houses in the mainland, and huge orders are received for cricket bats. When India loses any tournament, the demand for cricket bats dips, and the business faces a low time.
The contradiction I have repeatedly observed is this. For years, I observed that the people in the cricket bat business, or perhaps those in their neighbourhood would celebrate the defeat of the Indian cricket team, particularly when it was pitted against Pakistan. They would burn firecrackers on Pakistan’s victory over India in any format of the game. This to me is the classical example of the perception management. In Pakistan’s defeat lies the win of the local manufacturers and traders engaged in the cricket bat industry. The victory of the Indian cricket team against Pakistan would bring them prosperity. Nevertheless, the celebrations were reserved for Pakistan’s victory. Still, they would wish that India should lose and Pakistan should win. This is the perception management which the Indian state has ignored for decades. It never attempted to change the perception. A specific pattern that was seen at ground level was this. Flared tempers after a particularly crucial cricket match would lead to celebrations in favour of Pakistan, sloganeering and show of strength in some areas. Admittedly, such reaction was engineered by separatist forces. But it emboldened the divisive elements within the society. This violence conditioned the next generation. It further normalized deviant social behaviour. It deepened negative sentiment against the state among innocent children and youth.
The major issue of concern is this. That the social ripples of anti-state conditioning go far beyond what can be fathomed or measured. The state must move forward and ensure public engagement on vital issues that impact the society and economy. This is best done by strengthening the locals. This is best done by vocalizing the locals with the right ideology. If the state has the vision and the drive to make it happen, it can find local influencers who shall take on this challenging task.
FAULTY LOCAL NARRATIVES MUST BE CHALLENGED THROUGH LOCAL INFLUENCERS
A sizable number of people within Kashmir tend to believe that militants won’t kill civilians. Last year, two policemen were killed by terrorists at Nawgam Chowk in Srinagar. I was driving through the area around the same time. My Personal Security Officer (PSO), sitting on my left, whispered to me: “It was the handiwork of intelligence agencies”.
I was shocked to hear this brazen accusation from my own PSO, who is a policeman himself. The man hails from a far-flung village in Anantnag district. The village he hails from and its adjoining areas are deeply influenced by Jamaat ideology. The policeman himself is not a Jamaati. But the fact remains that his thought processes – his perceptions – are influenced by radical ideology.
Perceptions in Kashmir are deeply influenced by the anti-Indian political and religious rhetoric. Casting aspersions over the veracity and authenticity of military actions has been the normal discourse of the political class cutting across party lines. To add to this, the radical ideology molds the mindset in such a manner that the fault lies always with the other.
With the expansion of cellular networks and the abuse of social media, the war of perceptions or the information warfare has intensified dimensionally. There is a pattern that is being followed in each civilian killing by the terrorists. Earlier they would either blame the state’s security agencies for the killings, or remain mute. They would not claim responsibility. Now the terror groups come out with a statement after each killing. The target hit by them is either “stooge of the ruling BJP and RSS” or an “agent of enemy forces”. The statement reaches the people before the news of the person’s killing reaches them. This is the level at which the terror groups are fighting the info war.
Till recently, the security and intelligence agencies would focus on the mere statistics. They were reluctant to move beyond headcounts. On the other hand, for decades Pakistan has worked tirelessly on information warfare or perception management. The situation now is that the state and its apparatus have gained phenomenal expertise in dealing with guerrilla warfare. But they are lagging far behind their adversary in perception management.
THE TERROR WAR IS MANAGEABLE
THE HIMALAYAN CHALLENGE IS PERCEPTION MANAGEMENT
The focus of the policy planners in Delhi must accommodate both arenas now. The terror war and the information war. Security and defense experts have correctly advised the state that the terror war is manageable. The Himalayan challenge is perception management. The political polarization that India currently faces makes it difficult for people on both sides of the divide to accept that the other may be right. It is so for people in Kashmir. It is so for people in the mainland. The media too is tilted towards the left or the right, making the task even more challenging. The split in the left wing and the right wing poses great threat to the efforts towards reconciliation.
The state faces multiple challenges in Kashmir. There is the rhetorical positioning by Kashmir’s political class. There is consistent radicalization by the religious schools. The national media is split, and positions itself along ideological lines. The polarized environment prevalent in the country. All these put together have left the security and intelligence agencies of the country baffled. It is important to fully grasp that Kashmiris are now conditioned to identify the Indian nation with the Army jawan fighting terrorism in the countryside. Any anger against the local or national political dispensation is vented on the army jawan. It is the security forces who face the consequences of the discourse set by the political and religious class in Kashmir. Equally, the security forces are held accountable by the Kashmiris for the utterances at the national level. Given their presence at ground level and their unquestioned allegiance to the state, they can play the pivotal role in changing the narratives and constructively engaging the collective mind space in Kashmir.
The bottom line is that from the perspective of the common Kashmiris, the security forces have to bear the brunt of the actions of the political establishment. Taking the analogy forward, it is the security agencies which are tasked with building bridges and rationalizing the mind space in Kashmir. This is the ground reality, and a huge responsibility. We are aware that the security and intelligence agencies walk on a tight rope in Kashmir. Equally, they must gear up even more to be able to influence the minds and engage the Kashmiris positively and constructively.
FIGHTING THE INFORMATION WAR, THE WAR OF PERCEPTIONS
Amid the hardened political positioning on both sides of the divide, the security establishment along with the intelligence grid needs to focus on the following things.
India’s Info War Must Be Offensive, Not Reactionary
The information warfare mechanism needs to be strengthened and upgraded. The gears need to shift from reactionary to offensive. It is very important for the state to use the social media platforms innovatively and in ways that the adversaries are unaware of. Over the last several years, Pakistan’s deep state has used social media platforms to penetrate deep into Kashmir society. Now is the time when the same social media platforms should be used by the Indian state to unsettle the adversary.
State Must Make Use Of All Available Platforms Of Soft Power For Propagation Of People-Friendly Measures
The political establishment has certain ideological moorings. It cannot afford to be seen as accommodative. At the same time, the state needs to win the perception war in Kashmir. In order to achieve this objective, the security and intelligence agencies need to create a discourse on their own. The popularization of discourse amid the unpleasant political noises on both sides of the divide is a herculean task. The state must make use of all available platforms of soft power for propagation of people-friendly measures. Though conscious of the limitations, there should be consistent efforts of socialization of the intelligence and security grid on the ground. Kashmir is a highly community-oriented region. Making bonds with the community is important for the intelligence and security grid. This shall lead to major gains in countering terrorism as well as in perception management and fighting the information war.
Initiating An Intellectual Discourse Is Vital To Answer The Questions That Befuddle The Youth
Isolation of the extremist radical elements is yet another challenging task for the security agencies. The desired results cannot be achieved without reaching out to the peaceful majority. Development initiatives are an important part of the reach out. In the given situation, it is equally important to rationalize the political ambitions of the youth of Kashmir. Many development schemes have been initiated by the government, and these play an important role. But it needs to be understood sooner rather than later that the problem lies in the thought processes. An intellectual discourse is fundamentally important to answer the questions that befuddle the youth. Kashmiris are politically aware and responsive. At the same time, they are aspirational people who seek upward social mobility. They want to be engaged intellectually. The lack of these constructive and positive intellectual initiatives is a sore vacuum. Pakistan consistently seeks to fill this space with negative propaganda against the Indian state. Post abrogation of Article 370, the urgency of setting an intellectual discourse is being felt more than ever. There are little or no efforts to provoke the minds of the local youth for introspection. This is not healthy for the state. A war cannot be won by force alone. Strategy is a game of both hard power and soft power.
Use Emotional Connect To Build Bonds
The Kashmir society has all along been emotionally charged. The reason is that Kashmiris are highly emotional people. Hence the modus operandi to build community bonds with them must be through the emotional connect.