Modern military theory states that wars are not won on battlefields – they are won in people’s minds. The proxy war strategy of our adversary in J&K, besides terrorist actions and sabotage operations, has remained focused on socio-cognitive domain to influence cultural, political, social and historical features as well as individual interpretations and understanding. The adversary’s investment in narrative domain in J&K, received renewed focus after the world began to take note of terror hubs in Pakistan operating with state support and our swift response to terrorist actions after our trimmed down threshold of tolerance.
Being very well aware of our military superiority, the adversary has hugely invested in narrative domain, to keep us occupied in unending conflict, perpetuating on our own soil. The economic restraints and inferior military capacity of our adversary, and terrorist outfits operating on its behalf in Jammu and Kashmir have devised narratives that endlessly generate recruits, by hijacking the minds, utilising the services of institutions; often those which are run by our own money. Not valuing the practice and idea of free speech at her own domestic turf, yet modulating her narrative through the medium of free speech and open exchange of ideas to influence our citizens against our country. This has been the modus operandi of all Pakistani terror outfits operating in J&K. All of them believe in supremacy of single idea of Islam having no tolerance for any other opinion, yet using the medium and institutions of our free speech to propagate their ideology which is antithesis to free speech itself. They very pillar of free speech that they want to demolish in the long run is utilised as a medium to propagate their own discourse of singular narrative. They have employed narrative paddlers who customise it in modern lexicon to make it palatable for larger audiences who are unaware of these canny mechanisations.
Our response to security challenges in J&K has been robust and we have been able to defeat the nefarious designs of enemy by dismantling the striking capability of its proxy, in swiftly neutralising them, limiting their capability of inflicting any serious damage to us. We will have to continue with our military response as long this challenge exists.
In the domain of narrative, our adversary has a superiority. By way of weaponising the narrative, our enemy has been able to use our own human resources to target us in multiple ways – firstly by making them mainstay in her proxy war machine and secondly, deploying them in our institutions for narrative peddling, thus weakening us.
We invariably need to understand how enemy is using narrative as a weapon to inflict damage to us. Besides addressing the usual security threats, the threats emanating from this weaponised domain calls for investing in what we can call cognitive security.
The deep threat to our national security by shaking the faith of citizens in democratic institutions and rule of law causing civil unrest. Weaponising narratives on social media are the adversary’s favourite tools. Our enemy has been very successful in propagating her ‘war logic’ in J&K and there seem to be quite some takers to her logic making it easy for our enemy to draw recruits for her war machine. Another aspect of narrative war has been to perpetuate a terror act and then unleashing all the components of narrative war to play victim card and justify the action by influencing the peoples’ minds.
The case in point is Pulwama attack in February, 2019 where we lost 40 CRPF jawans in suicide bombing. Immediately after the attack, Pakistani media and her media assets in Kashmir and other parts of our country, began propagating that this bombing appears as a desperate action of a local Kashmiri boy against so-called atrocities of Indian state. The involvement of Jaish-e-Mohammad terror outfit, conspiracy being hatched in Pakistan etc., was completely brushed aside.
Even the fact that a local boy got motivated to undertake suicide bombing mission, is an outcome of narrative war only. NIA did a meticulously professional job by investigating the case for judicial determination establishing beyond doubt the involvement of Pakistan and her proxies in the attack. Yet we could do nothing about the narrative war that led to a local Kashmiri boy on suicide mission, and post attack systematic and sustained misleading campaign to influence the minds of people in Kashmir and other parts of country and world. Exploit local events to fuel civil unrest in Kashmir, provoke desired changes in broader political environment and military theatre, leverage pre-existing hostilities and foster ideological shifts in local populations, are some immediate objectives of narrative war of Pakistan.
This was smartly employed in the aftermath of the killing of terrorist commander Burhan Wani in 2016. But even before that well orchestrated and systematic media campaign was launched by Pakistani proxies to make Burhan Wani appear as some kind of hero, a year before his killing an all out discernible effort had been underway to popularise Burhan Wani among local youth, and subsequently utilising his anticipated death to provoke mass unrest. There were no measures taken from state apparatus to counter this damaging campaign and no institutional mechanism sadly exists even today to counter false narrative. The larger political and development oriented narrative does not address this weaponised narrative. This is one such example of negative war being forced on us. During those times in 2016, the inimical elements having loyalty to Pakistan set many schools on fire and through their media proxies the blame was put squarely on us, making people believe that Indian agencies are involved in such acts.
Narrative war has potential of influencing the decision making faculties of people at the helm. Operating in single narrative ecosystem we at times unintentionally play in the hands of our adversary. Despite having eyes on ground, the narrative bias sips in affecting our assessment of situation. In the run up to abrogation of Article 370, the post abrogation prognosis reports originating from various agencies were marred with such narrative biases and an alarming picture was painted predicting mass scale violence and dissension in J&K Police. There certainly were individuals in the system who predicted exactly what eventually unfolded.
Post-Abrogation of Article 370, a narrative was peddled all over the media around the world, that there is some kind of military siege in Kashmir. This discourse remained in vogue for over a year and most reputed news organisations around the globe reported about this so called siege which never existed in the first place.
Another glaring example of the narrative war being cleverly employed to affect large scale disturbances pertains to accidental death of two women in Shopian in 2009 due to drowning in a nearby rivulet. An accident came to be falsely portrayed as rape and murder by unknown members of security forces by the agents of false narrative. The falsehood snowballed into a major disruption of public order to the extent that the political government of the day feared losing power. The disorder marked by large scale arson, rioting, damage to public property, injuries to civilians and members of law enforcement, and also a few deaths. The mayhem continued for almost two months with intermittent hartals and bandhs. Four police officers, completely innocent, were put behind the bars not for the allegation of a crime (that never took place) but for failing to investigate it adequately. In an unprecedented and unheard of development, the political government of the day, to cool down the public tempers arrested and jailed the district police chief. It was only after a very detailed and transparent investigation by the country’s best known investigating agency – CBI - under the close watch of the competent court of law, did it emerge and got established beyond any shadow of doubt that it was an accident wherein the two young women died of drowning while crossing the rivulet. The in-depth forensics of the private parts established that one of them was a virgin, the second was pregnant, both did not have any mark of violence or rape related assault. It was also established that the local lady doctor’s report which was exploited by the agents of false narrative was false and had been created under duress of such agents. The vaginal swab attributed to the ‘victims’ turned out to be the vaginal fluid of the lady doctor who created the false report of sexual assault and rape. The case came to be intensively debated during the trial and finally it was judicially determined that it was a drowning accident and not a case of rape and murder. It also was determined that many such, as the lady doctor, were guilty of subverting justice by creating false document and evidence. Thankfully, CBI investigation unearthed the conspiracy hatched by so called civil society members, lawyers and political activists to use this drowning incident to create an anti-state narrative and foment large scale trouble. Many lawyers and other activists were chargesheeted and are facing trail. This is the first such case where police investigation has been able to impose criminal liability for narrative peddling.
Our investigations in terror cases must look deeper to include the phenomenon of narrative war pre and post terror incident and make the people liable for orchestrating narrative war. Brining narrative war under criminal-justice framework to protect the democratic ideals will go a long way to ensure continuity of our democratic system of governance based on rule of law.
An alarmingly high damage quotient for the reason of our silence not fighting state sponsored information warfare that is in operation against us over the years, has led us to continued hostility within our own territory involving large scale human and economic loss.
Our own narrative having roots in civilisational, democratic and developmental paradigm needs consistent dissemination in affected population in J&K to fight the narrative war of enemy and also shift the goal post of this narrative war by extending our reach to POJK.
Raja Muneeb is a freelance columnist. Twitter id: @rajamuneeb
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.