Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Why the Modi govt should refrain from releasing footage of surgical strikes?

The Indian army has reportedly handed over video footage of the surgical strikes across LoC to the government and is apparently keen that the evidence is released though the final decision, writes Manu Pubby in The Economic Times, rests with the PMO.

However, whatever be the level of provocation or political compulsion to battle an opposition narrative that the surgical strike was "fake", the Narendra Modi government should refrain from releasing the footage of the strikes, the details of which concur with a report carried in Wednesday's edition of The Indian Express. That report, quoting eyewitness accounts from across the border, mentions graphic details of explosions, bodies being loaded onto trucks for secret burials and strikes on launch pads that took Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba terrorists by surprise.

"The eyewitnesses also described brief but intense fire engagements that destroyed makeshift buildings that housed jihadists before they left for the last stage of their journeys across the LoC," writes Praveen Swami in The Indian Express. He quotes one eyewitness as saying: "The Lashkar men gathered there were blaming the Pak Army for failing to defend the border… and saying they would soon give India an answer it would never forget".

Adding to the government's discomfiture is a sense of indignation in the armed forces who are understandably outraged that their brave effort has been called into question. According to The Economic Times report, top officers in the Indian army are keen that India release evidence to "answer" those alleging that the strikes never happened.

But this is also the time for Prime Minister to show 'strategic restraint' and not fall into the trap of providing evidence. He doesn't need to because skepticism for the covert operation is emanating from roughly three sources. Modi doesn't need to worry about the first two while the third camp is on a mission to self-destruct.

Western media represent the second camp. Most of their reports are either keyboard attempts far from the LoC or based on a Pakistan army-sponsored junket across PoK where everything was naturally shown to be hunky-dory. In any case, while western media is skeptical of India's operation (and they have every right to remain so), their governments — who know better — have been overwhelmingly supportive of India's action.

That leaves us with the third camp. India's opposition leaders. It is possible that the Uri attacks and the government and army's subsequent response have darkened their electoral prospects. Netas in these situations become increasingly desperate but the course of action that the likes of Arvind Kejriwal and Sanjay Nirupam have taken may prove to be counter-productive in the long run.

The Line of Control between the two warring nations isn't just a fenced border. For India, it also presented a formidable mental barrier. By crossing the LoC and then, crucially, owning up the stealth operation, New Delhi made it clear to Pakistan that India reserves the right to protect itself and take both proactive and reactive steps to meet external threat perceptions. It was the culmination of a coherent politico-diplomatic-military effort that degraded some of the terror infrastructures in PoK, called out Islamabad's nuclear bluff, isolated Islamabad internationally and still left enough elbow room for Rawalpindi generals to issue a denial.

Globally, the operation landed India in a sweet spot. Strength is a universal language when it comes to strategic affairs. While no amount of action can force Pakistan's compliance as long as it reckons terrorism as a low-cost strategic option to get even with a mightier neighbour, New Delhi's habitual weak-kneed response allowed Islamabad to push the scale a little higher each time to test India's resilience. That changed in one stroke on 29 September.

While India crossed the border, the heat was on Pakistan to de-escalate tension and wipe out its terror footprint. Islamabad was also more than in a spot of bother regionally with nearly all Saarc nations boycotting the summit and rallying behind New Delhi. It seemed that India has emerged as a clear winner from an uneasy equilibrium.

Trust our netas, however, to make a mockery of one of the most concerted, synergised civil-military effort and create a situation where the army felt aggrieved enough to hand over the evidence and seek its release to save itself from dishonorable insinuations of lying.

The likes of AAP supremo Kejriwal, Congress neta Sanjay Nirupam, senior Congress leader and former Union home minister P Chidambaram or JD(U) spokesperson Ajay Alok would do well to introspect on the repercussions of their tacit or open demand for releasing of footage. Their political messaging was perhaps an effort to prevent the BJP from cashing in on the adrenaline rush of nationalism but it ran the risk of being interpreted — as proven — as an attempt to cast aspersions on the Indian army.

That being the case, it makes little sense for Modi to now publish the evidence. Releasing details of a classified operation to placate political rivals is a defensive posture which indicates that the Prime Minister may not have been confident of his action while giving the army the green signal to conduct the strike. Did he not factor in that such a reaction may occur?

Conversely, if political compulsions have forced Kejriwals and Nirupams to doubt the army and government, this video evidence, too, may be similarly discounted. It is a zero sum game.
Lastly, there is an argument that in a democracy, the government must be held to account for its actions. This position does not take into account exceptions to the rule when a government may withhold certain information in larger public interest.

As former army chief General Shankar Roychowdhury told NDTV, advising the government not to put out sensitive information on public domain, "The ISI and Pakistan army are eagerly looking forward to whatever they can pick up, particularly from the Indian media, because 80 percent of all intelligence comes from open sources… They are waiting to pick up intelligence about India's operational techniques."

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