Perception Management is increasingly being viewed as an essential tool to win the battles we are currently engaged in or are likely to face in the future. While shaping the information environment is not a substitute for hard power, its absence can diminish the result of hard fought success or amplify the impact of failure.
Perceptions can be shaped through an understanding of the viewpoint of all stake holders involved. Today, the most interesting types of power do not come out of the barrel of a gun; much bigger payoffs can be achieved by ‘getting others to want what you want’. That is the essence of a successful perception management campaign.
In counter insurgency or counter terrorism operations, a key component of perception management is the requirement to reach out to the hearts and minds of those people who directly or indirectly support the terrorist or who are simply sympathetic to the ‘cause’. At the strategic level, this would involve addressing causative factors through political, social and economic tools. Without this effort, a network can actually be defeated military, but still maintain support for the ‘cause’ whilst in a period of hibernation. At the operational level, activities which foment divisions within a terrorist network, undermine the morale of its members (particularly those on the fringe), and drive a wedge between the network and its support base will pay dividends. While direct action (military, law enforcement, intelligence, political, economic activities) will assist in this effort in the short term, long-term success will only come about when such support is withheld willingly because the people providing it have been convinced that it is no longer in their best interests to do so.
With this as a backdrop, what should we do in the state of J&K? The situation has multiple complexities, especially when viewed in the context of identity, statehood and rights. Within J&K, perceptions vary in each of the three divisions of the state, the administration, the security forces and the political parties. An understanding of each viewpoint is essential to form a coherent and effective perception management campaign.
Objectives While military force will remain an instrument to put pressure on the insurgent groups, the need to change mindsets is becoming increasingly relevant for conflict resolution. The end objective of a perception management plan would have to be considered at the strategic, operational and tactical levels. At the strategic level, Perception Management operations would entail creating a belief in Indian democracy, promoting religious harmony and the idea of ‘Kashmiriyat’ and preventing the Islamisation of society. This would have to be dealt with by the Centre and the state government. Actions at the operational and tactical level would involve isolating the insurgents from the population support base, neutralising the support which social and other organisations give to the insurgents, educating the public on the need for laws such as AFSPA and creating a bond between the Indian Army and the local populace. It is important at this stage to understand what perceptions currently exist in the state and then look at measures to affect a change in the same.
Perceptions of Stakeholders
In the Valley, a small group of hardline Kashmiri activists remain vocal in their dual demand of removing the Army from Kashmir and having a plebiscite to decide their future. In this, they echo the line propagated by Pakistan but are silent on the status of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). Many people in the Valley view the Army as being overly aggressive when moving around in public areas. They feel that the soldiers on the ground (as defined separately from the officers) operate from a position of permanent suspicion when it comes to dealing with locals and this reflects in their public dealing. It appears that ground troops who come in contact with the civilian population apparently lack communication and inter-personal skills and this facet militates against improving relations with the public. There is also a widespread belief that cases of human rights abuses from 1990 till date have not been addressed by the Army or the government. There is also a sense that troops do not exhibit adequate sensitivity while dealing with the citizens, especially women, children and the aged, when carrying out search operations or other activities. The humiliation felt by the common citizen when Army personnel or police personnel barge into their homes and ask for their identity cards is quite marked and enhances feelings of alienation. In the context of identity, this feeds the ‘we’ and ‘them’ syndrome. Many people are of the view that the problem with the Indian Army is a lack of a sense of belonging and viewing the Kashmiris as not being part of the country. As attitudes get hardened on both sides, the population too starts looking on the Army as ‘foreigners’, thus, contributing to the cycle of mistrust between the two. Many also feel that Army personnel from South India look upon Kashmir as a foreign country and question the need for their being deployed there.Some are of the view that the problem calls for a political solution and unless the same is found, the question of the presence of the Army becoming acceptable in Kashmir and in the Kashmiri speaking areas of the state does not arise.
The military, however, is also perceived by many in the Valley as defending Kashmir from external powers and as being successful in reducing cross-border infiltration. Opinions, however, vary from place to place and with different interest groups. Unlike in the early 1990s, the presence of the Army now receives support, primarily due to initiatives taken by its leadership over the last few years. Other factors include declining militancy, a yearning for peace, positive impact of Sadbhavana projects and the Army’s role in providing assistance in times of calamities. Many people now speak of “an evident change in the attitude of Army soldiers everywhere in the area”.
The people from Jammu and Ladakh Divisions have vast differences in perception with their brethren in Kashmir. There are no separatist tendencies but intra-state conflicts of interest exist which require political resolution. Most are related to economic and development issues; the people here feel that the bulk of development funds go to the Kashmir region at their expense.
Within the government, there is a feeling that Army actions undermine the authority of the civil administration. There is a feeling that the Army needs to be sensitised to the culture and mental landscape of the people who live there. There is also a feeling that CI/CT operations should increasingly be conducted by the CAPF and that the Army should be on the border only and should not administer or be seen to administer civilian areas. There is also a perception that hardline Muslim leaders in Kashmir are trying to ‘Islamise’ the state, and they view the Army’s role as necessary to maintain stability and fight against religious extremism. They consider the problem in Kashmir as having nothing to do with ‘Azadi’ but being essentially a movement towards rapid Islamisation of the state, killing in the process every semblance of ‘Kashmiriyat’. That the state has remained with India and still maintains a secular character is mainly because of the Army which should be facilitated to a greater extent in performing its duties in Kashmir.
Army personnel generally have a very high sense of ‘self-image’ and of working for the ‘country’. They believe that barring some aberrations, most personnel are conscious of their constitutional responsibilities while combating terrorism and insurgency and take care to see that the human rights of the local people are respected. Winning Hearts and Minds (WHAM) is viewed positively as a factor which is essential for conflict resolution. The contemporary situation is encouraging and all stakeholders must provide the healing touch and commitment to vastly improve matters. While the Army perceives that it has achieved the military objective of constraining the militancy, it is less sanguine about the political processes, which it feels have not capitalised on the military’s success or kept pace with it.
Perceptions on Image Makeover
It is apparent that a need exists for an image makeover, as far as the Armed Forces in J&K is concerned. It is important to always bear in mind the fact that when the Army is acting in Kashmir, it is not only perceived as the Army, but the ‘Indian Army’. All actions involving interactions with people are ascribed to India/Centre/Union and hence impact on the overall situation of the state. They must therefore be carefully conducted. What then must the State and the Army do, to have an image makeover? Ten points are given below, which if implemented could have a positive impact.
Firstly, the Army needs to be sensitive to, and understand the cultural and sociological aspects of the people they are tasked to protect. This will give the requisite human touch and improve relations considerably. Training its soldiers on communication and inter-personal skills, especially those who come in contact with the public will go a long way in improving the Army’s image.
As the situation of the early nineties no longer exists, a reduced Army footprint would go a long way in improving relations and reducing hostility. Allied with this is the need to retain a separate identity. As of now, it is difficult to distinguish Army jawans from central armed police forces personnel, as they are dressed alike. The police forces must not wear military uniforms as it gives a wrong impression to the public.