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.
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.
Thirdly, justice, against abuse of powers must not only be done but seen to be done to restore public confidence in the Army. Swift action must be taken against erring personnel and the same must be well publicised. The Army, as is well known, is swift in punishing defaulters, but for some reasons, its actions are not publicised. This must change as perceived injustice inflames the people and enables political forces to manipulate the youth, thus, fuelling the cycle of violence and counterviolence.
Fourthly, it is absolutely necessary to have good relations with the state bureaucracy. It will be useful to engage with the new ‘panches’ and ‘sarpanches’, care being taken to see that such action is not perceived as obtrusive by the civil administration. The bonhomie in civil-military relations, thus, visible, will go a long way in building a positive image.
Sadbhavana has created goodwill for the Army, but has limited utility. In the words of the former Chief Minister of J&K, Mr. Omar Abdullah, “A lot of goodwill and rapport depends upon the actions of the local commanding officers and troops on the ground. Sadbhavana is a good project, but you put a good CO on the ground without Sadbhavana and he’ll show better results”. The importance of selecting the right COs for posting in such areas hence cannot be overstated. Sixthly, the Army needs to develop structures for peace building and be empathetic to the problems of a society brutalised by violence between the state and non-state actors. Gender sensitivity, with special measures to protect women and girls from genderbased violence will go a long way in nurturing confidence and trust in the local population.
Seventhly, the Army must learn to use the media as a force multiplier. It is important to not only speak the truth, but to be the first with the news so that a distorted picture does not emerge. It must be understood that perceptions once created are difficult to remove. First impressions are generally the ones which remain in the public consciousness and this fact must be understood. The Army must shed its reluctance and fear of the media and must also accept that all news may not be favourable as we have a free and robust media.
The state government needs to alter its approach to security and change the design of the stability system. It could look into ‘Stability units’ to build coherence between disparate elements of governance and public security, which could have both mediating and enabling qualities to link the public with governance. This inter alia could include security and public safety needs, delivery of socio-economic programmes and enabling public access to the justice system as well as security apparatus.
Next, the civil administration in the state has to be strengthened. Once a civil administration which is accountable is in place, the Army’s role will reduce and this will pay political and peace dividends. The weakness in the delivery system is glaring and must be overcome. Lastly, the alienation dilemma must be solved. This could be done by establishing and institutionalising the dialogue process with civil society. As insurgency is now in remission, perhaps mediation groups could be established at the brigade level to inform communities on the role of the Army and its legal accountability procedures. This could also serve as a point for interaction to redress civilian grievances. Institutionalised dialogue among the state, the military, the public and conflict transformation experts in the public domain would be an important step in improving the image of the Army.
Prerequisites for a Perception Management Campaign
The role of the Army must remain confined to operational and tactical aspects only which will assist the Army in its operations against the insurgents. The image makeover of the Army should pertain to the force being perceived as the people’s Army – an Army which the local people can look up to.
Themes must be prepared and executed at the corps level and the end state required to be achieved for each target segment must be clearly enunciated. Themes would be different for the three divisions of J&K. Even within Kashmir, themes would have to target segments and not be uniform for all. Dissemination must be done through multiple means and must be continuous. It must be based on truth. Under no circumstances can anything be done which will hit at the credibility of the Army.
Capabilities too have to be real otherwise the projection of deterrence will not succeed. The strategic narrative must not be lost sight of while formulating a perception management campaign. The strategic narrative is focused on end term goal realisations while operational and tactical level narratives are more focused towards the immediacy of the conflict situation. While the tactical and operational level narratives are important, they must not run counter to the long term aims of the country. In future conflict, perception management will play an increasingly important role. The concept must hence be understood and should be coopted into all military plans.