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Army's Social Media Diktat

July 19, 2019 By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army


Going by media reports, Army has issued a directive for serving personnel not to be part "large groups" on internet-based chat or email services, in order to control leak of sensitive information about the Armed Forces since enemy agencies could access such information. However, Army has allowed them to be part of small, close-knit groups, where members are "service personnel" known to each other and "whose credentials can be ascertained".

The missive is part of instructions on information security issued last month by the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) to all Army units and formations. The report elaborates this is crucial because enemy agencies have access to advanced monitoring, decryption and data analysis capabilities. Primary source of information leakage has been identified as increasing use of personal devices, especially smart-phones, and messaging apps like WhatsApp, warning of strict action against personnel found violating instructions. But the diktat of serving personnel on social media allowedbeing part of small, close-knit groups, where members are "service personnel" implies directing serving personnel to not interact with veterans. Are veterans anti-army or anti-hierarchy? Will they adversely influence serving officers? Is this because serving personnel don't have the right to speak as a civilian citizen, but should the veterans not speak about what is ailing the system, the hierarchy and what is needed? Should and can the serving be 'barred' from interacting with veterans. Have we concluded that serving personnel are less aware than veterans of happenings in the environment, national and Army hierarchy level?

Serving personnel have been using social media past several years. Some may have registered in their first name, an acronym, or a symbol. There would hardly be any close groups only for the serving since even at unit and regimental levels such groups include veterans. Even if there would be such a group, how is a serving soldier joining it first time supposed to know each and every member of the said group Definitely, strict action under the relevant Army Act must be taken against security breaches, but there is a larger issue that is being overlooked altogether. Serving Army personnel today are well informed and capable of making informed decisions. In fact, divergent opinions in a group would empower them to make rational decision.

The Army's move perhaps is promoted for two reasons. First is the security issue. As compared to officers, jawans may reveal some information to someone they feel is a trusted person being part of the WhatsApp groupwhich has been joined by a PIO – like unit, regiment etc. the second issue is more officer centric, perhaps because of a vitriolic campaign against the Army Chief. But why the previous Naval Chief who was so far the Chairman Chief of Staff Committee or the present Air Chief isnot targeted is food for thought. At the same time, handiwork of Pakistan's ISI in fomenting trouble through perception management is also well known. Furthermore, the data being lost through WhatsApp with their servers abroad has great economic value. No doubt we have to take some hard decisions if we have to prevent our country from death from a thousand "e-cuts", but logic should not be sacrificed. We live in a knowledge-based environment and the pursuit for knowledge is insatiable. Forcing serving Army officers to become 'frogs in the well' is not only regressive but a recipe challenging them to create alternative identities.

As a scholar-warrior says, "Army officers must listen to all kinds of opinions in a group including criticising political and military leadership, as also arguments favouring them. It will empower them. Preventing serving officers being part of group which has number of veterans will lead to muzzling and gagging, which is against the finest traditions of Indian Army.... That I listen to criticism of hierarchy in social groups is unlikely to diminish my respect of it or lead to disobedience or brainwash". Strangely, there is viral message on WhatsApp by one Brigadier Navdeep Brar (SI creation?) claiming to have personally spoken to DGMO, saying there is no restrictions on serving and veterans being in the same group provided all members are known with their credentials ascertainable, but civilians cannot be part of the group even if known. But the part about serving and veterans can be in same group, is not what media reports. It is actually the exact opposite. If Army has had a re-think after the uproar on the social media against these instructions, then it needs to be clarified officially. Brar's post, whether indigenous or otherwise, aims at sowing ambiguity. After all, Army's note, based on which Central Board of Direct Taxesissued a circular divesting income-tax exemption to disabled who continue serving till superannuation, was not even signed, and yet Finance Minister quotes the same. In India, many classified documents are leaked to media, even by PMO and MoD.

This Army directive to serving soldiers may not have been being classified but following is clear from newspapers:

  1. Serving soldiers are barred from interacting with veterans on social media, and;
  2. Interaction with civilians are similarly banned, even if they are well known.

Now a serving soldier cannot interact even with relatives who are veterans least he be punished for disobeying orders.

The hierarchical Army thinking appears to be the same that led to issue of the CBDT circular; if there are fake cases of disability pensions, deny disability-pension to all instead of taking fakes to task and reviewing medical-board procedures; ADGPI attributing it to "broad banding". The same principal of "broad banding" is being applied for use of social media for serving personnel; against odd case of security breach, gag the whole damn lot. What more – will Army withdraw personal weapons from all ranks if a soldier next runs amok and shoots colleagues? Army would do well to examine these. Serving soldiers are no robots and have been using social media past several years. We must have requisite safeguards against Army suffering 1000 e-cuts, but without broad-banding the issue.