According to recent newspaper 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, the 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 reportedly is part of a list of instructions on information security issued last month by the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) to all Army units and formations, with the aim to curb pilferage of information. The report further states that this is particularly crucial, because enemy agencies have access to advanced monitoring, decryption and data analysis capabilities.
The directive reportedly states that the primary source of information leakage has been identified as the increasing use of personal devices, especially smart-phones, and messaging apps like WhatsApp to exchange official information, and has warned of strict action against personnel found violating instructions. Media has quoted a senior Army officer, who did not wish to be named, in saying, “Such directives are issued from time to time because there have been too many lapses on the breach of confidential information. It (the directive) clearly talks about the existing social media policy, which does not stop Army personnel from being on social media. The idea is to generally tell people to be more aware of which groups they are part of and what are they sharing there. It has come out of genuine security concerns”, and adding, that such breaches have been reported in western militaries too.
The officer also reportedly said that the directive was not about banning social media among Army personnel. One newspaper report has also alluded to a case of honey-trapping of a serviceman in the past. Another news report, again quoting an un-named Army officer, says that in the wake of posting of messages in the social media which try to create confusion among common man about the image of the Armed Forces; so all officers and jawans, who want to remain active on the internet, may do so but on the condition that it is for personal use. They would not be allowed to share official information on social media like the rank, unit number, date of appointment, place of duty and movement. This part is perfectly understandable.
But the diktat of serving personnel not to be part large groups on social media but allowed to be part of small, close-knit groups, where members are “service personnel” known to each other raises the stink of an authoritarian regime – a virtual gag order. It is not that lack of defining ‘large groups’ generates ambiguity, but the reference to ‘close-knit groups where members are service personnel’, implies directing serving personnel to not interact with veterans – creating a wedge between the serving and 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, given the fact that the serving too will eventually hang up their boots? Besides, have we concluded that serving personnel are less aware than veterans of what is happening in the environment, including at the national and at the Army hierarchy levels?
Social media has been used by serving personnel past several years, some of whom may have registered using their first name, an acronym, or a symbol. In this digital age, some soldiers and their wives perhaps are even more tech savvy than ‘some’ officers. The total number of soldiers using social media in a 1.3 million Army could be enormous. 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? Is the Army going to nominate by name which groups on social media serving soldiers can join? To this extent, such instructions are absurd. 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 has perhaps been promoted for two reasons. First is the security issue. As compared to officers, jawans are naive and may reveal some information to someone they feel is a trusted person being part of the WhatsApp group which has been joined by a PIO – like village, rank, unit, regiment, place of appointment etc. The second issue is more officers centric, perhaps because of a vitriolic campaign against the Army Chief. But why the previous Naval Chief who was till recently was Chairman Chief of Staff Committee (COSC) or the present Air Chief are not targeted should be food for serious thought. At the same time, the handiwork of Pakistan’s ISI in fomenting trouble through perception management is also well known. Furthermore, data being lost through WhatsApp with their servers being 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 must acknowledge that 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 criticizing 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. There is difference in freedom of expression and disobedience of orders which must be understood. 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 (if he exists at all or is ISI creation) who claims to have personally spoken to the 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. Mercifully, he doesn’t elaborate that serving soldiers should also stop talking to civilians and civilian-defence employees. 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 absurd instructions, then it needs to be clarified officially. Army has a two-star rank ADGPI who should be clarifying such issues to media.
One wonders if the above post by this character Navdeep Brar with the intention to sow ambiguity and hide the truth is indigenous or otherwise. After all, the note from Army, based on which the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT), Ministry of Finance, issued a circular divesting income-tax exemption to disabled who continue serving till superannuation, was not even signed, and yet the Finance Minister quotes the same. In India, many classified documents are leaked to media with impunity, even by PMO and MoD. This Army directive to serving soldiers may have not been released to media being classified, but following highlights are clear from newspaper reports: one, serving soldiers are barred from interacting with veterans on social media, and; two, interaction with civilians are similarly banned, even if they are well known and close friends.
It is doubtful if internet engines like Facebook have exclusive ‘frog-in-the-well’ groups only for the serving. So doesn’t this mean an indirect gag order to serving officers from social media less close or shall we say very close groups sans veterans and civilians, even if known, on say WhatsApp? Also, a serving soldier now cannot interact even with relatives who are veterans on social media (such cases would be in thousands or lakhs), least he/she be punished for disobeying orders. Overall, the hierarchical Army thinking appears to be the same as what led to issue of the CBDT circular; if there are fake cases of disability pensions despite established procedures for medical boards, deny disability to all instead of taking the fakes to task and reviewing medical board procedures; which the ADGPI attributed to as “broad banding”. The same principal of “broad banding” is being applied for use of social media by serving Army personnel; against odd case of security breach, gag the whole damn lot. What more – will Army withdraw personal weapons from all ranks when next a soldier runs amok and shoots colleagues?
Army would do well to examine above issues and review its policy of ‘broad-banding’ anything and everything. There is no need to segregate veterans. 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.