What was this alarm about Army columns marching towards the capital in the night of January 16, 2012? The insinuation was that a military coup was being contemplated. The Chief of the Army was going to the Court on the issue of his date of birth the next day or so. The rest was left to the imagination of the people and manipulation of the media. Hungry for stories, the media bought the story, published it on the front page prominently, created a scare, compelling the minister, prime minister, government in the ministry of defence trashing such reports as rumours. However, it didn’t stop parliamentarians and political parties giving out all kinds of statements.The heat has cooled since then, but the issue is kept alive. The question is why?
If wars can be won without battles, it comes cheap. Rumour is only track-II war. If there is track-II diplomacy, can track-II war be far behind?
Rumour is dry run on the enemy. To test the capability of the enemy, one effective tool can be rumour if employed skillfully. Unfortunately in this case it was crudely done and hence drew all round condemnation. The newspaper as also its editor, both suffered loss of reputation. But the significance of rumour as a powerful tool has never been in doubt.It is for this reason that disinformation is a powerful weapon in the hands of intelligence agencies like the CIA of America, KGB of Russia and ISI of Pakistan. Compare it with the IB of India or the Chinese intelligence. Both countries suffer from lack of a wide spread human informers base, working in complete secrecy for them. That is not the case with the other three because they have several advantages over India & China, including money power. The scare created by the coup rumour was no less worrisome than poisoning of drinking water source in Delhi in the 1980s or deaths of children being inoculated in schools, which made the mothers rush to the schools in great panic to collect their children. Had the coup rumour created similar panic, law & order would have suffered gravely, for it was the time of the Republic Day celebrations and Delhi was on the highest Red Alert.
If it turned out to be mere rumour, it was a dry run and the nation cannot afford to drop caution, for it will be employed again in future with greater skills. What if there actually is any such incident in future? What is the meaning of “communal” angle the newspapers are talking about? Has the enemy succeeded in doing in the armed forces & the paramilitary forces what it was able to do remarkably successfully in the 1980s in one state of the Union of India? The consequences are known to everyone, the wound still ache and scars will take long to go. But the personnel policies, which have suffered great casualty in the name of casteism and communalism, might facilitate such dangerous developments. Governments can’t turn their eyes away from developing fault lines of such grave repercussions. Wherefrom does such smoke come? Is some fire smouldering somewhere silently? Rumours are dangerous weapons, not only for the armed forces, but all wings of the government, and most for the economy of the country.
In the context of the involvement of the arms lobbies in the attack on Gen VK Singh, the Chief of the Army, there is another function of rumours. It is to put pressure on the officers and the government to decide the tenders in their favour. If an individual officer appears to stand in their way they target him. If some minister acts as a barrier to them, they mark him for assassination of his reputation. Parliament questions, Right to Information queries, stories planted in the media or paid news or services of friendly personalities are used to give spin to rumours. Generally the stories are well written by masters of prose , ably assisted by experts providing inputs and published in the name of towering personalities to lend it credibility. It has instant effect. There is a weapon category in ancient Indian literature called the “Brahmaastra”. Nobody can escape casualty once attacked by this weapon. Rumour acts exactly like this: reputations killed instantly(the ISRO Antrix Madhavan Nair incidence), promotions stalled (Warrants issued by the President under his own signature for appointment as judge of the High Court/Supreme Court held at the eleventh hour or seconds before oath taking ceremony), punishment meted out to honest officers for doggedly guarding public money (attacks on the CAG)etc. In politics, rumours keep all and one busy in finding out what is happening in their fraternity. Corporates too gain and lose because of rumours. In the coup story this time, business interests played the major role. That is the reason that it died within hours of its breaking news by the daily. In the public eye it was a bad example of yellow journalism.
Unfortunately, the government itself is guilty of misinformation in 9 out of 10 cases. Corruption, it says, is a global phenomenon (which means justified because we are indulging in what the world is doing); price rise is because more people have started consuming(suggesting increase in incomes); 672.8 rupees in rural areas & 859.6 in urban areas per month is considered to be adequate income for one person to live(below it is the poverty line) etc are just some of the several instances of deliberate misinformation by the government. It has chosen to use statistics to reduce poverty and register economic growth rather than hard achievements. These are rumours for domestic consumption. The picture before the world bank or other nations is different. Employing misinformation harms public interest. It also encourages unethical administrative practices. When the government itself indulges in misinformation, who can stop the bureaucracy from resorting to it? This results in Annual Reports being the same excepting the cover page. During the Emergency, district collector sent figures of sterilizations in their jurisdiction exceeding the total population of the district! The poorest form of democracy is the one where the government disseminates misinformation. It causes misery to the masses by misinformation and also tries to quell public agitation by the mechanism of misinformation. The last few years have seen too much of it. Had the Prime Minister been a Member of the Lok sabha and Leader of the House, he would have been in a position to act independently. Today he is not.
There is yet another aspect to it. Crucial information lies in a state of inertia. Take the case of the several scandals. The information was flowing to the authority required to act. Rather than taking action promptly, it allowed it to lie inert. It was called to examination only when the judiciary made it impossible to sleep over it anymore or the parliament itself came to be stalled until such time action was taken on the information. The iceberg of corruption has increased in size in the past 8 years. The system of governance has been so awfully damaged in these last 8 years that it will take several decades to bring it back to health. All due to giving every crucial information a royal ignore.
Once the economy suffers, things will turn out to be pretty difficult. It can happen anytime. We remain dependent on the vagaries of the monsoon. In that kind of a situation, rumours will gain strength of their own. We need, therefore, to take rumours seriously. We can’t merely laugh them away. We must find out the rumour monger and mete out the severest possible punishment to the guilty. We owe this much to ourselves, our people and our nation. Unless we do that, the activities of the rumour mills shall continue to shell the General even after the ceasefire has been declared by both the sides.