Freedom of expression is one of democracy’s key pillars. It gives us a right to criticise any government policy and action and makes government accountable. But a dilemma can arise in war or near-war situations.
The recent IAF strikes in Balakot following the Pulwama attack, the subsequent Pakistani response and capture of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman created a near-war situation. People had their own opinions on what the government did and how it did it. Many supported the government. It is generally believed by experts that post-Pulwama actions will be a political boost for the government, which also means a lot of people liked them.
However, a fairly large section of people did not like the Balakot attacks and potential for conflict escalating because of them. Incidentally, there is a huge overlap between people who didn’t like the post-Pulwama response and those who don’t like Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the first place. Like everything in India even the Balakot attacks became political, with pro-Modi/ BJP voices defending them while traditional anti-Modi/ BJP voices criticised them.
Little wonder then that hardcore BJP fans called anti-Modi groups Pak sympathisers, anti-nationals, Imran Khan Fan Club members, Jaichands or whatever interesting hashtag you can float on social media. In fact, perhaps for the first time during an Indian military operation, social media complicated the situation even further.
Platforms like Twitter allow one to share another person’s post (through retweets) to one’s own gang that is against that person’s opinion, which then unleashes a mob like frenzy against the person (this is mainly why Twitter is a platform prone to abuse). In the recent case of the Indo-Pak situation, it only increased polarisation among Indians further. All this, right when we were in the middle of a war like situation.
If there is such a thing as psychological warfare, what does it do to the morale of our forces getting ready for war when their entire effort is being questioned? What effect does it have on the mind of an Indian soldier when he reads statements like: this war is useless? Or that Imran Khan has already won the perception battle (he hasn’t by the way, and India did reset the lens from which terror attacks will be viewed, but that’s a separate discussion)?
The big dilemma for modern democracy is this: Should people, in the name of freedom of expression, be criticising our war operations or the leaders who made the decisions behind those operations – right when we are in the middle of it?
Should we be badgering the government for proof – perhaps neat 12-megapixel pictures of dead bodies that we knocked off – to believe the IAF actually did something? Or should we realise that something far bigger is happening, that India is crossing a line it never did by entering Pakistan’s backyard as a response to terror attacks? The point of the air strikes was perhaps to show we are raising the stakes; to show how much this terrorism bothers us.
In this event, to say; “I have freedom of expression, I demand accountability, show me the photo album or admit that you are wrong and Imran Khan is right” doesn’t feel right. At the same time, freedom of expression is a fundamental right and is absolutely needed.
I am not sure what the perfect answer is here. Perhaps there is none. After all, some governments do go too far with war and then it does seem right for citizens to protest it. A classic example is the Vietnam war, which was finally halted only after massive protests inside the US. However, intuitively one does see one issue that might be of paramount importance here – timing.
There is a time and place for everything. Surely, freedom of expression exists in a democracy and should never be taken away. However, no matter how much you fight within your family, if your neighbours come and attack your windows with stones, you better stop your domestic bickerings and deal with the neighbours pronto. And even if you have issues with your family’s leader, you still present a united front to the enemy in the middle of a crisis.
Timing is perhaps what the naysayers need to think about, at least in this case. To yell and scream against the government and the military effort right in the middle of a crisis, is not in the best taste. Sure, there may be and probably are issues with what is going on. For instance, it is quite likely mistakes were committed during the Kargil conflict. We could discuss, analyse and debate them now, as we are well past the crisis moment.
However, to do it right when we are on high alert and in panic mode, is more likely to signal a divided and weak house rather than to improve matters. If we citizens, particularly those with large influence, can bear that in mind, we may serve the country better. Perhaps the reason many anti-Modi voices could not resist making such statements right in the middle of the crisis was their worry that, with elections so close, Modi will make political gains due to these actions. There may be some truth to this. However, when the country is in the middle of a war like crisis, your politics is not important. Only your country is. Jai Hind!