“Ejected, beaten, bloodied, blindfolded, handcuffed, in enemy captivity… What do you say? This is my name, rank & religion. I’m not supposed to tell you anything else. Such courage, calm and professionalism shows you’re an inspiration to your countrymen Wg Cdr Abhinandan.” This pinned tweet from veteran journalist Shekhar Gupta succinctly sums up the feelings of more than a billion people. It’s a reminder, yet again, of the supreme sacrifice these individuals and their families make to protect us. If there’s anything that Shekhar Gupta’s tweet teaches us, it is that our views can be hard hitting but mature at the same time, patriotic without being jingoistic, politically accurate not politically correct. In such sensitive times, public responsibility must trump all else – public curiosity, public anger and public opinion.
To our collective dismay, an iota of this equanimity has not been on display from sections of our television anchors, who with their war room chroma backdrops in air conditioned studios, arrogate to themselves expertise in matters of defence, warfare and diplomacy, buoyed by the token presence of retired officers in high decibel debates. There are, undoubtedly, honourable exceptions, but they are not spared by the broad brushing that is the real ‘expertise’ of the ‘know it all’ lay brigade. These ‘star’ anchors are matched by key board warriors on the social media, for whom patriotism means revenge to be taken by someone else’s husband, father or son. Surprisingly, at the time of writing this column, there has been commendable restraint and unity in the political landscape, which is precisely how issues of national importance must be handled.
The chest thumping and war mongering that followed the dastardly Pulwama terror attack, morphed into triumphant drum beats after our retaliatory strike at the Balakot terror camp and then into a new found need for restraint after videos of our brave pilot in the custody of Pakistan surfaced. That the traumatised IAF officer’s father, a retired Air Marshall, had to make an appeal to be left alone, is a reflection of shameful voyeurism that has come to characterise sections of our media.I am repeatedly using the term ‘sections’ because there are, mercifully, still some sane voices around and it would be unfair to bracket them with the herd.
Even in captivity, Wg Cdr Abhinandan did not reveal any information about his mission. Judging by his bold responses, it’s obvious that the captured pilot is aware of his rights under international law. Speaking of which, parading him in an injured state before cameras like a trophy, attracts the ‘public curiosity’ clause; and also subjecting him to a recorded interrogation of sorts, constitute a violation of Articles 13 and 14 of the Geneva Convention, 1949.
Why can’t we resist sharing videos, verified or not, posts, and any nugget of information? How can scant or no regard for the safety, privacy and feelings of his family members, come remotely close to patriotism? When Mumbai was in the grip of the 26\11 terror attacks, national tv channels were accused of divulging operational details that were being used by our enemies across the border. The criticism was justified, even necessary, to rein them in. But how different are social media posts that, short of the google pin, reveal the locality of the pilot’s family? As I type this, I’m seeing a news features on ‘all that you need to know about the family of Wg Cdr Abhinandan’. Ironically, the same piece which quotes the father pleading with the media to exercise restraint, gives out several details about the family. Public interest is not the same as what the public may be interested in.
I do concede that this is an emotive issue and that as citizens our feelings are hurt. But if we really want to help, do read Article 51-A of the Constitution that enumerates 10 Fundamental Duties. Clause (d) makes it a duty to “defend the country and render national service when called upon to do so.” Constitutional provisions aside, there’s a lot we as citizens can do to help, instead of spamming inboxes with ‘updates’ on this ‘developing story’, as newsrooms would call it. Join the Territorial Army, encourage our children to join the National Cadet Corps, show up early at airports and don’t make a fuss over frisking, obey the laws, pay our taxes on time, sponsor a needy child’s education, care for the elderly, if not in old age homes at least in our own homes, donate blood, loosen our purse strings during natural disasters, contribute to the armed forces welfare fund. That would be real concern. Not this pretentious outrage. And if we cannot do that, let’s at the very least, shut up.
During the First World War, French Statesman Georges Clemenceau was reported to have quipped: “war is too important to be left to the Generals”. In 2019, it’s time to tweak that saying to “war is too important to be left to tv anchors and the social media.”
(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, a Columnist, Author, TV Political Analyst, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor of NDTV 24×7)