Why Securing the Information Domain has become an Urgent Necessity for India?
Tejusvi Shukla

A Special Meeting of the UN Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) was conducted in India in October this year. It was led by the External Affairs Minister, Dr S. Jaishankar, on India’s behalf, where he emphasized the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially social media, for furthering terrorism. While he rightly mentioned the threat that looms due to the spontaneous technological adaptation by various operational terror outfits globally, a very oblique reference was made regarding the role played by certain states (sponsoring terrorism) in facilitating this adaptation. Social media has contemporarily been perceived as a critical medium of influencing public perceptions at a mass scale, inflicting irreparable damage – often termed “Influence Operations” in military parlance. Given that this was proposed against the backdrop of India being a constant victim of state-sponsored terrorism by its western neighbour (and as increasingly perceived in the information domain) this aspect necessitates a slightly detailed discussion. A careful study of the history of Pakistan’s Influence Operations against India (most specifically focussed on Jammu and Kashmir) suggests that this goes far beyond these popular platforms – both in time and space.

The profound and comprehensive nature of these Influence Operations rests in the underlying objective of our western neighbour and is often spelt out overtly in its internal military publications. The 2020 Green Book of Pakistan Army, an annual internal publication, spells out these objectives on occasions more than once. An article in the Green Book by Farzana Shah, a Pakistani journalist, reads, “A single video clip or picture can change the perception of India, which it has built so painstakingly over the years. Pakistan needs to keep world attention on IOJK (Indian-Occupied Jammu and Kashmir), and in order to do that, communication links inside the (Kashmir) Valley must be established.” Another article by a senior military general in the same publication calls for the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PERMA) to “buy airtime” on international news channels to “correct international perceptions on IOJK.” Running narratives along the lines of “India-occupied” Jammu and Kashmir being home to an “oppressed minority Muslim” population, a wide range of target audiences is considered. This ranges from liberal intellectuals in India and abroad to vulnerable local populations within J&K.

These overt calls that rest on dragging warfare in the “non-kinetic” domain require an understanding of three crucial points. One, the narratives floated to influence public perceptions (inside and outside India) remain static. These surround two broad themes: raising anti-India rhetoric referring to it as an “occupying force” (IOJK/IIOJK) violating “human rights”; and invoking religious fraternity between Pakistan and J&K while citing “oppression of Muslim minorities” in a “Hindu fundamentalist India.” Two, this is not a new phenomenon. It has been ongoing since the 1947 commencement of Radio Azad Kashmir in Muzaffarabad. It was complemented by a simultaneous establishment of the public relations wing of the ISI – the ISPR. This organization currently comprises a team of 40,000 thoroughly trained information warfare specialists. Three, these narratives are floated way beyond the contemporarily in-focus social media platforms. The exploitation of electronic media, radio, in addition to functioning religious, educational, and civil society institutions, plays a crucial role in this respect. It is this point that needs further exemplification. For ease of understanding, these means might be categorized as short and long-term projects based on their latency period. Note that the “latency period” here refers to the time gap between the initiation of the Influence Operation and the materialization of its impacts.

In terms of short-term projects, means like popular media have been used to influence popular perceptions spontaneously in the context of contemporary political developments. For example, radio broadcasts from stations across the border are easily accessible to the population settled in the frontier regions. They spill anti-India propaganda whose flavour and intensity vary concerning political developments within Jammu and Kashmir or otherwise changing political moods. This includes elections or ceasefire violations. It is reported that propaganda broadcast from PoK-based Radio Trakhal became so intense at a time that an independent monitoring authority had to be established exclusively for this one radio station. This phenomenon extends to TV channels – over 50 of which are streamed by local cable operators and are under the prohibited list issued by the Indian government. With the adoption of emerging technologies every passing decade, the threat of these only exacerbates. Radio channels like PoK-based Sada-i-Hurriyat were used for recruitment and communicating with infiltrators in the early phases of the militancy. Social media has only accelerated this sequence by spreading misinformation and accessible channels for radicalization and recruitment. It must be noted, however, that the impact of these operations is experienced almost spontaneously – and with the popularization of social media, in real-time. This requires damage control to withhold a similar pace and, most importantly, social media awareness in content development, tracking, and dissemination.

Long-term projects, however, become slightly different and more challenging to deal with. These include influencing perceptions by bringing about a change in the overall social culture of a community of people. It presents two distinct challenges – problems of identification and uniqueness of response. These projects run silently over significantly longer durations – sometimes generations – so much so that the propagated narratives become an integral part of the mainstream narratives. This can be seen through the incoming Jamaat-e-Islami in the early 1940s as an alternative to the existing local religious and educational culture. When insurgency in J&K began, a marked rise in enrolled students was noted from 13,000 to 33,000 between 1985 and 1989. The subsequent establishment of the Falah-e-Aam Trust following a ban on JeI and further dissociation with the Trust on suspicions has kept the “silent revolution” ongoing. Replacing the so-called indigenous Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front’s call for “self-determination,” the slogan of militancy in J&K evolved to “Azaadi ka matlab kya, La Ilah Ha Ilalah…Pakistan se Rishta Kya, La Ilah Ha Ilalah” (What is the meaning of Azadi, it is that Allah is one…What is the relationship with Pakistan, it is that Allah is one…). The influence of JeI, the Ahl-e-Hadees, and several other similar institutions can be felt in the language of the militancy in terms of upholding a form of Islam that is unlike the local Sufi traditions of the Kashmiri society. A most recent ban on the Trust was declared last year. It must be noted that active linkages with the JeI and the Trust with militancy and violence in the Valley have been well established. As technology advances, such long-term silent projects appear to become more disguised, silent, and hidden from any interception until the first traces emerge – in the form of an already changed social culture of a community that might take an indefinite time to reverse. This makes the discussion of securing the information domain crucial in every aspect.

While the government has been pushing for active media monitoring through legislation (Intermediary Rules, 2020) as well as active cyber security measures, restoring the social culture that forms the root of a cohesive Indian state shall need a much deeper engagement at the policy level. Adoption of a whole-of-nation-approach shall be key to any such policy legislation.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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