Surgical Strikes: Public Transparency v. National Security

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On 30th September, 2016, most leading Indian national dailies proudly proclaimed that the Indian Army had successfully carried out surgical strikes in Pakistan in the dead of the night and managed to attack and destroy seven terrorist base camps while also killing all the terrorist present in those camps. This move by the Indian Army and Government was seen as retaliation to the Uri attacks in which four heavily armed terrorists attacked an Indian Army brigade headquarters in Uri, near the Line of Control in the wee hours of the morning. They were alleged to have lobbed seventeen grenades in under three minutes followed by a gun battle that ultimately resulted in the death of 18 army personnel, as reported by the newspapers.

StrikesThe Uri incident caused mass uproar in the nation and sent the public into a frenzy baying for the blood of the perpetrators of the Uri attacks. With the government facing demands for action every single day, the plan to attack the terrorist camps was formulated based on actionable intelligence received by the appropriate authorities. Thus, on 29th September, the Indian Army crossed the Line of Control, where, according to the intelligence, the terrorists were meeting for final briefings before crossing the LoC to enter into India to carry out attacks. The operation involved heavy artillery firing, use of hand grenades and 84mm rocket launchers to destroy the base camps after which the Indian Army swiftly crossed the LoC again to enter back into India.

On the 30th of September 2016 when the news hit the papers, the nation was engulfed by a wave of patriotism with every Indian feeling proud of the attack and showering praises on the Modi Government and the Indian Army for their bold steps. The attacks sent a strong message to the world: India is no longer a soft state and shall respond in equal measure to any attacks on its soil. The action was lauded by even the opposition parties and even the other nations of the world were unable to say anything against the step taken by India.

Soon however reports started flowing in that Pakistan had completely denied the occurrence of any such attacks and had refused to acknowledge that such strikes had ever taken place. They demanded proof of such an operation from India, proof that according to the Indian government was considered sensitive material and not something that could be made available to the public. The opposition parties in India saw this as an opportunity to further their interests by undermining the act of the government and hence started demanding proof albeit phrasing it as wanting to satisfy Pakistan’s authorities while in reality wanting to make the Modi government look bad since they knew that such proof would not be released. The media houses in India started running sensational stories and debates with some people now questioning the truth of the attacks due to the government’s reluctance to release proof. This faction of the people believed that if such strikes had indeed been conducted then the government should have no problem in releasing proof backing their claims. The age old debate of public transparency versus national secrets was once again brought to the fore.

Since the birth of democracy there has always been one bone of contention between the public and the government and that is the release of information by the government that it considers to be sensitive or a national secret. On one hand is the right of the common man to know about each and every action or decision of his government, while on the other hand is the duty of the government is to maintain the safety and integrity of the nation and this may sometimes call for keeping certain information private so as to not compromise the security of the State. It is extremely difficult to strike a balance between the two and till date there hasn’t been a complete resolution of this conflict.

In the present case, the government, as well as a majority of the citizens of India, has said that the video recordings and live footage of the surgical strikes cannot be released as they will lead to the revelation of the strategies used by the army and hence render such missions obsolete in the future. Also, it will lead to the identification of the men personally involved in the attacks which might put a target on their backs. It is after all the duty of the nation to protect its army men as well. Also, no country would like to divulge information about its military tactics, weapons as well as points of entry into the enemy territory. The release of such data is like a suicide mission, like giving the enemy cheat codes to win the next war. The strategic advantage and intelligence gathered through such operations shall be rendered useless and will cause irreparable damage to the efforts of the government and the army to eliminate all threats to the security of the State of India since the enemy state shall take all necessary precautions to avoid the re-occurrence of such an event.

There is also the argument that the fact that Pakistan is refuting the occurrence of such attacks should come as no surprise since no sovereign will ever agree to the fact that another country entered upon its territory and carried out such operations without them ever finding out, no matter what the truth is. Such people consider this a tactic being employed by Pakistan to get hold of the military strategies and loopholes exploited by the Indian Army so as to further fortify their borders and prevent such attacks in the future. It is also seen as an attack on the credibility of the Indian claims since they are fully aware that the Indian government will refuse to release such data and hence they are hiding behind this reluctance to deny the occurrence of these strikes. People have also time and again brought up the fact that a similar operation was conducted by the United States of America to capture and kill Osama Bin Laden on the Pakistan soil and no proof of the same was provided in the name of State secrets. Since nobody questioned the validity or occurrence of those strikes, the same should be followed in the current case.

Coming now to the other side, there is a group of people that believes that since the occurrence of the strikes has been called into question, the government ought to be held accountable to the public and should make public all such information that does not endanger national security. Arguments have been made that the location of the terrorist camps that have been struck are not a secret to the Pakistani government and hence their revelation will not disclose any secrets. In the same way the number of casualties at each of the seven camps is also obviously known to the Pakistani authorities and hence there is no harm in releasing such information to the public. These people believe that the footage should be edited to the extent necessary to keep all sensitive information private but at least some semblance of believable proof should be released for if nothing else then to nip cynicism against the attacks in the bud.

Some people, especially the opposition parties in the Indian political scenario are using the government’s reluctance to raise question on the strikes. One view that has been taken is that maybe the targets hit were not particularly significant from a military standpoint and hence releasing their details might take away from the benefit that accrues to the ruling party from these strikes in the next elections. Another view is that even if not for the satisfaction of the Pakistani government, the Indian government is responsible to its own citizens for information on its actions. Every citizen of a nation is entitled to be made aware of the actions of their government and the foreign policy being pursued by them and hence if nothing else the demand for the footage by the India citizens should be honored in view of the government’s fundamental duty to provide information about its actions to the citizens.

Whatever view one may take regarding the surgical strikes, the fact that such surgical strikes were conducted marks a paradigm shift in the way India deals with terror threats. Considered a soft state up until now that did not do much after a terrorist attack, these strikes have shown that India is no longer shy of taking bold steps to ensure that its sovereignty and safety do not come under attack, and will no longer take such threats lying, but is prepared to take the requisite military action to avenge as well as prevent any more threats to the nation and its citizens and is something that every Indian should be proud of.

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