The past year has seen social media, especially mobile-based social media/messaging services like WhatsApp become especially popular among members of the armed forces, with their ease of use and low operating cost.
Groups created within these platforms have begun performing the unofficial functions of a bulletin board, a graffiti wall and a support group, besides a medium for pure communication. These groups are typically populated by serving and retired officers who constitute the Fauji Net and offer an informality of conversation among them that would otherwise be rare in the rigid hierarchy of the real world armed forces.
And that’s also the reason why social media saw the expression of anger among officers who felt let down by their leadership after the high casualties taken by security personnel in gun-battles in Jammu and Kashmir, recently.
This phenomena has been noted by the brass in the armed forces who have subsequently issued instructions against the use of social media messaging platforms by members of the armed forces, especially WhatsApp.
Not that anyone has quit the social messaging service because of this.
The shoe is on the other foot, actually. Senior officers of the armed forces now need to check their public behavior to avoid being featured as the latest subject of gossip among their own officers on social media .
The following photographs illustrate the point. What comes across is the fixation many senior officers have with their rank and, more importantly, the fear that someone out there might not know it.
In the first photograph we have a one-star plate (signifying a brigadier) on a clearly civilian Maruti hatchback vehicle, with a lal batti on top, lest anyone miss the point.
In Exhibit B, please note the gentleman wearing a hat at what appears to be an evening social event. People appear to be milling around the bar, waiting to get their drink.
Our man, however, needs to make sure that everybody around knows he’s a major general. That’s why he’s placed a two-star collar dog (which is worn on the collar of the uniform) on the side of a field hat (which is not worn over a lounge suit).
In fact, retired three-star generals had styled their side-caps similarly with shoulder stars, as well, at the evening reception held by the army chief, General Dalbir Singh, at his residence on the occasion of Army Day last week.
The gentleman seated on the boat in the third photograph is a lieutenant general. We know this because the three stars tell us this is incontrovertibly so. The commander’s flag removes any residual traces of doubt.
Some observers on social media have identified him and the occasion. Comments on social media say that he was onboard the boat to conduct the last rites of a departed family member in the waters of one of the holy rivers.
Seriously? Could it be more inappropriate?
This status-conscious insecurity and display of rank plates (which are only placed on official staff cars) is not new, but it’s certainly become more frequent and embarrassing and appears more tasteless and cringe-worthy (or maybe it’s just coming out more because: WhatsApp).It could be argued that sometimes, a culture of forced cronyism or sycophancy leads to such situations. At least that’s what some say happened when General Dalbir Singh was photographed giving a speech behind a standing microphone, with a four-star rank plate in front.
It could also be that senior officers, being of a certain generation, are not familiar with mobile technologies and social media and fail to appreciate the potential speed at which information can spread, without necessarily becoming visible in the real world.
Tough luck, because the use of social media and mobile messaging is only going to grow.
So, not the best examples to set.
The armed forces are intensely conscious of hierarchy (although some more than others). That is the nature of the service. But senior officers publicly obsessing about their ranks, display insecurity, immaturity and distinctly misplaced priorities in addition to their rank plates, and end up obliviously holding themselves up to mockery and ridicule across the army.
And on WhatsApp, it only takes half an hour to go viral.