Defence experts on TV news shows: who are they and how did they get there?

We dig into the background of some popular television defence experts to find out what it takes to be invited on a primetime show

ByKshitij Malhotra
Defence experts on TV news shows: who are they and how did they get there?
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In the wake of raids on premises of separatist leaders in Kashmir by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) during which evidence of foreign funding was allegedly unearthed, Major (retired) Gaurav Arya featured in a debate on Arnab Goswami’sRepublic TV on June 3. “I want to ask one simple question,” Arya said. “Half of the time, Kashmir is under bandh, under lockdown,” he continued. “Half of the time they are stone pelting. Phir bhi koi malnutrition ka case nahi hai, phir bhi koi farmer suicide nahi hai (Still there’s no malnutrition or farmer suicides). Sab ke gaal aise lal-lal gulaabi ho rakhe hai wahan pe (Their cheeks are rosy). I want to understand where is the money coming from?”

It’s hard to say whether Arya, a popular presence on TV debates in his capacity as a defence expert, was being facetious in implying that since Kashmiris are uniformly rosy-cheeked and well-nourished (a preposterous proposition, to say the least) and the Valley remains under “lockdown” for long periods, large swathes of the population must be receiving funding from Pakistan. Immediately after his comment, Goswami defended Arya saying he had meant it in “a metaphorical way”. Arya, though, later repeated his comments on Twitter.

Is it even necessary to point out that there were 21 cases of farmer suicides in Jammu and Kashmir in 2015, and 37 in 2014, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau? Is it worthwhile to say that while J&K’s Human Development Index is indeed higher than the national average, it ranks tenth among all states in India? And how does one respond to the assertion that Kashmiri’s rosy cheeks are a consequence of them being bankrolled by Pakistan?

Arya is but one among several former defence personnel turned TV defence expert. Although being a recent entry into the talking heads game, he is one of the most popular voices on TV today, along with Major General (retired) GD Bakshi and Colonel (retired) RSN Singh. Considering how polarising the debates surrounding topics of national security are these days (with tensions on the border and in Kashmir running high and Maoist violence killing scores of security forces in recent attacks) and the mood inside TV studios growing increasingly jingoistic, it is perhaps worth subjecting these three defence experts to some scrutiny – their background, their opinions and how they ended up on our TV screens night after night.

Major General (retired) GD Bakshi

Perhaps the most popular figure is Major General (retired) GD Bakshi, who, having served several years in Jammu and Kashmir, has also authored numerous books on military strategy. Bakshi also served as the deputy director (research) of the Delhi-based think tank Vivekananda International Foundation, at the time when National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was the director.

Speaking to Newslaundry, Bakshi said that prior to his retirement, his two-year stint working as Brigadier General Staff, Information Warfare at the Northern Command where he dealt “heavily with the media” paved the way for his future involvement with appearing on TV. Challenging the “left-liberal” discourse in the media was a major motivation, according to Bakshi. “When there’s informational warfare being waged against you through the medium of some media personalities, through media channels, through NGOs who are being paid – I’m being blunt – paid to peddle certain narratives to ensure that attitudes and emotions and opinions are altered in favour of separatists,” he said.

In his debate appearances, Bakshi regularly drives home his point. Considering just one instance, he participated in a debate on Times Now (at the time Arnab Goswami was still associated with the channel) in the wake of Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist Burhan Wani’s death last year. In the hour-long debate during which he repeatedly screamed himself hoarse while menacingly wagging his finger, Bakshi proclaimed, “We have been at the receiving end of a concerted media assault to prepare India for a breakup, to instigate the people of Jammu and Kashmir to rebel openly. They have been virtually told, it has been indicated to them ‘you are afraid of the Indian Army, we will tie it down hand and foot’. And you have the support of the leftist liberals of JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University), Jadavpur (University), Hyderabad (Central University). There are students and professors, their hearts are bleeding to see you go.”

Bakshi’s decisively hawkish tone finds favour with an increasingly aggressive media and he routinely appears on several news channels, including CNN News18Times Now and the newly launched Republic TV. He can also be seen, though less regularly, on NDTV and India Today TV.

Major (retired) Gaurav Arya

In a blog post on March 14, 2017, Major Gaurav Arya recalls how he came to be a well-known defence expert on TV. “One day in 2016, Burhan Wani was killed, and in sheer frustration of seeing multitudes worshipping a dead terrorist at his funeral, I wrote an article called “Open Letter to Burhan Wani” and posted it on Facebook before I went to sleep,” Arya recollected.

By the time he woke up the next morning, his post had gone viral. “When I woke up in the morning, all hell had broken lose. I had like 700 friend requests and likes,” Arya told Newslaundry. The next day he received a call from NDTV and three days later he first appeared on Goswami’s show on Times Now. Soon he was appearing regularly on other channels as well but when Goswami left Times Now in November last year to set up Republic TV, Arya joined him at the channel. “I’m not an employee at Republic, I’m a consultant,” he said. “I have my own show called The Patriot.” 

Arya is a veteran of the 17 Kumaon Regiment which he joined in 1994. However, he had to leave the Army in 1999 because of an accident which impacted his breathing. “Ten months of the year I used to be absolutely fine. December and January it [breathing problems] was terrible,” Arya said.

Colonel (retired) RSN Singh

Another popular presence on TV news, Colonel (retired) RSN Singh described himself in one of his appearances as a “strategic analyst, of which military is a very small part”. Singh is an author and a frequent contributor to web edition of the journal Indian Defence Review. His IDR profile states Singh is “a former military intelligence officer who later served in the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)”. Reports also state that prior to shifting to RAW, Singh served in Military Intelligence arm of the Indian Army.

Singh, like Bakshi, is an ardent critic of “pseudo-intellectuals, authors, lawyers, activists and of course teachers” who he characterises as “white-collar criminals”. In an article titled “Crush Jihadi and Maoist ideology” on IDR, Singh claims, “the recent Maoist-Jihadist tryst in universities was planned and effected by the Pakistan High Commission with the main role being played by one Iqbal Cheema of the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence agency). Apart from money, the common jihadi and Maoist ideology of destruction of India was leveraged to bring together Kanhiya (sic) and the jihadis. Cheema was subsequently compelled to leave India.” “If the cancer is not discerned and treated,” Singh warned, “India will continue to decay”.

Singh is also a regular on CNN News18 and Times Now.

Behind the scenes

Newslaundry spoke to guest coordinators — the personnel employed by the news channels to arrange guests for debate shows — from four leading English and three Hindi news channels (on the condition of anonymity) to understand how guests are selected to appear on shows, what differentiates a good guest from a bad one and how much they are paid to share their opinions.

For a defence expert, the military background is, of course essential, the coordinators said. Apart from that, though, the ability to frame opinions in a concise and pithy manner is vital. “Shakal nahi, zubaan zaroori hai (Words, and not appearance, are crucial),” a guest coordinator with nearly two decades of experience told Newslaundry.

Furthermore, there is an added element of editorial posturing which decides which experts are featured regularly, which in turn makes them more popular. “Initially, we do take them on based on their background but we also consider their views,” a guest coordinator with an English news channel said. “Someone like GD Bakshi takes a right wing side — though I wouldn’t say that to his face — but he does, we know he does.” This is pertinent because, in the current climate, news channels regularly promote hawkish tendencies towards Pakistan while simultaneously spewing vitriol against the enemy at home — left leaning liberal voices. This is one reason why experts like Bakshi, Arya and Singh, who check both the boxes, have become staples of the debate show circuit.

As far as compensation goes, most channels Newslaundry spoke to confirmed that experts are paid between Rs 2,000 to Rs 2,500 for an half-hour appearance and Rs 3,000 for an hour, while one guest coordinator revealed the standard payment for an appearance on one channel is Rs 5,000.

When Newslaundry asked about compensation, Bakshi said that most channels make a “token” payment. “But you wouldn’t be able to run a household with it,” he added. Arya had this to say about the compensation. “Some channels might give you a token amount of Rs 2,000 but 90 per cent of the channels don’t pay. So it was all done gratis, free of pay,” he told Newslaundry. All he got in return from his appearances from Times Now, Arya recalled, was black coffee. Newslaundry reached out to Singh but he didn’t respond to our calls.

His motivation for appearing on TV, Arya said, was to “get the soldier’s story” out there. However, does the soldier’s version always have to be this aggressive, lashing out at any criticism of the Army? One has to wonder why there is a dearth of tempered voices from within the defence community on debate shows. Why do we rarely see people like Lt Gen (retired) HS Panag, Colonel (retired) Alok Asthana, Colonel (retired) Ajai Shukla, Sushant Singh and others on TV? Panag, who has served as General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Northern Command, explains, “Most channels work according to a plan. They have made up their mind about what they want to promote,” he said. “When they ask the question they don’t give you the time to answer the question. The question too is framed in a manner [where] they want only certain kinds of answers. Then he [anchor] interrupts you and I find that is very insulting.” He adds that, “I find that most defence experts are actually being used by the channels and for whatever reasons they fall prey to this. That’s the reason I don’t come [on TV shows].” Panag’s reasoning illustrates that the manner in which debate shows are structured today ensures that the most aggressive, loud voices emerge on top while saner ones are drowned or not even heard.

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