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Conflict Communication: Chronicles of a Communicator


ConflictCommunication.pngAs the former Principal Information Officer of the Union government, he never dodged scribes and was literally available 24X7. Being an uncanny newshound sharpened his skills of being an effective communicator. He was never one to duck a challenge. The ever smiling and amiable I Ramamohan Rao was a hands on communicator and highly reliable. Anyone could bank on him with a query and if he did not have a response immediately, he'd say ""I'll get back to you."" Got back he did in quick time. He held a typical open house every evening when a large number of scribes assembled in the PIO's spacious office at the Press Information Bureau in Shastri Bhawan in Lutyens Delhi firing away questions on a wide range of issues. He would patiently contact ministers and secretaries concerned to assimilate the facts and disseminate information without the least fuss.

After he superannuated, the PIB became a dull and boring place with hardly any one willing to take such an initiative as it would amount to needlessly burdening themselves in disseminating information. Having served four Prime Ministers -- Rajiv Gandhi, V P Singh, Chandrasekhar and P V Narasimha Rao -- he reveled being in conflict zones as evidenced in his highly absorbing book ""CONFLICT COMMUNICATION : Chronicles of a Communicator."" The PIB lost the vibrancy of communication after he superannuated. Rao captures in a simple and direct style the major happenings in the country over the last five decades encompassing politics, war, economics and what have you. He joined the Press Information Bureau (PIB) in 1956 and was later inducted into the Indian Information Service when it was created

He headed the PIB for seven years. He served as a communicator in various capacities right from the time of the country's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He served in the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) in Gaza and edited their weekly magazine Sand Dune. He was involved with creating communication facilities during the 1962 Chinese aggression. Even as efforts were on to rebuild the defenses of the country, he continued reporting on the conflict from the field as a Public Relations Officer during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. Later he was at the Defence Headquarters in Delhi during the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict which saw the emergence of Bangladesh. Rao has had a highly chequered career. He makes it clear this is not an autobiography.

As a communicator he was privileged to have a ringside view of the processes; the pulls and pressures that go into decision making at the highest level. He believes the lessons he has learnt as a communicator hold much greater significance in the world of constantly breaking news and social media. The challenges for the government are indeed greater. He joined the PIB by chance during his first visit to Delhi in 1955. He escorted his cousin Meera Rao from Bombay who participated in the Hindustani music competition by the All India Radio. With time on his hands he strolled towards Parliament House. The banner of a seminar organised by the Bureau of Parliamentary studies on the Indian Constitution caught his attention. As the subject interested him he walked into Parliament House easily as no entry pass was required those days.

In one of the rooms more than a hundred people had gathered and Jawaharlal Nehru was on the podium elaborating on the Constitution. Barely 21 years old, Pandit Nehru came near the table where he was picking up a cup of tea. He asked Rao ""I guess you are a student. Did you find the discussion interesting?"" He replied ""Sir, I have just finished my law degree and MA and I found the speeches interesting.  What are your views, young man,"" Panditji asked again. ""I took the courage to say that the Indian Constitution was unitary in character than federal, and that there was a danger to the unity of the country from the demands for the reorganisation of the states gaining momentum. Panditji smiled, patted me and told me to keep alive my interests in Parliamentary democracy."" It is a moment which has remained etched in his memory. ""It was overwhelming for me to be in the presence of Panditji, a charismatic leader, and to be spoken to by him.""

Accompanied by his maternal grand uncle U S Mohan Rao, who was Director of the Publications Division, they went to meet the PIO T R V Chari. He mentioned that the results of his law examination was due. The Bombay Edition of the Times of India was promptly requisitioned and Rao had passed standing first in the Bombay State. Chari told his uncle not to send the young man back but appear in the written test and interview. He was selected for the job in the PIB. During the UNEP assignment, Rao's boss Ole Dich wanted him to join the UN civil service as a communicator. He got the offer but declined as there was real excitement with war brewing at home in 1962. Ole Dich gave him sage parting advice: ""Ram stay close to the generals during war. They know how to look after themselves.""

The reverses against China had a traumatic impact on the morale of the country. To rebuild the army and restore the confidence of the people in the ability of the armed forces to defend the country's frontiers, the government felt it necessary to share the information with the people. New directions were laid down that during future operations there should be an office of War Information in New Delhi and arrangements should be made to set up press camps in forward areas near the formations. At the camps the formation commanders or their authorised representatives had to brief the media. Correspondents were to be put in uniform to cover the war to facilitate their movement and safety if they became prisoners. It was also decided to have a war correspondent's course for the media. Rao conducted the first course in 1967 at the division headquarters near Pathankot. By the time the next war broke out in 1971, there was a team of defence correspondents well trained in reporting the war.

Today there is no time lag between what is happening on the battlefield and its dissemination. Information is available across the nation's frontiers. The country had a taste of the close link between the media and national security during the Kargil operations in 1999. What was happening in Kargil was seen by the citizens of the country in a matter of hours, if not minutes. The television coverage also exposed Pakistan's claims that those entrenched in Kargil were Kashmiri militants. On the contrary they were Pakistani soldiers. It became evident to the whole world that the Pakistani army was fully involved in the Kargil operations. Rao referred to the Al Faran episode in Kashmir in July 1995 when ten European tourists were taken hostage. It established that militancy in Kashmir was being carried out by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. It exposed the involvement of the Pakistanis and terrorists of Afghan and West Asian origin in Jammu and Kashmir.

Several committees were constituted to look into the matter according access to cover the war and frame guidelines which have since been adopted. At the same time communication between the government and the people is essential so that government policies and activities are widely known. An incisive and must read book.

Book:CONFLICT COMMUNICATION: Chronicles of a Communicator
Author:Ramamohan Rao
Publisher:Pentagon Press


(T R Ramachandran is a senior journalist and commentator.)

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