Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Does India really want to go to war?

Given all the country's problems, there is no place for warmongering by politicians and stirring up nationalism with jingoistic TV adverts

We are going through a strange time in India. Even as we live it we are rewriting history. It isn’t that we transformed overnight into another kind of country. We didn’t change in isolation. The world around us continues to change and it is inevitable that we will change with it, especially when it comes to international relations and how we approach them.

War is a malaise. Like avian flu or HIV or dengue fever, it is born of a beast and there is a beast in both citizen and nation which we keep wrapped and leashed with clothes and flag, societal norms and the constitution.

But war, like all infectious diseases, has a way of creeping into the system and minds, insidiously at first and then with blatant disregard for life and the toll it may take.

Just as happened with avian flu, HIV and dengue fever, many of us thought it would never come to India. Yet suddenly it seems that even if we are not at war, there is a great deal of warmongering being instigated, especially in certain sections of the media.

We are a peace loving democracy. We may have countless internal problems: water disputes over a river, lynchings for consumption of beef in states where it is banned, child trafficking, farmer suicides, Maoist attacks, environmental devastation, an almost civil war-like situation in Kashmir, corporate and political corruption.

But we have not gone to war.

However, ever since India woke up to the news of four heavily armed terrorists attacking an Indian army brigade in a pre-dawn ambush in Uri on September 18, that resulted in 17 army personnel dying and several injured, something snapped.

The Line of Control, the demarcation line between the Indian and Pakistani controlled parts of Kashmir, that India had so carefully kept in check, was smashed to bits. It wasn’t that India was new to conflict with Pakistan. There had been instances in recent history such as the Kargil war in 1999 and three wars earlier in 1971, 1965 and 1947.

And yet, in the past few weeks there has been a slow murmuring among the people and much media ranting and raving, especially in TV debates, about Pakistan. I can’t ever remember a time when there was as much talk about war as there is today even though we are not engaged in one.

Names to unleash hate

In 1971, I was a child growing up in Avadi, an ordnance townshipthe Heavy Vehicles Factory was located and where the Vijayanta (“Victorious:) battle tanks were built. This was a highly sensitive defense establishment area and so the war came to us even though we were deep down in the south of India.

I remember a man coming to our home to paint all the window panes black and we were asked to use heavy dark curtains. In the late evening a siren would come on and the lights would go off. The entire township would be shrouded in darkness. A siren would then sound again and the lights would come back on, but not the street lights. This happened a few times and I learnt a new word: blackout.

I also learnt two names: Yahya Khan and Bhutto. I was too young to know who they were but even at just six years of age, I realized that these were names that could unleash hate. It was a strange inexplicable hate that made boys name two street dogs Yahya Khan and Bhutto and chase them for no reason except that the poor dogs had been named thus.

The war lasted only 13 days but at six it seemed like a lifetime. My parents who remembered the rationing during the second world war aired their reminiscences which mainly had to with fleeing Burma after the Japanese occupation and coming to a Kerala where there was no rice available.

Instead [and unless you had a full granary] everyone was forced to switch to either wheat or macaroni. My biggest fear during the 1971 war was not the Pakistan airforce might choose to bomb Avadi but the horror of having to eat macaroni.

What I also remember was that life went back to the way it was. A man came to scrape the paint off the window panes. Light voile curtains were hung up again. The streetlights glowed throughout the night and the two street dogs were left alone. Pakistan was no longer at the forefront of our minds, unless we were playing a cricket test match against them.

In the following years, there were enough skirmishes along the Line of Control and we found ourselves in the middle of a war when Kargil happened. Then, in 2008, the “26/11” Mumbai attack happened. Last year, the Gurdaspur police station attack happened. At the start of this year, the Pathankot air force station attack happened.

But the Uri attack wasn’t the same. Or perhaps it had finally come to a point where we had to acknowledge that there was a new player in the war game – the terrorist. Someone who fought a battle for all the wrong reasons. Someone who probably didn’t even know what he was fighting for.

Add to it the growing intolerance worldwide. No one is free from bigotry. We may wear our peacenik and bleeding heart liberal guises with great ease but within all of us whether we are French, American, Scandinavian, Indonesian, Arab, Pakistani or Indian.

We have a laundry list of prejudices jostling for space and so it is more convenient to justify our antagonism as a result of terror strikes and use religion as a scapegoat to explain why terrorism is a hydra-headed monster.

Will we go to war? I don’t know. We in India are not naturally confrontational and our wars have been fought for valid reasons. So I have taken to watching the news channels trying to make some sense of all that is happening.

On the one hand, the army and its synchronized combat action has escalated patriotism to new levels within some parts of the populace if Facebook posts and tweets are anything to go by.

The opposition dismisses it as routine military operations that are being used by the ruling political machinery as propaganda to influence the forthcoming elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

This isn’t a war game to be played on a PlayStation. This is for real and it is in the best interests of a nation and its people that we tone down the jingoism

If the national mood is to be gauged by advertising, our new superheroes are our soldiers and our new catchphrase is “the surgical strike”.

A TV commercial captures the nation’s mood by showing soldiers being saluted by people in a bus, on a staircase, at a traffic light … retired army generals have become prime time news hour regulars on several TV channels.

Mostly though all this warmongering on prime time TV reminds me of what happens at the Wagah border village every day when soldiers of India and Pakistan stand on either side of the gates and carry out an almost aggressive display of national pride and spirit while crowds on either side sit and watch the theatrics.

The less diplomatic among us would call it jingoist rather than nationalist.

What of the man who drives an autorickshaw or the farmer worrying about the failed monsoon? The schoolteacher waiting for the Treasury to clear her salary papers or the housewife perplexed by pesticides on vegetables? What of the writer, doctor and postmaster? The trafficked child and the homeless?

This isn’t a war game to be played on a PlayStation. This is for real and it is in the best interests of a nation and its people that we tone down the jingoism

Does the idea of nation and patriotism as an emotion have any bearing on them? Does the country really want to go to war? Or is this a war that is being debated and discussed on TV channels by political and intellectual India, while real India goes about its business of trying to live and let live?

It would do us good to remember that there are no winners in a war, especially when the nature of war has changed with specter of nuclear weapons.

Look at the statistics of the 1971 war: Pakistan suffered 8,000 dead and 25,000 wounded while India had 3,000 dead and 12,000 wounded. In the Kargil conflict Pakistan’s casualties were close to 1,000 soldiers and India’s 550, of whom several were were senior officers.

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