A convoy carrying CRPF personnel in Pulwama, Jammu & Kashmir, is infiltrated and attacked by a suicide bomber belonging to the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad, killing over 40 jawaans. This is one of the worst terror attacks faced by India in decades.
Mobs and processions throughout the country proclaim Pakistan Murdabad: Death to Pakistan. Debates on television call for war.
Veteran Cricketer-turned-Comedian and Politician Navjot Singh Sidhu condemns the attacks, and asks if it is justified to hold an entire nation responsible for the acts of some. He is immediately branded pro-Pakistan – and therefore, for many, anti-national – and faces massive backlash on social media and elsewhere. A day after the remark, Sidhu is speculated to be sacked from the television comedy show he has been associated with for years.
Amid mob action by ABVP, VHP, and Bajrang Dal, two colleges in Dehradun – Baba Farid Institute of Technology, and Alpine College of Management and Technology – declare that they would not be admitting any Kashmiri students into their institutions starting the following academic year. Meanwhile, demands are made for the dismissal of all Kashmiris who are currently studying here.
“How’s the josh?” echo the voices of the millions who are yet to recover from the hangover of the catchphrase from the propagandistic movie Uri and from our Prime Minister. There is talk in India that war is imminent, and even necessary – that Pakistan’s crime is so heinous that it demands blood, even if it has to include our own. “How’s the josh?” shout some mourners at a martyr’s funeral, weaving irony by calling for more war and battle – more bloodshed.
How can we possibly avenge martyrdom by creating more martyrs?
When on the 14th of February, terrorists killed over forty personnel of the Central Reserve Police Forces at Pulwama, the wave of anger and mourning rising in response coagulated into two extremely dangerous kinds of hatred – that against Pakistan, and that against the people of Kashmir. Unfortunately for nation, this cult of hatred appears to be unsuspectingly and consciously cultivated.
There are levels to the wrongness of the discussions we are having as a nation at this time of crisis. The fact that a blind chant for “showing Pakistan its place” is catching on makes one more and more aware of the acute impact of exaggerated nationalism under sway of the current government. In the environment of a constant us-versus-them that we are in today, very biased and miopic opinions are magnified and disseminated. The focus today is on building militaristically strong states – hence the inordinately high emphasis on defence and armament everywhere. When you bring this form of post-Cold War power-fetishism together with the polarizing forces of nationalism, a potent hunger for war is formed. It is this hunger that is being fed to the masses. At the core of it all, it is still a hunger borne of hatred.
It is a strange kind of hatred, too. It may be less evident in the case of Pakistan, whom Indian governments have strategically learnt to hate; apparently in order to survive; but whom the BJP has time and again wished to ‘bring back’ under the fold of an Akhand Bharat. The strangeness is even more pronounced in the context of Kashmir, whose people have been consciously othered even as every attempt is made to keep them within the confines of India. The infantilisation of Kashmir in the Indian political ethos is heartbreakingly paradoxical: the idea is that Kashmiris don’t know what’s best for them, they cannot fend for their own selves, and hence must bow to whatever forms of protection India, the looming patriarch, provides them – especially against Pakistan. However, no stone that leads some of them to gravitate towards rebellion and militancy is left unturned, with the AFSPA, the contentious ground of Section 370, and the constant associations of Kashmiris with Pakistan muddled together with the constant attempt to dissociate the two completely and antagonistically. The hatred that is cultivated when a Kashmiri youth like Adil Ahmed Dar – identified as the suicide bomber employed in the Pulwama attacks – reaches its most unreasonable peaks when all Kashmiris are associated with militancy and terrorism. Ironically, most Indians do see the flaw of that logic when faced with the anti-Indian Armed Forces sentiment that prevails in many parts of Jammu and Kashmir due to the actions of some of its men.
Unsurprisingly, then, when Navjot Singh Sidhu asks if it is correct to blame the people of Pakistan for the acts of terror outfits and its possible sponsorship by their government, Indians choose to ostracise him instead, forgetting his call for strong action against the perpetrators. We choose to mob up and say Pakistan Murdabad, and to denounce all Kashmiri within the state and elsewhere in the country, and to call for war.
Let’s try to remember what we are forgetting. Of course, taking firm action against the perpetrators is necessary. Firm action has already been initiated against Pakistan, first in terms of India’s withdrawal of the former’s status as Most Favoured Nation in trade and of hiking up the customs duty on imports from the country by 200%, and later in terms of a diplomatic push to Indian allies – already affirmatively responded to by the US, France, Russia and Iran – in restricting engagement with Pakistan. This economic pressure on the Imran Khan government’s already precarious financial position is supplemented by the high probability of Pakistan being blacklisted for terror financing under the Financial Action Task Force, which could have very serious implications. Thus, conditions are being created for Pakistan to take fast action against its terror-breeding enclaves, or to face international isolation on a scale that could wreck fatal havoc for the nation if substantiated. Pakistan has already called back their ambassador in India for consultation, a visible result of this pressure.
In such a situation, the idea of ‘limited war’ – which is unfortunately and alarmingly being advocated through the media – needs careful reconsideration. While all sorts of military action, if taken, could lead to a restoration or rise in the Modi government’s receding popularity right before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections are to be held, war will also be detrimental to the Indian economy – even if conducted on a limited scale – in ways that could set us back by decades. Moreover, with the Donald Trump presidency in the US, chances for US intervention in an Indo-Pak militaristic conflict resolution are bleak, especially in context of the US wishing to withdraw completely from Afghanistan. In fact, in case of an escalation of conflict, China – who has strong ties with and major investments in Pakistan – will be the intervening party. This can lead to a complete overturn of the dynamics at play, and not in a good way for us.
It is also important to remember the human costs of war. Bloodshed and martyrdom cannot be avenged by its larger-scale repetition. While the military is ready to lay down its lives for the nation, it shouldn’t have to, in face of other alternatives. Thus, the cry for war seems like a bad idea on almost all fronts – a good idea only for nationalistic political players, and not the nation itself.
Let us refer again to Sidhu, who is on the receiving end of massive flak for making some well-reasoned arguments. Speaking to the media outside the Punjab Assembly where he is minister, Sidhu reminded the media that it was the BJP government in 1999 that released Masood Azhar, chief of the outfit which has taken responsibility for Pulwama, in exchange for Indians held hostage at Kandahar. Of course, Kandahar was a high pressure situation with the immediacy of nearly 200 civilian lives at stake, but the NDA government’s Crisis Management Group did let the situation elevate when it could have been resolved at Amritsar, where the hijacked plane carrying the hostages first landed. Sidhu’s remark thus indirectly leads us to another important aspect of assessing the Pulwama attacks that is amiss in the angry Indian political consciousness right now: that of questioning those responsible from within our system.
One facet of the current wave of nationalism is the equation of the government with the nation in absolution, which has given rise to a trend where citizens are discouraged from questioning the government. However, it seems highly unlikely that a security attack on such a scale could have been carried out without some kind of help from insiders. How was the Indian intelligence unable to respond to such activity, which requires intensive and long-term planning and was detected and warned against? It is impossible for the suicide bomber in a private vehicle make it to such a high security area with staggering the amounts of explosives employed in the attack without either gross negligence or corrupt associating from within. A truly benevolent brand of nationalism would push for questioning in regard to these intricacies so that justice can be sought for the martyrs and the nation, and further crises avoided.
Meanwhile, it is also important to be cognizant of the many divisive politics being played out behind the angry mask of anti-terrorism: the harassment and antagonism against Kashmiris in specific and Muslims in general in light of the attack is a result of a mentality that seeks to divide and rule. It only helps the cause of radical militants on one hand and religious nationalism on the other. It is imperative that we do not let these truly anti-Indian elements win.
A situation such as the one in India right now calls for rationality, not only on part of the government but on part of the citizens it responds to. It is important not to give into the instigatory narratives disseminated through the televised media and through angry mobs, but to push the government into striving for better, more effective solutions.
You may follow updates on the events around the Pulwama attacks here.