This side of war

Updated March 01, 2019

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

THERE is no greater chill in this world than that provided by the prospect of war. We tend to forget this as we go about fighting the little battles of ordinary life — until war returns to mock us, with all kinds of extreme scenarios and never-to-be-fully-pro­ven details about the winners and the vanquished.

It is nice to be on the right side of war, among those who are opposed to the very idea of it at the outset. Patriotism aside, it is also good to be recognised for once by many as being the lesser suspect or less suspicious of the two parties to an imminent armed conflict. This country has had its dark moments, with the whole world breathing heavily down its neck accusing it of covert and open support of terrorism. It was a good feeling that, this time around, so many of the indicators point in the direction of the other party as the culprit.

When the Pulwama attack occurred last month, everyone immediately called it out as an indigenous act. It was quickly attributed to the Kashmiri resistance, a reaction of the freedom fighters to the excessive and intensifying campaign by the Indian state. It was readily described as a response to Indian forces’ actions aimed at gagging, maiming and eliminating those who had found new energy to take on the Indian might, increasingly manifesting itself in some of the most inhumane measures attempted since the start of the uprising in 1989.

It was very disappointing and worrying, then, to see Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi digging his heels in for some kind of a reaction targeting Pakistan, the Kashmiris’ traditional backer. This was an unrealistic build-up on the part of the Indian prime minister, given the widespread recent belief that Pakistan was not — it was no more able to — extending support to the Kashmiri movement as it might have easily done in the past.

There are no prizes for guessing what forced the BJP leadership to do what it has been doing since the Pulwama attack.

There are no prizes for guessing what forced the BJP leadership to do what it has been doing since the Pulwama attack: the forthcoming general election in India. There has always been a counter-analysis that highlights the dangers of a party resorting to jingoism to prop up its electoral chances, and instances where applying techniques designed to create hysteria has been counterproductive. Sometimes, rival politicians are able to benefit in a big way from subscribing to anti-war sentiments, which are present in large pockets despite the so-called dominant pro-war trend.

The sum of these pockets should be able to often play a decisive role in keeping a war-happy leader out of power. In a pragmatic, 21st-century India, with its many strains of politics, these regional varieties of thinking must be asserted to influence and defeat pro-war emotions in the country. But a reading from across the border — or simply a Pakistani reading, if you must — of the scene brings out the stark reality that, if anything, Mr Modi’s modern rule in this vastly experienced democracy, with its particular emphasis and its certain thrusts, has left large number of Indians (especially in the country’s cow belt) most vulnerable to the beat of war drums.

This has left Mr Modi doubly exposed. He is guilty of trying to pass India-held Kashmir’s indigenous struggle as some kind of foreign phenomenon, and he has been exposed trying to opportunistically raise the spectre of war in an effort to secure a general election. And, as the two conditions complement each other, there clearly emerges a case for Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government to expect to be backed by the world at large as it counters the Indian argument that Pulwama was a demon of Pakistan’s making.

A Pakistani prime minister speaking of peace with India is not exactly new on the menu. As recently as during Mian Nawaz Sharif’s tenure in office, we have witnessed Islamabad trying to register positive overtures with New Delhi — albeit without the whole-hog support of all institutions at home, and with little reciprocation from India. The PTI government says, with reason, that given that Mr Modi doesn’t have the world backing him in this case, Mr Khan has been able to push his claim as being in the right here. If the Pakistani prime minister’s supporters insist that this is an instance in which Pakistan is able to engage the international community from a position of strength, they do make plenty of sense.

The realisation has brought much confidence in what Islamabad has been saying after its airspace was violated, amid India’s tall claims that it had inflicted huge damage on some militant camps beyond Kashmir deep inside Pakistani territory. Many tense hours after the mysterious Indian air raid — the details of which have been hotly contested by the Pakistan army and the media here — this ‘fresh’ streak of self-assuredness displayed by Mr Khan culminated in his latest addition to a series of speeches in which the ex-cricketing idol has been appreciated for being able to communicate his message so effectively. This sense was reconfirmed by so many who applauded the brief address, in which a man who said he was aware of the pain caused by war offered the prospect of talks to an old adversary.

India’s internal condition might not allow Mr Modi to accept the offer immediately. Despite all the calls for common-sense thinking, we might see tensions between Pakistan and India escalate further. But the brilliant moment when ‘your side’ is perceived by so many — finally a majority of the world? – to be making the right kind of overtures from a position of strength? ... well, this is a feeling that does give you enough energy to argue with even the staunchest proponents of resolving problems through violent means.

Obviously, after that, it might have been too much to expect that that the dark clouds of war would disappear as fast as you wish them to. It is also obviously too much be expect that, in the most heated moments, your wish for restraint will be heeded by the rest of your countrymen who are always so quick on the draw, and who are not too keen on allowing any distinct voices of dissent to be added to the debate.

There is no bigger occasion than the beckoning of war to corroborate how impossible it is to introduce to the national discourse varieties of patriotism besides the robust model that has so far dominated all others. In the event, all those looking to be different without necessarily compromising national integrity must be happy with what’s available in the form of small victories. They may have reason to be happy with the hospitality shown on our territory to a captive soldier. They may want to celebrate the fact that while the prime minister said we will not think but retaliate, he did indeed make a happy U-turn. He did mull over, and was cautious with, his country’s response.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, March 1st, 2019