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In search of a few heroes

January 16, 2013

WHEN army generals in India and Pakistan, retired and serving, refer to a “spectrum of options” they could use against the adversary, they are crudely gloating over the nuclear stockpiles each side had surreptitiously acquired not too long ago.

When hawkish politicians spice up their nationalist rhetoric with allusions to the number of skulls their army should bring back from the other side, apart from making a few of us cringe at the banality of the quest, they help reinforce Stanley Kubrick’s haunting character of Dr Strangelove — the man who “stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb”.

If this sounds like a far-fetched scenario flowing from recent events, I am quite prepared to be counted among the lily-livered, bleeding heart peaceniks, rather than play the bank guard ready with a grenade and a lighter to stop a potential robber.

Despicable as the alleged beheading of Indian soldiers by the Pakistanis was that led to the present military crisis, the fact is that both armies are or have been in it together. India’s ace TV anchor Barkha Dutt will do the country and the community of journalists a great service by speaking up at this time. She gave the following eyewitness account of the Kargil war to more or less affirm a tradition of beheading the enemy that unfortunately seems to exist on both sides and perhaps straddles other countries too. And I quote from writer-activist Shuddhabrata Sengupta’s web-post for the piece Barkha Dutt published in Himal magazine in June 2001.

“I had to look three times to make sure I was seeing right. Balanced on one knee, in a tiny alley behind the army’s administrative offices, I was peering through a hole in a corrugated tin sheet. At first glance, all I could see were some leaves. I looked harder and amidst all the green, there was a hint of black — it looked like a moustache. ‘Look again,’ said the army colonel, in a tone that betrayed suppressed excitement. This time, I finally saw. It was a head, the disembodied face of a slain soldier nailed onto a tree. ‘The boys got it as a gift for the brigade,’ said the colonel, softly, but proudly.”

As the unfortunate saga unfolded on the heavily militarised Line of Control in Kashmir and threatened to spin out of control last week, and it has not abated, memories of May 2002 came rushing back. I remembered how the diplomatic enclave in Delhi wore a deserted look, its cavernous buildings emptied of most of their diplomats and the spies and the canapé-serving PR personnel amid a nuclear scare.

It was the follow-up to a curiously botched attack on the Indian parliament. India’s prime minister of the day blamed Pakistan and called for a decisive fight. The army was moved to the borders, the warplanes were fuelled and ready on the tarmac and, happily, that was that. Two years later the prime minister was visiting Islamabad. It made a lot more sense than the nerve-wracking ultimatum he had issued.

The world had mounted pressure for the standoff to end, but equally importantly there was realisation among the warring parties that the existence of nuclear weapons on both sides did not bode well for either country to escalate the crisis. Nothing has changed in that equation since those fateful days, barring the fact that India has spent more inordinate sums of money to further beef up its conventional military superiority over Pakistan, while the Pakistani army has invested insanely in developing battlefield nuclear weapons in an effort to neutralise India’s edge. Reliable experts say neither option offers a foolproof sway to the owner.

But nuclear weapons are there in India and Pakistan. All one needs is a Dr Strangelove-like character to set them off. Any of the pseudo-nationalist braggarts on television last week could be him. As one TV channel after another vented their spleen in Delhi at the off again on again enemy last week (after losing a cricket series to it) my mind strayed to the proverbial hair-trigger both sides are known to keep on the ready. That is supposed to be their foil to the other’s potential for the nuclear perfidy both fear.

It is precisely this fear laced with potential miscalculation and its unthinkable consequences that prompts me to seek not just Barkha Dutt’s support to clear the air at this time but also to scout for a hero like Mordechai Vanunu in India and Pakistan, the Israeli nuclear scientist who blew the secret of Israel’s clandestine nuclear weapons plans. Vanunu has suffered hugely for defending his anti-nuclear beliefs and though his long prison term has ended he is still being mysteriously kept out of public view.

Given the precarious margin of error in their nuclear vigil, should India or Pakistan accidentally misconstrue a harmless movement for an enemy launch, it has always been tempting for me to wonder if there is a Stanislav Jewgrafowitsch Petrov lurking in the strategic command alcoves of either country to save us from a catastrophe should one be shaping to surface.

Petrov, a former member of the Soviet military, didn’t actually do anything — but that’s precisely the point. In 1983, as lieutenant colonel, he was in charge of monitoring the Soviet Union’s satellites over the United States, and watching for any sign of unauthorised military action. One day at the height of US-Soviet nuclear mistrust his screen went red to indicate an American missile launch. Petrov kept his cool, didn’t press the nuclear button, and saved the world from an untimely end.

We need a few of those heroes today. Such are the times.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in New Delhi.

jawednaqvi@gmail.com