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Hashtag Warriors

Hashtag Warriors

No one knows the war better than an Indian. His greatest epic is the Mahabharata, a quarter of which describes in vivid detail the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The war did not last long. It lasted just 18 days but it killed 80 per cent of the menfolk in the country.

In the end, no one was left to celebrate the victory. Hastinapur, which the Pandavas ruled for a few decades afterwards, was a land of widows and orphans.

Even the great military strategist, Lord Krishna, without whom the Pandavas would have been roundly defeated, had to leave Hastinapur with his clan and he eventually fell to the arrow of a hunter. Some may dismiss the Kurukshetra war as a myth that won’t stand human scrutiny. So let’s return to the real world in which you and I live.

Germany was responsible for starting two world wars. After the end of the First World War, the country was in ruins having to pay reparations making the defeat even more unbearable. Of course, it helped the National Socialists to come to power. The Second World War saw Adolf Hitler committing suicide before the country was split into two.

War creates only orphans and widows. We have seen it in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Lebanon. We have also fought our own wars with Pakistan and we also have a fair share of orphans and widows. Can we afford to wage another war?

The answer is clear that we cannot. But in television studios, news anchors were boisterously demanding punishment of Pakistan. No other country has as many television channels as India. There are over 400 of them, some with no viewership at all.

They are run on a shoestring budget with no proper salary to the staff, let alone any remuneration to those who are invited to attend their discussions where the anchors shout more loudly than any discussant. Some do not even offer a cup of tea or coffee to the invited guests, because they do not have the necessary funds.

Yet, the anchors have been competitively demanding war against Pakistan, as if they are the custodians of public opinion in this nation of 1.3 billion people. As a journalist friend said, they are the ones who would not dare to go out of the house at night to check the source of a suspicious sound. However, they would create a war hysteria because it suits those in power.

Anyone who is against war is portrayed as an anti-national. When I wrote that we are free to believe in anything in a WhatsApp group of journalists, one gentleman wrote that I could not. What he implied was that one must believe as the Gospel truth anything put out by the government.

In 1962, I was just aspiring to be a teen. In that year, I remember taking part in a procession in which we school children shouted slogans against China. Our slogans were sharp and they made fun of the “flat-nosed” Chou-en-Lai. We were inspired by the newspaper reports which carried fictitious stories of Indian troops giving the Chinese a bloody nose.

I still remember our neighbour Panicker, who enjoyed discussing the war with my grandfather, speculating about how long the Indian troops would take to reach Beijing, called Peking those days. It was many years later that I learnt the truth about the war when I read the book 'Himalayan Blunder'. Whoever said that truth is the first casualty in war could not have put it better.

I also remember the day the AB Vajpayee government tested a nuclear weapon at Pokhran. Without any provocation, a BJP leader of Delhi challenged Pakistan for war at any time and date of its choosing. I dismissed him as a madcap, though he enjoyed a groundswell of support in the Capital.

He did not repeat the needless challenge when, a day after, Pakistan tested its own nuclear weapon at Ras Koh Hills in the Chagai district of Balochistan province. For once, the size of the military, the superiority of the weapons we hold and the nation’s fighting prowess began to look inconsequential, as both claimed to have reached nuclear parity.

On the night when the Indian military aircraft flew across the Line of Control in Kashmir and the border in Punjab and dropped bombs in Pakistan, there was a clamour for war, created essentially by the media. There was suddenly claims that India was safe in the hands of a leader “who does what he promises”.

Karnataka BJP chief B.S. Yediyurappa earned opprobrium when he said that the surgical strike would help the BJP sweep the polls in the state in May. On the other end was the Samajwadi Party leader and former minister Vinod Kumar claiming that India and Pakistan had a secret deal under which India would drop some bombs in deserted areas without causing any harm to either the military or the civilian population. He pooh-poohed the claim that hundreds of terrorists were killed in the strike.

The Prime Minister also did not conduct himself well, as he gave more importance to garnering votes than to holding an all-party meeting to tell the whole nation that India had no other option but to strike at those harbouring terrorists.

Modi could have gained the moral high ground if he had said that India was not against the common people of Pakistan and it only wanted to root out the scourge of terrorism. Instead, he let his party leaders and cheerleaders talk nonsense. For instance, one party MLA was heard in a video warning Pakistan that if it wanted to survive, it must fall at the feet of India.

He also threatened that India would build dams across the rivers and make power to be used for the development of the country. He said that if the Pakistanis did anything doubtful, then the dams would be opened to let the water wipe away the whole of Pakistan and deposit it in the Indian Ocean. He called it a "water bomb".

One Union minister with prime ministerial ambitions said that India would not give Pakistan its own share of water. India was within its rights to use the Indian share of the river water and nobody prevented it from using it. His statement was interpreted as a warning that India would divert the waters of the Punjab and deny Pakistan even drinking water. Uncontrolled jingoism serves no purpose.

Be that as it may, the situation in 2019 is not the same as in 1962. Technology has made it possible for everyone to crosscheck what he or she hears. We live in times when the student instantly checks on his smartphone what the teacher says in the classroom.

This is all the more reason that the government should be truthful. The Indian government proved that its military had the capacity to make deep incursions into Pakistan and it should have ended the matter there.

On the day Indian aircraft returned unharmed, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan had to hear “shame, shame” from the Opposition MPs. He is also a politician like Narendra Modi and he, too, is conscious of his image. He had to prove Pakistan’s capability to retaliate and that is what he did.

One very significant move was Khan’s decision to release the Indian pilot held captive by the Pakistanis. His announcement was greeted with thumping of desks by the Pakistani MPs. To say that Pakistan was not doing a favour but only complying with the Geneva protocol is to miss the woods for the trees. It should be seen as a gesture of de-escalation.

As I write this, what is trending on Twitter is #saynotowar that shot into the number one position. The Delhi School of Journalism students produced a short video that showed young men and women speaking in one voice against the war. In short, the mood of the nation is against the war.

We should also not forget the fact that terrorists do not need great infrastructure to train their recruits. What they need are poor, uneducated boys who can be brainwashed to die either for some money payable to their parents or a place in heaven. They need to be dehumanised so that they can kill innocent people.

They also need to be taught survival techniques like eating minimum food like nuts and pistachios to stay longer, cutting wires and putting together explosives. They do not need any infrastructure worth the name. They can train their recruits anywhere -- in the deserts or in the forests. The point is that aerial bombardment is not the answer. Today the Americans are negotiating with the Taliban so that they can withdraw from Afghanistan.

Let it be restated, wars can settle no issue. Everyone in this country felt bad that 40 of our CRPF jawans were killed by a terrorist. This happened despite the surgical strike which India made on Pakistan.

The solution lies not in flexing our own military muscles but in strengthening the internal security to plug the loopholes that allowed the Jesh-e-Muhammed (JeM) to strike at its will.

Let everyone think whether the terror threat was ended when India struck against Pakistan on Monday night. We continue to face threats from JeM which succeeded in pushing the two nations to the brink of a war, if not a war.

There is no doubt that the JeM founder must be having his last laugh over what has happened across the LoC and the border when an F-16 and a Mig fighter fell on the ground. We should not let him enjoy that privilege. Are we helpless against him and his ilk?

Last fortnight, Modi received a peace prize from a Foundation in South Korea. Would he have accepted the prize if it was awarded by North Korea? Unlike South Korea, North Korea has weapons of mass destruction and even the capability to drop them in the US.

However, the North Koreans are among the poorest people in the world. Their living standards come nowhere near the living standards of the South Koreans, who can download on their computers and mobiles a full-length feature film in a matter of a few seconds as they enjoy 5G connectivity.

Today India enjoys respect because it has the largest pool of technologists and scientists, and an economy which has been growing exponentially. It is not because of the large stockpile of nuclear weapons it has. It is this respect that can be leveraged in the war against terror.

Again, it was the growing stature of the nation that forced the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) to invite India as an invitee. It gave India an opportunity to present its case. We have other forums like the United Nations to present our viewpoint and win global public opinion.

That is on the international front. On the domestic front, we need to win the hearts of the people of Kashmir. It was under a Central government programme that Kashmiri students were encouraged to study in the rest of the country.

The moment Pulwama happened, those students were targeted. Modi could have stopped the trend by speaking loudly against it and telling the nation that any harm done to them was harm done to the country. In short, every Kashmiri student had the right to live and study anywhere in India. Jawaharlal Nehru is a much-reviled man nowadays but we must remember that in New Delhi, he raised his walking stick against some whom he saw attacking the people who had become refugees in their own country.

Alas, Modi was more interested in winning votes. He used even the inauguration of the War Memorial to attack the Opposition. It was a sacred function to honour the martyrs but he became banal. A Prime Minister should rise above petty politics when the nation faces a crisis. We need peace, not war. Let’s remember that we can choose friends but a nation can’t choose neighbours. Let the hostilities end and let the diplomats take over from where the IAF had left the Pulwama incident.

(ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 04th March 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 10)