On reading about the assault on the Army base in Uri, I thought of Ashwatthamma sneaking into the enemy camp under cover of darkness, setting tents alight, burning to death a generation of Pandava princes. An unforgivable act, but one Ashwatthamma could rationalise by pointing to Pandava deviousness in eliminating Dronacharya, Karna and Duryodhana. In Kashmir, as in Kurukshetra, there have been enough morally questionable actions on all sides to inspire yet more reprehensible deeds, in a vicious cycle that shows no signs of abating, and could end in a conflagration worthy of the epics –
I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. I am brighter than a thousand suns.
Indians are confident, though, that the crisis triggered by Uri will not lead to Delhi, Lahore, Bombay, and Karachi being incinerated in a nuclear war. We aren’t worried because we’ve seen it all before.
In December 2001, militants attacked India’s Parliament building, penetrating its perimeter and killing eight guards and a gardener, but falling short of their ultimate target. In response, The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government of the time mobilised troops in unprecedented numbers on the western border, leading Pakistan to counter with a build-up of its own.
In May of the following year, militants massacred 31 people including civilians, soldiers and their family members in Kaluchak in Jammu, exacerbating the crisis. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee travelled to Kashmir and addressed the troops, asking the nation and its soldiers to prepare for a decisive battle (aar paar ki ladai) between the newly nuclearised neighbours.
Through the long summer, half a million soldiers waited for the combat signal, their leaves cancelled, huddled in tents in the scorching Rajasthan desert and regions of Punjab and Gujarat that were only slightly more hospitable. In the middle of October, 10 months into the mobilisation, the bewildered fighters were told to stand down, withdraw, redeploy. Vajpayee’s decisive battle had been cancelled, or at least indefinitely postponed, without a shot being fired, and without any discernible diplomatic advantage having been secured. It had been called Operation Parakram, or Operation Valour, but a better term would have been Operation Sabre Rattle or Operation Brinkmanship.
And here we are again, after Uri, screaming for revenge like the betrayed King Lear,
“I will do such things, – What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be the terrors of the earth.”
Unlike Lear, we have the capacity to unleash true terrors of the earth but mercifully those are precisely the components of our arsenal we rule out using. Instead, we think up fanciful manoeuvres to damage Pakistan seriously without that nation using its own atomic weapons. Despite strident calls for limited strikes, I doubt if we will risk escalating to a full-scale war. The likelier scenario is that we will fire artillery rounds from our side that will kill a few soldiers and poor civilians, and Pakistan will retaliate with its own artillery fire, which will also kill a few soldiers and poor civilians. Soon enough, Uri and Pathankot will fade from our memory the way Kaluchak has done.
What about accountability?
One hopes, at the very least, that the emptiness of Modi’s rhetoric and that of his men has been exposed. Remember Amit Shah claiming insurgents would not dare to cross the border if Narendra Modi became Prime Minister? That was in 2014. Remember Home Minister Rajnath Singh assuring us in March last year that the government would secure the border so thoroughly that even a mouse wouldn’t get through? Remember Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar promising retaliation after Pathankot and insisting that there would be no further terror attacks of that kind?
At what point do we move from condemnation of heinous acts to questioning the competence of the administration and, yes, military authorities? To have militants penetrate two military installations within the course of a few months and go on killing sprees within them, not to mention the ambush last year in Manipur which took the lives of 20 soldiers, is a sign of gross incompetence in our security apparatus, but no senior officer appears to have been disciplined after Pathankot, and my guess is that nobody will be court martialled after Uri either.
Cowardice and courage
In many nations, incidents like these would be cause for ministers to resign. In India, outrage becomes a smokescreen to mask incompetence. After the Uri disaster, many broadcasters followed the Prime Minister in calling the attackers cowards. The words coward and cowardly have been used with singular vehemence following assaults on military installations, possibly because those are the instances where the assailants are most obviously not cowards. Cowards are people who lack courage, which is the ability to act without giving in to one’s fears. By definition, kamikaze assaults are brave actions. As Susan Sontag controversially made clear in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the US,
“… if the word “cowardly” is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.”
I can imagine extending the definition of coward to terrorists who target unarmed civilians (indeed, while the meaning of terrorism is contested, I support definitions of the term such as the one produced by the United Nations in 2004 which restricts it to attacks on non-combatants), because in such cases there exists an asymmetry of power in the terrorist’s favour.
On the other hand, intruding into a heavily guarded military installation at a time when forces are on high alert, facing nearly certain death in the process, takes courage. History offers thousands of examples of courageous zealots, brave fascists, and fearless genocidal maniacs. Unfortunately, modern nations retain an atavistic misconstruing of courage as an ethical virtue. Which is why, the more audacious a militant attack, the greater the insistence by politicians and compliant sections of the media on its essential gutlessness. It’s a bit like advertising: oil companies tout their green credentials, builders of ugly concrete high rises speak of living in the midst of nature, and sugary drinks employ athletic models and sponsor sports competitions.
Setting aside the issue of cowardice forces us to consider the motivations of these cross-border terrorists. Some understanding can be gleaned from examining the term itself. The claim is made that the Uri terrorists came from across the border, but if you or I were to create a map placing the international border at the point where the militants crossed into territory controlled by India, we could be jailed for misrepresentation. You might think it a pedantic detail, but it is essential to an understanding of the assault. One way of explaining the incident is to describe it as a disagreement about the location of the border between India and Pakistan. Addressing that issue sincerely could potentially remove the motivation for such attacks. India’s refusal to do so condemns us to suffer more Uris and Pathankots, unless we take the hawks in the military seriously, and suffer something far worse as a consequence.
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