I write in self-doubt, uncertain about how I feel or should feel. I am being told by all kinds of voices – tender, husky, silken, sturdy, dominant, angry, in silent whispers and booming assertiveness – that I have to be proud, feel vindicated and fill my heart with vengeful happiness. Finally, we are flexing our muscles. The voices scream out loud, “They deserved to die, we have shown those Pakis who we are.”
Yet, I am unable to celebrate or rejoice. Respect, though, is something else and that I have in abundance. The armed forces continue to stand by our borders, giving up everything to safeguard people, common everyday people. The jawan’s sacrifice, we cannot but admire.
Today, more than ever before, patriots constantly threaten us whenever questions are raised about the armed forces. There needs to be a separation in our understanding of the soldier on the one hand and of the institution of war on the other. The armed forces are constructed structures that consciously diminish, even erase the individuals who make up the force. The force has a life of its own, duty bound and without any doubt in the service of the nation. But it is also proud, unquestioning, tough and belligerent in character, where loyalty and unthinking adherence are the norm. Once a person enters its precincts and wears the uniform, the force takes over and that they say is necessary to maintain order and discipline.
Even as I write this piece, I read a news report about Operation Ginger, where members of the Pakistani and Indian Army chopped off each other’s heads, and from the reactions I see on social media, there are more conversations on whether these operations were anywhere of the scale of the recent strikes, rather than questioning the actions of our forces. Is this par for the course in a humane democracy? These ghastly acts are not exclusive to our armies. From time immemorial, armies have saved, protected and abused and terrorised in equal measure.
There is a very fine line between defence and offence and an even finer one between killing to protect and killing for revenge. Violence evokes the same emotion in everyone, irrespective of the moral or ethical compass that drives these actions. I do hope we also recognise that the institution of terror uses the very same mechanisms to perpetuate evil. And hence, we have to think deep and hard before we proclaim any kind of victory, because commitment to that force is as deep-rooted as it is for the life-saving soldier; both minds being subjugated and subsumed by causes.
Respect and empathy
I do not live in Kashmir to know what it means to inhabit a space filled with hate, anger, fear and the resultant sustained emotion, apathy. But this I know, depending on your address, the hater and hated shift places but the feelings are the same. I have been to Jaffna shortly after the three-decade-long civil war and one thing was clear to me, there was no victor in the conflict, everyone was a victim. And from where I am seated, Kashmir is not very different.
Power is a game of musical chairs, but death is an all-rounder who seldom fails. In death, there is no difference between the shopkeeper, nationalist, militant or army personnel. We have to wonder if in toasting the death of a militant, we are feeding the “lord of death” more bodies to make his own. This is a dangerous game of public thrill that all sides are playing. The terrorists “claim” success, the armies show off their power – the cycle never ceases, just increases its diameter of impact. Therefore, it is essential that as a sensitive society, we should not allow for any room to gloat. Military actions of necessity should remain exactly that – nothing more. And to compare our reactions with an intensely jingoistic United States of America is a disservice to the minds and hearts that make our Jana-Gana-Mana.
With all the bully-like pleasure we are deriving from a secretive operation, I fear that we are going to trivialise the integrity of the dissonance heard in the Kashmir Valley. We have never been able to accept that there are many who do not see eye-to-eye with the Indian state. They feel alienated, stifled and live under the suspicious eyes of the Indian Army’s guns. And unfortunately, we are going to pit every dissenter against a dead jawan. We will abuse them, accuse them of ingratitude and if they still persist, treat them as brainwashed, corrupted minds.
Taking this line of discourse will be a cardinal mistake. Kashmir will hit rock bottom and recovery will be near impossible. These young protestors are intelligent human beings, but frustrated and infuriated. And if we really believe they are Indian, we have to engage with respect and empathy, words that have never been part of our conversation with the people of Kashmir. But I am almost certain that post-Pathankot, Uri and the surgical strikes, our attitude is only going to get worse, destroying any hope of serious engagement. And when I say “our”, I refer to all of us, not just the government of India.
No end game
In this din, we also have politicians, television anchors and film personalities demanding from Pakistani actors working in India either statements condemning the Uri attack or immediate departure. Are we turning into some monolithic, archaic monarchy? Are we also declaring war against Pakistan? And even if we are in a proxy war, it is our responsibility to take care of these Pakistani nationals, not harass them. We should keep in mind that sensitivity and equanimity are political actions of the highest order. What makes this even more curious is that most of these demands were made after the surgical strikes and not soon after Pathankot or Uri. So what triggered this – grief or vengeance?
Have we considered even for a brief moment what might be awaiting these artists when they return, if they were to make such statements? Assassins in Pakistan have been relentless in their attacks on freethinking, non-violent, secular people. Fear of living is a reality for these actors. And we have to ask ourselves, how much support have we extended Pakistani activists, lawyers and citizen groups who have fearlessly fought the failing Pakistani state and non-state killers?
I am no defence expert to debate the efficacy or effectiveness of these secretive strikes and that critical information needs to remain with just a few. But this I know, these strikes or the ones before and the ones that might follow are not going to deter the terrorist and are not going to bring Pakistan to its knees, even if every Facebook share and chest thumping politician seems to suggest.
We live in dangerous times, when every word and action will be twisted and maligned to perpetuate segregation, separation and superiority. And this column is going to face the same end. As I see it, there will be no end game, just prolonged, never-ending loss of lives.
I will conclude with some advice from Gopalkrishna Gandhi: “Intolerance is not a sign of patriotic strength but of political insecurity. Dissent, as long as it stays non-violent, is democracy’s proudest expression. Free speech and honest, frank expression of views, whether in politics or administration or in the conduct of foreign relations, comprise a Republic’s true signature.”