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Friday, November 15, 2019

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GO AHEAD, CON YOUR COUNTRYMEN

One way of winning the great national game of "Con Your Countrymen," is to develop special skills with words. Warm, caring, moving words, capable of getting you elected and bringing a glow of gratitude to the harried faces of ordinary people by making them feel central to each decision taken, or written about in the press, or aired on television—even as they are taken for a ride by legislators, corrupt state functionaries, their partners-in-crime and, of course, the media’s many wordsmiths.

Now, even war—including nuclear—might be declared in the name of ordinary people, since the editor of a leading Indian daily has made the astonishing proposition that India owes her people a war, because the masses are angry and frustrated at being denied the satisfaction of seeing Pakistan taught a lesson. Understandably, he didn’t spell out war’s catastrophic consequences, like the danger it would pose to India’s internal stability by polarizing her two major communities still further. Or the extent to which it would wreck her economy with the burden of rebuilding war-damaged cities and replacing military assets lost in war. And most of all the toll it would take of our fighting men on the battlefield.

Wars don’t come cheap. As it is, India’s current defence spending of around Rs. 65,000 crores, makes up a significant portion of the national budget. A war would not only see a steep increase in defence allocations but additional funds would obviously be diverted from India’s badly-strained social and infrastructural sectors. Other outlays will also rise, such as increases in the oil import bill which presently stands at Rs. 80,000 crores. And so on. The invisible costs of a war will be no less debilitating and demanding: a tapering off of foreign investments, dramatic down-swings in tourist earnings, shortfalls in exports, and the demoralizing overall effect on an already-demented stock exchange.

Another consequence of creating a war-like atmosphere – without actually going to war – is the degree to which the lives and livelihood of farmers in border states are disrupted by the movement of men, materiel and armour. Punjab’s farmers, who produce over 70% of India’s wheat, pay the highest price in terms of crops destroyed and families uprooted as army units with heavy vehicles and tanks move into their fertile border lands. Their large-scale movements destroy crops, while gun batteries, military encampments, trenches, training exercises and mine laying operations place a formidable burden on the farmers whose state has a 530 km long border with Pakistan. Another telling example is the acreage of cultivable land which was expropriated for all time for the fence laid along the international border in 1984. How did the farmer fare in that project? According to a recent report: "20,000 acres of cultivable land in three border districts lies between the fence and the zero line." Fields accessible earlier have been rendered out of reach. The Union Government, after much persuasion, last year agreed to pay Rs. 2500 per acre as compensation to the affected farmers! So much for ordinary people, since tillers-of-the-soil no doubt fall in this category. It goes to the everlasting credit of Sikh farmers that they have zestfully participated in every war since Independence, have always volunteered to fight alongside the troops, and offered their tractors, trailers and trucks to the army to augment its resources.

There is another category of ordinary peopleour editor and his readers might like to consider: the over 300 million Indians who live below the poverty line for whom terrorism and Pakistan are of less importance than the everyday terror of their poverty. The terror of seeing their children die because India has the world’s highest infant mortality rate, of not enough food to eat (even though India is food surplus), or clean water to drink, of living in shanties amidst unbelievable filth, without medical cover, or education and employment opportunities. They are angry because of the low priority given to their struggle for survival, and not because Pakistan has not been taught a lesson. It is errant nonsense to suggest this.

People are also more apprehensive of religious hatreds which are coarsening India’s culture of tolerance, and aggravating their insecurities. They want to be freed from the constant threat of religious and caste killings. And of state terror. Each of these inflictions on the hundreds of millions of India’s forsaken people—or ordinary people–is of more concern to them than strident nationalism, or morbid calls to war. Because an inevitable fallout of a war with Pakistan would be to polarize the Hindu and Muslim communities of India still further as there are enough people around to stir up public passions and prejudices leading to large-scale civil disorders and a paralysis of the national purpose. India’s political morality has been steadily declining with the emergence of religious zealots in leaderly roles, the enactment of repressive laws, use of the state’s coercive capacities to harass people of different faiths, and the lack of effort to check the increasing intolerance of Indian society. These aberrations will intensify in the event of a war. Is there an alternative to it?

There certainly is. It lies in diplomacy, in negotiation and persuasion, in face to face discourse with the adversary. We have failed to take that course, have quixotically assumed the problem would resolve itself, or intermediaries would help us resolve it. But statesman don’t wait for middlemen, who have their own interests and agendas and are more interested in solutions which suit them. The interest of arms producing nations is to sell arms, and they can only be sold in Cold War conditions, not when peace and amity prevail. Peace doesn’t bring profits to arms sellers. So when Mr. Blair, or members of Mr. Bush’s cabinet come calling with talk of peace, be wary, since their loyalty is to their arms industries. They may be against a hot war, but not necessarily against a cold one.

My good friend Anthony Sampson graphically described in his path-breaking book The Arms Bazaar, Lebanon’s long-drawn war and the astonishing quantities of arms which kept it fueled: Of course most of the weapons came from governments, not from private dealers. The idea that private dealers can arrange a war is really Victorian. But as one of the principal arms dealers told Sampson, "You must always obey the 11th commandment: Thou shalt not be found out", and for that reason arms dealers and go-betweens exist.

During his recent visit to India Mr. Blair first said that Pakistan’s position on Kashmir was "strong", then made comforting statements to soothe ruffled feelings. After more of such stuff, he left for Islamabad. Coincidentally, during his few days here, newspapers published a report relating to the 50s in which Britain favoured the division of Afghanistan between the Soviet Union and Pakistan. "The ultimate disappearance of Afghanistan might be no tragedy," wrote a senior Foreign Office official, Mr. Robert Scott, to the British Ambassador in Kabul, adding that in modern conditions "Afghan viability may in the long run be doubtful". Indian statesmen will be well advised to take note of the British view of Afghanistan 50 years ago: they could easily be contemplating a similar fate for Kashmir. After all Britain has considerable experience of partitioning countries! It wouldn’t be out of place to mention the US’s predilection for also playing sides, because its ambivalent role during the eight brutal years of war between Iraq and Iran, secured a permanent presence for it in the Persian Gulf.

A naive proposition doing the rounds in India is that we have much to learn from the US’s decisiveness in response to the September terrorist strikes against it. Since no country in the history of mankind has ever been able to use its military might to strike anywhere on the globe with complete immunity, as the US is able to do today, we cannot obviously be as decisive. India neither has the resources, reserves, nor reach, the US has. This should be self-evident to even the most myopic. So New Delhi must develop a model of response based on its own strengths and limitations. Moreover, the US’s war on terror in Afghanistan had a much larger purpose than subjugating the Taliban. With its sense of direction in disarray after the end of the Cold War, which provided the rationale for its ever-escalating military budgets, terrorism now offers the opportunity to provide impetus to the renewed militarization of America.

Bernard Lown, winner of the Nobel Prize for peace, places this in perspective: "The war on terrorism opens national coffers for military spending without Congressional oversight, it enables testing of advanced weapons systems on living humans, it permits further skewing of wealth redistribution to those in the upper one percentile in income, it short-cuts all social programmes in dire need such as education, welfare and health-care, it justifies a host of repressive measures and rationalizes violence against dissidents anywhere and everywhere."

This in essence is what America’s war on terrorism is about. Hopefully, India’s policy-makers, seeing how wide-eyed some of them are in their admiration for the US, will not emulate such retrograde moves, because India’s ordinary people, in whose name most sins are committed, will eventually end up paying for the sacrifice of this country’s democratic principles. It will be best for Mr. L. K. Advani, India’s Prime Minister-in-waiting, currently visiting Washington, not to be overly impressed with America’s new way of dealing with its dissidents and social programmes. As his visit will be hosted by the US’s Attorney General, this excerpt from an article in the latest issue of The Progressive, by its editor Matthew Rothschild, should make interesting reading: "Attorney General John Ashcroft is rounding up or interrogating thousands of immigrants in what will go down in history as the Ashcroft Raids. The FBI and Secret Service are harassing artists and activists. Publishers are firing anti-war columnists and cartoonists. University presidents are scolding dissident faculty members. And right wing citizen’s groups are demanding conformity". Since POTO (Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance) is largely Mr. Advani’s brain-child, we had better keep our fingers crossed.

No sovereign state with any sense of pride in its nationhood will back away from war if all means of avoiding it fail. But no convincing case has been made for going to war at this time. A fleeting visit to Lahore to meet a Prime Minister since deposed; a military action in Kargil which occurred because we were caught unawares; a visit by General Musharraf to Agra where he outwitted us in a public relations interaction with the media, do not add up to a case for war, or for giving up the idea of negotiations. No one disagrees with the need to end cross-border terrorism. But it can only end through decisions reached by top leaders.

That is why we should show confidence in our ability to engage with Pakistan’s President. Until then, the price will continue to be paid by innocents killed – by the ordinary people of India. The Prime Minister owes it to them to start talking to his counterpart in Pakistan. Instead of playing the great game of words, what India requires of its leadership is that it takes concrete steps to find a lasting solution to the vexing Kashmir problem. Nothing less will do.

1898 w. Posted January 17th, 2002, with the author’s permission, from The Asian Age

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Patwant Singh

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