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The year of living dangerously

Homer said that the outcome of war is in our hands. But is it really? Following the last India-Pakistan showdown on the hills of Kargil in Kashmir in 1999, then US President Bill Clinton had described South Asia as the “most dangerous place on earth.”

New Delhi had bristled at the claim by the visiting US leader suggesting such ‘alarmist descriptions’ would only “encourage those who want to break the peace and indulge in terrorism and violence in the region.”

Today tensions between India and Pakistan are at an all-time high, perhaps even higher than they had been at the height of the Kargil conflict. In recent weeks, there has been a surge in the war of words between the perpetually bickering neighbours.

The frequent exchange of incendiary rhetoric, including liberal offers to use nukes against each other, by Indian and Pakistani guests during nightly television debates with anchors helpfully adding fuel to the fire only mirrors the larger, frightening reality of a dangerous neighbourhood.

How did these South Asian twins end up here within a year after what appeared to be a positive start with Prime Minister Narendra Modi inviting Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other Saarc leaders to his inauguration ceremony? After that perfect, momentous Modi-Sharif handshake and photo-op at the Hyderabad House in New Delhi, things have unravelled at an alarming pace.

Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, admittedly a complete novice in matters military, has been trying rather hard to portray himself as more hawkish and ‘patriotic’ than his battle hardened generals and Modi himself.

The former Goa chief minister drew loud cheers from the growing army of rabble-rousers recently when he talked about neutralising terror with terror. Darkly hinting that India may already be doing it, he declared: “Kaante se kaanta nikaalte hain. (You have to extract a thorn with a thorn) Why can’t we do it? We should do it. Why does my soldier have to do it all the time?”

Last week, he rued the declining esteem for the army in the country attributing it to the fact that India hasn’t lately fought any major wars. “For the last 40-50 years, we have not fought a war. I am not saying we should go to war. I am saying that because we haven’t fought a war, the importance of the army in our minds has dwindled.”

Seriously? When you have elected politicians openly spoiling for a fight, as if it were a picnic, liberal democracies need to pause and ponder where they are headed.

But what is Parrikar to do. He is only trying to fit in the general environment of hyper-nationalist zeal and ‘no-one-messes-with-us’ swagger of the Modi government.

On what was arguably a ‘historic’ visit to Bangladesh, Modi in truly Bollywood fashion thumped his 56-inch chest proudly recalling how Indian soldiers had shed their blood to liberate ‘Sonar Bangla’.

The occasion also called for some ‘tough talk’ on Pakistan, warning Islamabad against the wages of sponsoring terror. Predictably, Pakistan pounced on the claim made during a speech at Dhaka University and the ‘proof’ of Indian role in the 1971 events that led to the split of East Pakistan with a ‘we told you so’.

Now Islamabad says it is planning to approach the United Nations to complain about the Indian role in the 1971 war. Isn’t it a bit late for that? Besides, India or the separatist movement led by Mujibur Rahman could have done little without the helpful shenanigans of Pakistan’s politicians and men in khaki which drove away the people of East Pakistan 35 years after the Islamic republic came into being.

Be that as it may, as if the worsening relations between the neighbours over the past year or so were not enough, the latest posturing and ‘masculine’ language by Modi’s ministers promising to do a Myanmar to Pakistan and others has understandably provoked howls of protests from Islamabad promising swift reprisals.

In an unprecedented move, Pakistan’s Senate passed a unanimous resolution condemning the Indian rhetoric. Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khawaja Asif vowed that if forced into war by India, Pakistan would respond in a ‘befitting manner:’ “Our arms are not meant for decoration. If need be, we will use them against India.”

Never one to miss an opportunity to win back his old constituency, General Musharraf joined the dangerous theatrics, warning Pakistan’s nukes are not for celebratory use on Shab-e-Barat. But isn’t he supposed to be under house arrest? The general talks as if he still has his finger on the nuclear button. “Pakistan is not Myanmar, and India dare not treat Pakistan as Myanmar”, thundered the man still identified in India as the architect of Kargil.

Indeed, Pakistan is not Myanmar. As former minister and Indian envoy to Pakistan Mani Shankar Aiyar argues, it is one thing to venture a few kilometres into the wilderness of west Myanmar’s jungle and quite another to try similar antics inside the heavily populated and fortified border with Pakistan. The same is more or less true of the border with China where, in Nehru’s memorable words, not a blade of grass grows.

In fact, even Myanmar’s docile generals haven’t taken too kindly to Indian claims about killing more than 100 militants “deep inside Myanmar.”

It goes without saying that things could get easily and seriously out of control in no time if similar attempts at ‘hot pursuit’ or ‘punitive action’ –or whatever you choose to call it –were made along India’s western border or the northeastern border with China.

While China is already perceived around the world as a superpower with massive military and economic might at its disposal, Pakistan is no pushover. More important, all three countries –India, Pakistan and China –sit on piles of nuclear weapons, the most potent and destructive arms known to man.

And in the time and age of nuclear weapons, no country can afford to let its reckless and self-serving politicians get excessively cocky and play with the lives of hundreds of millions of its people. India alone is home to more than 1.3 billion people. Coupled with the populations of China and Pakistan, we are talking about nearly 2.5 billion lives.

Who in his right mind would put 2.5 billion lives at stake? Apparently, politicians would – for their 15 minutes of fame.

Do the Manohar Parrikars, Rajyavardhan Rathores, Khawaja Asifs and Pervez Musharrafs of this world even realise what the final outcome of a nuclear confrontation would be?

And what is with this enduring South Asian fascination for war anyway? War is no party. No war ever is. And it is not just armies and men in uniform who pay the price. The cost is incalculable and is invariably paid by the entire nation, often by its poor and most vulnerable communities, for years and decades.

Europe learnt the lesson the hard way, after the mindless savagery and destruction of the two Great Wars. This may be why it has jealously guarded and managed to hold on to peace for the past seven decades.

When will South Asia’s politicians and men in khaki get over their delusions of grandeur and wild fantasies of militarist supremacy? Amid all this talk of ‘war-war’ and masochistic talk of nuclear annihilation, there is a clear and present danger to the peace and collective existence of South Asia. For, to quote Aiyar again, it would take only one madman, a Muslim or a Hindu Dr Strangelove, to turn forever the world’s most populated region into a nuclear wasteland.

There are no winners in modern wars, only losers all around.

The writer is a Middle East based columnist. Email:aijaz.syed@hotmail.com

Aijaz Zaka Syed, "The year of living dangerously," The News. 2015-06-21.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political parties , Political relations , Pak-India relations , Kashmir issue , War-Kargil , Modi statement , Foreign policy , International relations , Modi government , Sponsoring terror , Modi , Nawaz Sharif