the recent past, particularly the couple of days when tension was at its height
between India and Pakistan, if you read only the media publications of those
two countries you could have been a victim of schizophrenia, or of extreme
claims and counter-claims about the airborne dogfights, the targets that were
allegedly bombed, and the counter-attacks that followed, were so diametrically
opposite each other that, if you were an unbiased observer, they would have
left you perplexed.
claimed that its air force had killed hundreds of terrorists believed to be
behind mid-February’s suicide bombing in Kashmir in which scores of Indian
security personnel died. Pakistan countered by saying its fighter planes had
chased away the Indian aircraft and the only damage done was to woods and trees
in a deserted area where there were no terrorist camps.
when Pakistan shot down an Indian aircraft and captured the pilot and tension
began to escalate, the posturing of both sides changed. Pakistan took the high
moral ground with its Prime Minister, Mr Imran Khan, offering to have a
dialogue with India and releasing the pilot unconditionally. India, on its
part, saw this as a huge victory and a cowering down by Pakistan. Meanwhile, a
sort of proxy war seemed to be on in both, the social media as well as
mainstream media publications, between the two countries. Nationalistic fervour
was (and, perhaps, still is) at a peak, and shrill, hawkish screams abounded.
war between two nuclear-weapon nations is least desirable, and the
de-escalation of tensions after the release of the Indian pilot is welcome.
Also, it is unlikely that India has, as it claims, decimated a huge terrorist
camp in Pakistan. Yet, the problem remains: Kashmir continues, as it has been
since Independence in 1947, to be a matter of serious dispute between the two
neighbours; and Pakistan clearly is a haven for terror groups, including the
dreaded Jaish-e-Mohammed, which repeatedly and regularly attacks and fans
violence in the Kashmir Valley where Indian security forces have long
maintained a near-military rule. If the recent face-off leads to a saner
discussion between the two countries, particularly on the Kashmir issue, it
could be a good beginning.
does India want such a dialogue right now? As Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his
party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its allies, head towards national
elections, keeping the tension simmering between the two neighbours could
actually help them. On 28 February while addressing a gathering of scientists
in Delhi, Mr Modi remarked that that a “pilot project”, which was a
“practice” just got over, and that the “real project” was
yet to happen. It is easy to label Mr Modi’s comments as opportunistic in the
context of the coming elections. History across the world shows that incumbent
governments often benefit electorally when they demonstrate decisiveness or
strength when tensions with an “enemy” state surface.
Yet, it would serve
Indians well to remember the genesis of the current face-off: it began when
terrorists from across the border launched a suicide attack that killed at
least 40 Indian security personnel. That is the crux of the problem. The
war against terrorists, who are ostensibly camped in, and perhaps encouraged
by, Pakistan has to be a continuous effort that India cannot afford to relent
on. But the electoral advantages that Mr Modi and his party might be able to
reap from the current skirmish are real. We can expect his election campaign to
keep referring to these: the threat of terrorism from Pakistani territory; the
pilot (Wing Commander Abhinandan) who is now a hero in India; and a resolve to
launch the not-so-cryptic “real project” that Mr Modi mentioned.
There is another
disturbing aspect in the current scenario. India’s as well as Pakistan’s media,
particularly the mainstream newspapers and TV news channels, have commonly
fallen prey to jingoism whenever a conflict with Pakistan arises. You may want
to call it healthy nationalism, perhaps. But in today’s scenario where social
media plays a huge role in shaping people’s perceptions in both, India and
Pakistan, this could have serious consequences. Fake news, doctored videos, and
inflammatory comments, are being traded in a free-for-all manner. Many believe
that these could heighten the tensions between the two nuclear weapon nations
despite the de-escalation that followed the Indian pilot’s release.
The cynical viewpoint is
that the ruling regime’s spin doctors could be leveraging all of this to help
them in the coming elections. Signs of that, viz. Mr Modi’s and his colleagues’
recent statements, are already visible. Mr Modi came to power with an
overwhelming electoral victory in 2014 but on the back of promises that now
seem tall. He promised development, progress, and better days for Indians who
placed their faith in him, but five years later, at the end of his term, much
of those promises remain unfulfilled and the initial euphoria after he came to
power turned out to be ephemeral. And, despite their bluster, the BJP and its
allies have little to tom-tom about their achievements. In that context, the
skirmish with Pakistan could be like a shot in the arm, providing campaigning
fodder that could touch the hearts of many Indians.
On the other side too,
Prime Minister Khan has been quick to grasp an opportunity to position himself
as a mature statesman. His publicly stated willingness for a dialogue with
India and the prompt release of the Indian pilot is likely to boost his
popularity among his fellow countrymen. Last summer, his party, Pakistan
Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) came to power when it won the largest number of seats in
the national assembly but it didn’t manage to get a majority on its own. There
were also widespread allegations about rigging by the PTI. Besides, in
Pakistan, a hawkish military exerts overwhelming pressure and influence over
political regimes and is commonly believed to encourage separatists and terror
groups that operate in Kashmir. Yet, Mr Khan too has to resolve to fight the
terrorism that breeds in his nation’s territory. A statesman-like image, which
he has tried to create for himself recently, wouldn’t hurt.
Hyper-ventilating TV news anchors, and internet and social media trolls in both nations notwithstanding, the crucial need of the hour is not to fan tensions between Pakistan and India but to try and fix ways in which the long-standing dispute over Kashmir and the violent terrorism it has bred can be resolved. For that to happen the leaders of the two nations have to set aside their immediate political interests and agree to move towards non-violent and non-aggressive solutions. Will that happen? Or is it merely wishful thinking?