INDO-PAK: A DOVE’S-EYE VIEW
Despite the hawks on TV channels, it would be dangerous to let the LoC incident snowball — especially with elections nearing
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
This winter has been unusually cold in Delhi, and all over North India. The effect of the chill was limited to the aam admi, huddled around fires, and not India-Pakistan ties. The relationship between the neighbours seemed to be getting better, even if ever so slowly. Up until January 7. The next day, two Indian soldiers were killed in apparent retaliation to casualties suffered by the Pakistani army in an exchange of fire at the Line of Control (LoC) in the disputed region of Kashmir. Soldiers die in these testing tit-for-tat exchanges all the time, but this time around the Indian side said their soldiers’ bodies were mutilated and one was even beheaded. Top army brass on both sides is loathe to admit to the violence and occasional barbarity at the LoC as it is violative of the Geneva Convention.
The outrage that followed was extraordinary. True to our times, the TV news channels went ballistic, demanding reprisal against the alleged perfidy of the Pakistani army at a time when the political leadership of both countries was trying to normalise ties by liberalising the visa regime and trade. The views of all manner of superannuated diplomats and strategic affairs specialists — many of whom make a living by selling war or peace, depending on which is in vogue — were fielded to demand action against Pakistan. So shrill and aggressive were some TV anchors and their hawkish guests that they seemed to be ready to give Pakistan a bloody nose on their own if the government or the Indian Army did not respond adequately to their exhortations. Anchors on Indian news channels sounded as obnoxious as the fire-breathing Lashkar boss, Hafiz Saeed.
The government tried not to respond to the incessant demands of the TV channels. First, army chief Bikram Singh promised that the army would take tough action at a time of its own choosing. Congress leader Raashid Alvi uncharacteristically supported the outrage expressed by the lunatic fringe represented by the Shiv Sena, which was agitating against the Pakistani players taking part in the professional hockey league tournament. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) expectedly criticised the government for being soft towards Pakistan and overlooking grave provocation. Finally, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who had invested so much diplomatically in peace and amity with Pakistan, was forced to fall in line and say that, in the wake of such barbaric acts “there cannot be business as usual”.
The net outcome of this sabre-rattling was that all the steps announced as Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) were put on hold. The liberalised visa regime that allowed people above 65 years of age to get visas on arrival, that was to start from January 15, was put in pause mode. The bus that was going up and down across the LoC braked to a halt. Trade between the two countries, that held so much promise and was seen as a way to get around the Kashmir dispute, was also put on hold. All these may restart if the Pakistan government responds positively to New Delhi’s demands to punish the mutilators. The big question is, would life return to normal very soon? Would the hockey players return to the astro turf in Delhi and the women cricket players taking part in the World Cup continue their stay in Mumbai? And what about the trucks laden with tomatoes and other perishable goods heading to Pakistan? Would they reach their destination or would their goods just rot on the highway to nowhere?
So shrill and aggressive were some TV anchors and their hawkish guests that they seemed to be ready to give Pakistan a bloody nose on their own if the government or the Indian Army did not respond adequately to their exhortations. Anchors on Indian news channels sounded as obnoxious as the fire-breathing Lashkar boss, Hafez Sayeed
As soon as the electronic media began to aggressively seek government action, it became clear that the circumstances were little different from the results of recent media-driven agitations. Whether it was the anti-corruption agitation led by the Gandhian, Anna Hazare, or the more recent gangrape protest in Delhi, the visual and social media built up so much pressure that it became difficult for the central government to ignore it. To control the anti-corruption agitation, the government was compelled to invite the leaders of the protest to help in drafting the Lokpal Bill to get people off the streets. Similarly, to quieten the angry young women and men over the barbaric gangrape, the government was forced to announce a slew of measures to provide greater security to women in workplaces and also promised to bring in a stringent rape law. This time around, too, the government was forced to act.
On the face of it, the media campaigns are helping in creating new norms which should drive government and society. They have helped in fuelling anger against poor governance and the ruling elite’s routine obfuscation and prevarication at taking hard decisions, but in many ways this demand for urgent action ignores our violent history and the complexities of our plural society. These norms are also very upper caste, middle class and majoritarian in construction. Expectedly, the message going out from the TV chat shows is that the government is dithering and is incapable of handling a violent neighbour. There are routine suggestions that the peace process should be called off until Pakistan behaves. Sportsmen, musicians and artists should be forced to pay a price for giving legitimacy to a rogue government, is the refrain of such commentators.