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War and peace

Published : Jan 16, 2009 00:00 IST

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WE live in a violent and troubled subcontinent. Across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, we are affected by both internal and cross-border conflicts that form continuous undercurrents in our socio-political relations. These surface periodically, causing fierce eruptions that are then registered in our collective psyche or simmer and fester in low-intensity conflicts that do not grab headlines but may be no less devastating.

The reasons for such conflict are not always political or military, nor do the sources of violence of any one country in our subcontinent come only from across its borders. Instead, our problems are largely internally generated, reflecting structural and developmental failures along with strategic choices of governments. Across South Asia, there are glaring inequalities and pervasive fissures along regional, linguistic, ethnic, religious, social and economic lines. These have been exacerbated by recent economic processes, which have increased inequalities, caused displacement and damaged traditional livelihoods, even as they have simultaneously provided new opportunities to others.

But conflict and violence, while ever present in an open or a subterranean fashion, are not our defining features. Our history of quite remarkable elasticity, tolerance of diversity and adjustment to plurality has created in the subcontinent a complex civilisational mosaic, which is probably unique among all regions of the world. This tradition needs to be drawn upon now more than ever because even the fragile peace between countries, especially between India and Pakistan, now appears to be under threat.

The terror attacks in Mumbai evoked many responses, but among the media, the electronic media in particular, one dominant response has been to engage in aggressive jingoism and war-mongering. The enough is enough brigade has moved on from criticising politicians in general for not safeguarding the elite to demanding not just that Pakistan accept its culpability but that India punish Pakistan by engaging in military strikes, along the lines of their current role-model the George W. Bush regime in the United States. And the attempt to whip up pro-war sentiment has continued apace even when it is only too evident that the only gainers from such a war would be the terrorists who wish to destabilise both India and Pakistan.

Thus far, at least, the Indian establishment has been more responsible and intelligent than the Indian media. But the pressures upon it, and also the diversity of opinion within it, cannot be denied. So the arguments for military action by India, both the superficial and the deeper ones, have to be taken seriously and addressed.

The superficial argument in favour of war is based on several axioms, each of which can be contested. The first is that it is possible to fight a war on terror in the manner much publicised by Bush and his neoconservative cronies, and put to practice by the U.S. since 2001 to awful and devastating effect. But it is obvious that terror is a tactic, or rather a set of violent instruments of differing forms employed by different agents. It is not and cannot be a defined or even definable enemy.

Violent tactics that can be described as terrorist attacks which include bombing, hijacking, kidnapping and hostage-taking, assassination, and so on can and have been utilised by various groups. These groups have been non-state actors, such as the extremist and militant groups within India and other countries, and on occasion state actors agencies of government at different levels who engage in such tactics to defeat perceived enemies. Resisting terrorist tactics, therefore, requires not only greater internal security measures and vigilance but also a consideration of the roots of the problems that have caused such groups to emerge in the first place. Wars solve nothing and do not reduce the risk of terror tactics being used again.

This is only too evident from the recent experience of the U.S. Our chattering classes have taken to pointing to the absence of successful terrorist attacks within the U.S. after September 2001 as proof that a strategy based on military strikes works. But the absence of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 2001 is not because the sources of such attacks have been obliterated but because of much more stringent internal security measures within the U.S. In fact, this aggressive military response has already cost the U.S. much more in human lives and economic losses and has not even worked in military terms because these wars are still being fought with no sign of victory. Meanwhile, they have devastated the infrastructure and destroyed the lives of at least two generations in Iraq and Afghanistan and made them breeding grounds for terrorists. Other countries have witnessed an upsurge in violence that is directly related to the U.S. military presence in these countries.

The second axiom of those in India who argue in favour of military attacks against Pakistan is that there is fundamentally only one source of the terrorist violence that has become so tragically evident in India in the past year, and that is Pakistan. Unfortunately, this is completely wrong; in fact, things would be so much simpler if that were indeed the case. The Mumbai attacks were only one and not even the latest in a grim and dreadful series of violent strikes, and several of these are clearly due to other groups in Assam, in Malegaon, in Hyderabad.

So we all know that there are multiple sources of terror attacks, including our own home-grown extremists of many different ideological hues. These range from disaffected fundamentalist Muslim militants to the Hindu extremists who stand accused of planting killer bombs in several cities; from secessionist ethnic groups such as those in the north-eastern region and elsewhere to Maoist groups and their opponents in a large swathe of central, eastern and southern India.

To deal with all of these, it is foolish to conflate all of them into one enemy: each has a different social, economic and political origin and context, and each requires specific attention to the causes and the factors determining its spread. The feelings of alienation, frustration and resentment that create the cannon fodder for militant groups have to be addressed directly through state policies. To a large extent, such policies are economic because poverty, material insecurity and growing inequality play important roles in creating such negative feelings. There are also problems of social exclusion, lack of political voice and even perceptions of being badly served by the mainstream media and other institutions, which can have such an impact. It is futile to believe that greater repression will increase security in such a context.

Of course, the role of using force across the border cannot be denied, and the evidence certainly suggests that the recent attacks in Mumbai had some origin in Pakistan. But, it is also evident that the political and military situation in that country is extremely complex, with multiple centres of power and a fragile democracy struggling to assert its influence vis-a-vis the continuously assertive military forces. These attacks may have occurred within India, but they were surely also calculated to weaken democratic institutions in Pakistan and provide some relief to the beleaguered and socially unpopular military. A war between India and Pakistan would directly play into the hands of groups that want to reduce the strength of the fragile democracy and allow the Taliban and other extremist groups on the western border to function with greater abandon.

The more sophisticated argument for war accepts this point but then suggests that the only way to bring international pressure to bear upon the Pakistani military is for India to flex its muscles and show that it means business. Surely, this perspective reflects a certain misconception that the other global players are too naive to recognise what is evident to everyone else and that they would be forced to accept it only if war breaks out. The war option is also irresponsible and dangerous since the nuclear weaponisation that has occurred in both countries makes any such engagement unpredictable.

So war is clearly not a solution. Nor are greater overt repression internally and suppression of human rights likely to do much more than sow the seeds of discontent that can create future terrorists. For sustainable peace in the subcontinent, we have to combine greater internal vigilance with a more positive and engaged approach with our neighbours since all of us suffer from similar problems of internally and externally generated violence. Instead of reduced cooperation between our democratically elected governments, we need more; instead of cutting people-to-people contacts and other interaction between our countries, we must increase it. Since physical security is bound up with material security, governments in the region have to work towards more equitable and inclusive development that does not generate feelings of alienation and resentment among disadvantaged groups.

Fortunately, we can find inspiration for such positive moves within our own regional tradition. The Pakistani economist Akmal Hussain has noted that amidst its diversity, South Asia has shared civilisational propensities of transcending the ego as a means of fulfilment, of locating the need for goods in the context of human responsibility and of harmonising economic and social life with nature. It is this South Asian sensibility and the associated human values that could be brought to bear in building a new relationship between humans, nature and production to sustain life in the 21st century world. (A vision for South Asia, paper presented at the Fourth Annual South Asia Conference on Trade and Development, Centad, New Delhi, December 17-18.)

These are not short-term goals and are not likely to be easily achieved either. But trying to meet force with force and believing that violent measures can bring about either security or harmony is misguided and will prevent any possibility of sustained and meaningful peace in the region.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 16, 2009.)

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