Neither India nor Pakistan can afford another conflict
What started as a terror attack with a suicide bomb blast in Indian-held Kashmir a few weeks ago now seems to have pit two neighbours into a full-scale war. Blaming Pakistan for harbouring terrorist network Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM) in its domain which claimed responsibility for the attack, India lost no time in retaliating against Pakistan with an aerial attack purportedly aimed to destroy JEM hideout in Pakistan territory (Balakot) and claimed success in destroying it.
For any sovereign country to have its air-space invaded by foreign military aircraft and dropping bombs in its territory, for whatever reason, would be an act of aggression.
Under normal circumstances, the first act of suicide attack would have been tackled from a law and order perspective and terrorists identified would have been pursued accordingly.
But these are not normal times, and the prime minister of India was in no mood to pursue that route, because he and his political party are in an election campaign.
He did not want to appear weak before his people. He said in a public statement that he had asked his military to take any action that they felt appropriate to deter the terror group.
So, Modi’s military took to sending a squadron of aircraft to have a “surgical” strike against the suspected militant hideout far inside Pakistan territory. The self-declared success of this campaign boosted a politically faltering Modi, and his image rose according to the Indian press.
He was portrayed a hero. His supporters crowed and declared imminent victory in the upcoming elections.
Unfortunately, this euphoria in Modi and his political supporters evaporated in 24 hours as a surprised Pakistan took a swift retaliatory action launching its own air attack inside Indian territory (Kashmir) and dropped its own bombs (purportedly on blank targets).
In an ensuing air battle between the air forces of two countries, reportedly, both sides lost two aircraft. But the one that drew most attention was where a downed Indian jet fell into Pakistan territory and its surviving pilot was captured by the Pakistan army.
This tit-for-tat air-strike, the capture of an Indian pilot, and hysteria of war that the episodes gave way to the worst memories being brought back of the three wars that the two countries have fought with each other since partition: Two over Kashmir and one over Bangladesh. Countless lives were lost, mostly of defense forces, but the mindset that led to these wars does not appear to have changed.
One had hoped that, with the passage of time and changes in people’s aspirations for a better relationship with neighbours, there would be also changes in the behaviour of the politicians.
The politicians should know better than military overlords that hostilities between neighbours do not favour either country.
Unlike military rulers who need to perpetuate their stranglehold over their countries through intimidation and fear, politicians normally act differently.
They demonstrate strength through their actions in crisis in a more mature away than by inciting passion and hysteria.
This is the first time in the history of belligerence between India and Pakistan that the first spark of a skirmish has been ignited by the former.
In all of the past three hostilities, the conflict was initiated by Pakistan.
Except for the first engagement in Kashmir in 1948 (which was limited to Kashmir), the two other conflicts were initiated when Pakistan was led by a military ruler.
It could be explained, in a way, that these wars were caused by a military junta to divert national attention from a domestic problem to an artificially created crisis.
But this time, with both Pakistan and India being ruled by democratically-elected governments, the blame cannot be allocated to a self-seeking army establishment to start another war.
George Orwell once said: “All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.”
It could be that Modi may have an ulterior motive in indulging in war rhetoric to rally people to his party by railing against Pakistan.
But his rhetoric can have perverse repercussions on the other side of the border where a government is protected and nurtured by an entity that thrives on war-mongering.
A pin-prick by India can and will cause a much bigger perforation that will lead both nations to disaster.
It is now close to 50 years that Pakistan and India had their last battle.
That was a battle of yesteryears, fought on land mostly with conventional rifles, mortars, and tanks. The air battle was fought with aircraft that belong to museums now.
Both countries now have nuclear arsenal, with warheads that can go from 1,200 to 2,000 miles, causing massive destruction to property and lives. Both countries are sitting on piles of such nuclear weapons that can be launched in seconds.
Although, in one way, this is a balance of terror, it is sheer terror that cannot be ignored by either side. Politics apart, a war-cry to rally people to one’s support will not lead to any good for any country. For India, it will be bringing years of democratic growth and international standing as an economic powerhouse to an end.
For Pakistan, it will accelerate its descent into economic desolation, bringing untold suffering to its burgeoning population.
Neither country can afford a military confrontation.
Let good sense prevail and let the leaders of both countries enter dialogue to end the pernicious presence of militant and terror groups in their respective countries. Militancy and terror are curses for both countries -- the entire sub-continent, in fact.
Pakistan has suffered more than any other country from militancy and terror. Let India and Pakistan jointly launch a war against terror, not against one another.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.