Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Opinion | Are soldiers paying the price for the ‘Bollywoodization’ of war?

Kashmir is burning, while the rest of India plays the Bollywood fiddle. Glorification of war is a threat that must be averted

Uri, the movie, was a runaway hit. But what about the surgical strike itself? While it was a flawless military operation executed under immense pressure, did it give India any strategic advantage?

In the wake of the Pulwama terror attack, it should be clear the answer is a resounding no. In fact, insurgency in Kashmir has worsened since Uri. There were 358 insurgency-related fatalities in 2017, compared to 267 the year before. Estimated infiltrations went up to 406 in 2017 from 371 in 2016. Civilian deaths increased by 166% in 2017. The radicalization of Kashmiri youth appears to be at an all-time high.

The present crisis comes in the wake of a situation in which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) enjoyed absolute majority at the centre and was part of a democratically elected coalition government in the state, a coalition government that seemed to bring together the opposite poles of Jammu and Kashmir in a magical synthesis. It also comes after the victory of Imran Khan in the Pakistani elections, a victory that was immediately followed by the offer of an olive branch to India. It comes in the wake of the opening of the Kartarpur corridor. What went wrong?

First, the attack indicates the ground realities of Pakistan where the Pakistani army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) continue to wield decisive power. After the 2014 attack of the Pakistan Taliban on a Pakistani school in Peshawar that killed 141 children, the Pakistani army has attempted to either eliminate the ‘bad terrorists’—the Pakistani Taliban, the ISIS and the Deobandi groups—that were engaged in cleansing within Pakistan, or assimilate them into the ‘good terrorists’ such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and the Lashkar-e-Taiba that focus on Afghanistan and India. This led to an increase in the power of the ‘good terrorists’.

Second, the policies of the central government and the coalition government of the nationalist BJP and the ‘soft separatist’ Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) failed to win the hearts of the Kashmiri youth. Even as the central government attempted to bring development, the coalition remained mired in internal debates about the necessity of engaging separatists and Pakistan in dialogue. Meanwhile, politics in the Indian mainland, especially in the north, began to change dramatically.

In quick succession, the BJP came to power at the centre and in state after state. This was immediately followed by a number of lynchings. An entire economy of cattle trading that consists of Hindus as well as Muslims was targeted, but only Muslim traders were victims of violence. Any remaining hope that PM Narendra Modi would govern from a centrist position was belied by the choice of Yogi Adityanath, a known Muslim-baiter, as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. The triple talaq bill claimed to ameliorate the plight of Muslim women while simultaneously making Muslim men vulnerable to police excesses. The Citizenship Amendment Bill set out to provide refuge to those facing religious discrimination in neighbouring countries, but only if they were not Muslim. The sedition law was frivolously slapped in a number of cases. It does not require a scientific survey to conclude that in the eyes of the minorities, this government is regarded as the most anti-minority government in the history of independent India and one that wears this badge as a mark of honour.

But what of the cooking gas, the electricity connections, the homes, the roads, you might ask? Did they not benefit everyone, including many Muslims? Yes they did, but evidently their benefits matter less than the perceived frontal attacks on the community. Certainly for the youth in Kashmir, the alienation seems to have increased. The Pulwama attack involved a local youth, a significant breakthrough for the JeM.

And then, there was the ‘Bollywoodization’ of the military, the translation of war into a reality show cheered on by raucous multitudes who don’t themselves bear any risk of dying in a war they advocate. This is not a new phenomenon but the degree of dichotomy between the government’s projection of achievement and the actual results on the ground has never been higher. Nor has the gap between the cheerleaders’ meagre prospects at a personal level and the projection of exultant jingoism as a public face been more stark.

Indeed, Indian society today suffers from many puzzling dichotomies. We love India but detest large swathes of Indians. We love Indian culture but subject our elderly to increasing abuse. We love our motherland but are engaged in a mad rush to expend its precious natural resources in a quest for gross domestic product growth. We believe in a strong India but do not bother checking if our armed forces have the equipment they need. We love our dead soldiers (and are smarting to start vicious fights on Facebook and Twitter in their cause), but don’t care for the conditions under which living soldiers operate.

Yes, the josh is high, as it should be. The problem is that the josh is based on false pretexts. This kind of josh when combined with joblessness, rootlessness and aimlessness is a recipe for instability, in the mainland as well as the Kashmir valley. The combination of a government spreading false hype and a militant mob deriving its sense of self from its ability to enforce conformity have translated into a society where institutions and the rule of law are under strain.

The problem today is not just that Kashmir is burning but that the whole country is in a disquieting equilibrium. The Pulwama tragedy holds a mirror to the utter dysfunctionality of Pakistan and also to troubling trajectories of Indian society.

Rohit Prasad is a professor at MDI, Gurgaon. Game Sutra is a fortnightly column based on game theory.

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