War and peace, in a two-week span

War and peace, in a two-week span


Jorge Luis Borges described the 10-week Falkland war between Argentina and Margaret Thatcher’s Britain over a barren piece of land as a fight between two bald men over a comb. Last month’s suicide strike at Pulwama district Kashmir triggered a flurry of reporting, analysis, opinion pieces, televised debates between politicians, retired army generals, and political commentators from diverse outlets both in Pakistan and India. For the duration of 20 minutes they debated about the genesis, the trajectory and the ultimate resolution of the conflict. Even public intellectuals struck menacing postures, talked of ‘mendacity’ and the ‘banality of evil’ and had their brief moments of glory. The mass media played an important role in forming opinions about the attack and later as it escalated with air strikes on Pakistani territory.

With the arrival of electronic media and round the clock dissemination of news such a conflict has all the potential of being exploited to the maximum. That it is happening just on the eve of a national election campaign that is being fought bitterly in India, and the newly installed Prime Minister of Pakistan who is still trying to find his feet has only added to the immediacy and dramatic effect.

Public opinion for stern action against terrorism has been growing stronger in India over the past few years and the display of air power appealed to people based on the various reactions in the mass media and social media, a textbook example for populism in action. For Imran Khan who has been in office for a little over half a year, and seen as a political novice, the development could see as an increase in his approval rating, which would enable him to take on other political adventures. The international recognition of his ‘peace gesture’ of returning the captured IAF pilot has added a peace-loving dimension to his persona.

It is in this context that the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s remark that 2018 was an important year in the history of Sino-Indian ties has to be seen. The Wuhan summit between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had opened up ‘a new model of high-level exchanges between China and India, enhanced mutual trust and friendship between the leaders of the two countries, and also clarified the future direction of China-India relations,’ he had pointed out.

Yi also hinted, for good measure, that his government had mediated between India and Pakistan earlier to de-escalate tensions following the February air strikes. China had also praised Pakistan's ‘restraint’ and willingness to talk with India to ease tensions after the Pulwama attack.

The visiting Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou said in Delhi that India and China were ‘all-weather’ strategic partners and that they always supported each other. ‘We hope the two countries can help each other and prosper together, meet each other halfway and turn the crisis into opportunities to realize stability and development.’ He said that China did not believe in being aggressive. ‘Being aggressive has never been a tradition in China, and hegemony is not our choice. Of course, like other countries, China will safeguard its legitimate rights and interests, and will not tolerate any infringement on its sovereignty and dignity.’

As the two largest developing nations and emerging economies, it was important to mutually realize 'our dream partners become important opportunities for developing our own economy and work towards revitalization and prosperity of Asia.’

Over the past year, he recalled, the two governments had achieved many results towards implementing the consensus of their leaders. ‘The key now is how to expand the strategic consensus of the leaders of the two countries into a common understanding of the social circles of the two countries and translate them into the conscious actions of the two peoples.’

To this end, Yi said China was willing to work with India to comprehensively strengthen pragmatic cooperation and humanities exchange ‘so that China-India friendship and cooperation will flow forward like the Yangtze River and the Ganges River, and inject a strong and lasting impetus into the development of bilateral relations.’

China’s new role as peacemaker must have persuaded Pakistan to launch a crackdown on jihadist groups that it claims is more resolute than those of previous governments, who felt ‘no urgency’ to fight these outfits that were targeting India, according to a senior minister. According to him more than 120 people have been taken put under detention and at least 200 schools, seminaries and hospitals seized as part of a campaign against banned Islamist organisations.

These arrests and asset seizures, the most sweeping in years, have targeted Islamic schools and charities considered as fronts for United Nations-blacklisted militant groups that have so far operated with near impunity.

Apart from this, international pressure has also been mounting on Islamabad after the Pulwama attack and the first dogfight between Indian and Pakistani jets, the first in nearly 50 years.

Pakistan officially banned Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a welfare organisation regarded as a fundraising organ for the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and had its headquarters in Lahore sealed. An LeT official, Yahya Mujahid, conceded that ‘a crackdown against us is under way. Our offices, schools, medical facilities and ambulances are being taken over by the government. But our leadership has directed activists and supporters to remain peaceful.’ And the Laskar chief, Hafiz Saeed, has been banned from leading prayers on Friday at the sprawling white JuD complex in one of Lahore’s busiest areas.

‘JuD activists did not resist us,’ revealed a senior police officer in Lahore. ‘In the next few days, we plan to take over JuD-run mosques there are hundreds of them in Lahore alone.’

India, though, has expressed skepticism that the latest crackdown is different from earlier arrests and closures that did little to disrupt these organisations. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, and again following the 2008 Mumbai outrage that killed 166 people, the Pakistani government had promised to shut down groups such as JuD, but these have continued to operate openly from the  most populous province of Punjab, and expanded to remote corners of the country.

However, Pakistan’s Information Minister Fawad Choudhury said, ‘Previous governments were not serious about cracking down on these anti-India groups, because these guys did not pose a serious challenge to Pakistan, so there was no urgency to work on them. But we have said that now we won’t let even these organisations work here. No militant organisations can work from Pakistan anymore.’

Militant leaders such as Saeed were ‘under watch’ he added. ‘We are trying that things can be resolved and settled with them in a peaceful manner. And if we can’t settle things peacefully … we will use the full force of the law against them.’

According to Chaudhry the government was ready to give surrendering militants jobs and business loans, accommodate them in government-run religious schools and mosques and allow them to enter the mainstream. The key difference now is that Pakistan’s civil government and its powerful military were invested, he added. ‘This time around the army leadership and the civilian leadership both have the same vision. This has never happened in the past.’

Many Islamic charities have been accused of being fronts for militant organisations but these provide the only education, healthcare and emergency services available to millions of poor Pakistanis.

A major earthquake in Kashmir in 2005 and a flood crisis in 2010 opened a fresh opportunity for Islamic charities such as JuD to demonstrate they could provide the relief services that the government could not.

With public education in shambles, the country’s poorest families often turn to Islamic schools that feed and house their children but also push a more militant brand of Islam on them.

Chaudhry said, ‘There is a war going on with Afghanistan that we are getting the blowback off.’ And an insurgency was raging in the restive Baluchistan region as well. ‘So we are already stuck in all this and now you want that we should have also pushed these [anti-India] groups to turn against us?’ Chaudhry asked. ‘This is a catch-22 situation.’

According to all development indexes Pakistan and India are ranked much lower than even Bangladesh, as far as the girl child mortality rate,and primary health and malnutrition are concerned, and international monitors are never tired of rubbing that in. They also point out, in the same breath, about the other hyphenated status, of being nuclear power neighbors and the potential for a flare-up developing.  All these provide for good copy and debates on a lean day on the banality of evil and the mendacity of the new helmsmen. 

It is time the two bald men, (or three, if you include China) to fling aside their swords aside and reach for the comb.