Farcical’ and ‘stupid’ are two words that come to mind when considering India’s triumphant announcement that it conducted a ‘surgical strike’ on Pakistani territory that successfully targeted alleged ‘launch pads’ for insurgents planning on crossing the Line of Control. The whole affair was farcical because of the complete and utter confusion surrounding what actually transpired on the night of 29th September; while the Indian government and media insisted that troops and helicopters had been able to successfully cross one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world, their counterparts in Pakistan denied that any such operation had taken place, arguing instead that India’s so-called surgical strike was nothing more than a routine exchange of artillery fire between the two countries. In the absence of any independent evidence or observations, it is likely that the truth of the matter will remain shrouded in mystery.
This is not unexpected, given how both India and Pakistan often present entirely contradictory accounts of events along the Line of Control. What is more worrying is the sheer stupidity on display this time around. After all, if Indian claims about an incursion into Pakistan were to be accepted, their actions would represent an extremely dangerous intensification of hostilities between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, adding further fuel to an already volatile situation. History is replete with examples of small flashpoints and triggers cumulatively leading to much larger conflagrations, and the bellicosity currently on display in the subcontinent could easily lead to unpredictable and tragic consequences. Indeed, even if India’s ‘surgical strike’ was little more than a PR stunt aimed at placating a domestic audience whipped into a frenzy by an increasingly jingoistic government and media, the very fact that military options can be bandied about and trumpeted with such reckless abandon, potentially generating demand for yet more ‘action’, can potentially lead to escalating responses from both sides.
At a time when both India and Pakistan would benefit from sagacious leadership committed to defusing tensions and seriously exploring diplomatic means through which to resolve the long-running issues between the two countries, the more than a billion people of the subcontinent have, instead, been held hostage by hawks who would presumably like nothing more than one final, cataclysmic to settle things once and for all. That there would be no one and nothing left to celebrate after South Asia is consumed by a nuclear inferno appears to be lost on those pushing for violent retribution and retaliation.
The sidelining of voices for peace in official circles is matched by increasingly hysterical media coverage of the rising tensions between India and Pakistan; as television channels and anchors do their best to mouth jingoistic rhetoric, speaking of death and retribution in terrifyingly ecstatic terms, animations of warplanes, tanks, and explosions pop up amidst all the jingles and advertisements peddling goods nobody will need once the bullets and bombs start flying. When the United States and it’s allies first unleashed ‘shock and awe’ upon Iraq in 2003, the devastation of Baghdad was broadcast in real-time, with the explosions that wracked that city amounting to little more than a stupefying display of pyrotechnics packaged as entertainment for consumers sitting comfortably in their living rooms thousands of miles away. The frightening spectacle being conjured up by the media in India and Pakistan today is no different, with the horror or war being sanitized and served up as yet another virtual reality, disconnected and removed from the lives of the people who will suffer from it the most. In their quest to generate ratings and curry favour with their respective establishments, media houses in India and Pakistan have abdicated their responsibility to put forward a case for peace.
Here, it is important to refer the two biggest casualties of this latest round of hostilities between India and Pakistan. I refer, of course, to the PFDC Bridal Fashion Week in Lahore, and the PTI’s biennial Accountability Protest March. In the case of the former, the glitz and glamour of the catwalk, which might have otherwise consumed untold inches of newsprint and hours of televised coverage, was relegated to secondary status as the media did it’s best to fan the flames of war. In the past, the Pakistani fashion industry has made tall claims for itself; it has made an incalculable contribution to the country’s economy (despite persistent allegations of widespread tax evasion), it has been instrumental in projecting a positive image of Pakistan (given how the country is viewed internationally, it would be interesting to see how much worse things would have been had the fashion industry not saved the day), and it has been at the forefront of fighting the Taliban (yes, really!). It would have been interesting to see what the fashion industry was doing for Pakistan this week had attention not been diverted by the threat of nuclear armageddon.
On a similar note, one cannot help but feel a twinge of pity for Imran Khan. Heading a party wracked by factionalism and discontent, and facing an unforgiving electoral landscape, the Chairman of the PTI undoubtedly saw his much-delayed accountability march on Raiwind as being a means through which to unify and mobilize his supporters while regaining some political relevance and momentum. Instead, the march went off with a whimper instead of a bang; while some reports suggest that it was well-attended, little media attention was paid to it and, more importantly, broader circumstances militated against transforming it into one of the epic sit-ins that has defined the PTI’s particular brand of opposition politics. What might have, at any other time, been a great opportunity to pile pressure on the government became little more than a sideshow as eyeballs remained glued to the prospect of war between India and Pakistan.
Nonetheless, one cannot help but wish things had been otherwise. For all its frivolity, coverage of Bridal Fashion Week would have been infinitely preferable to men and women baying for blood on national television. The same is true for the PTI; nothing bestows a greater sense of perspective than the prospect of imminent nuclear annihilation, and even the politically pointless posturing of the PTI would have been more welcome than the belligerence that has been on display this past week.