In May 1998, after India and Pakistan both conducted nuclear tests that established their status as states possessing the means to wreak untold death and devastation upon each other, it was ironic and more than a little disconcerting to see large numbers of people on both sides of the border celebrating the arrival of weapons of mass destruction in the subcontinent. As politicians, soldiers, and the media in both countries constantly worked to outdo each other in producing an atmosphere of hysterical belligerence and aggressive jingoism, ordinary men, women, and children danced in the streets as they jubilantly welcomed the prospect of a nuclear apocalypse that could potentially end their existence in an instant. It was as if there was little popular understanding of the destructive forces that had now been unleashed in South Asia, with nuclear weapons being viewed as little more than very big bombs that could and would be deployed in distant battlegrounds in the event of any conflict between India and Pakistan. That an exchange of nuclear weapons between the two countries would probably obliterate dozens of cities and tens of millions of lives simply did not seem to occur to many of those distributing mithai and setting off fireworks.

Almost twenty years later, as India and Pakistan once again appear to be teetering on the brink of war, it is more important than ever to engage in some sober reflection about the undoubtedly horrific consequences of any military conflict in the subcontinent. That there are very real grievances and problems marring relations between India and Pakistan is something that goes without saying; the issue of Kashmir demands urgent attention, not least of all because of the undeniable human rights abuses that have been perpetrated by Indian security forces, and both states need to address the question of their alleged sponsorship of terrorism and militancy in each other’s territory. The problem is exacerbated by the existence, in both countries, of hawkish military establishments and parties that have historically benefitted from stoking the fires of nationalism and conflict for political gain. Yet, to believe that any of this can be resolved militarily is delusional at best and cynically dangerous at worst. India and Pakistan must continue working towards arriving at a diplomatic solution to their problems because the alternative will inevitably lead to catastrophic death and annihilation on an unprecedented scale.

It has always been the case that those most strenuously advocating war often tend to be those who have the least understanding of what military conflict actually entails. In the wake of the Uri attack, armchair warriors on both sides of the border have taken to the airwaves and social media to demand violent retribution and retaliation, going so far as to rapturously call for nuclear Armageddon as a means through which to settle matters between India and Pakistan once and for all. Sentiments of this sort, borne out of ignorance and blind jingoism, have been shamelessly fuelled by the media, whose quest for ratings and profit has led to coverage designed to indulge the baser instincts of the citizenry. In both India and Pakistan, television anchors and self-professed experts have actively worked to whip up war hysteria, outdoing each other in their breathless coverage of military exercises, troop movements, and antagonistic official statements, all with a view towards keeping eyes glued to screens so that sponsors and advertisers can keep emptying their wallets. That the media has been irresponsible is an understatement; if there is an actual outbreak of hostilities between India and Pakistan, the bar set by the media is now so low it would not be surprising to see anchors and reporters providing rolling coverage of the carnage amidst ad breaks and jingles selling the latest brand of ghee, detergent, or carbonated beverage. ‘Coca Cola presents the Nuclear Obliteration of Delhi!’ or ‘The Firebombing of Karachi, brought to you by Pepsi!’. After all, those who survive the atomic inferno and resulting nuclear winter will presumably be thirsty.

The mindless glorification of death, the unending talk of ‘befitting’ responses, the bandying about of terms like ‘surgical strikes’ and ‘Cold Start’, all of this is utterly pointless and ultimately self-destructive. The notion that there can be any victors in a military conflict between India and Pakistan is ludicrous; yes, a ‘victor’ may emerge from the ashes of the subcontinent’s cities, but is ‘victory’ really worth paying any price for? Are those who continually exult in the prospect of confrontation really ready to endanger their own lives, as well of those of their loved ones and countless other citizens, just to prove a point? What are the defenders of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘national interest’ really protecting if their actions lead to the deaths, on an unimaginable scale, of the very people they ostensibly exist to serve? Exactly what glorious future awaits India and Pakistan if the very earth that nurtures them is blackened, and the effects of their most prized weapons poison the rivers that sustain them? Do belligerents on both sides really wish to exist in a world where the ruins of their cities forever live on as monuments to the folly of ambition and hubris, and the extent of human stupidity?

Enough is enough. The entire phallic spectacle of armageddon, with its waving of missiles and comparison of ‘strength’, needs to be challenged, and those engorged on the prospect of conflict must be sidelined. India and Pakistan may both be nuclear powers, but they are also home to a significant percentage of the world’s most underprivileged people. It is these very people who will bear the brunt of any war between the two countries, losing their lives and what little else they have due to decisions in which they have no say taken by people over whom they have no control. Peace and careful, serious negotiation is the only way India and Pakistan will be able to resolve their differences, and is the only path forward that represents the best possible outcome for the people of South Asia. To believe otherwise is simply foolish.