Think like a civilisation

The biggest casualty of unquestioning enthusiasm for war is democracy and rational thought

February 28, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

This essay is a piece of dissent at a time when dissent may not be welcome. It is an attempt to look at what I call the Pulwama syndrome, after India’s bombing of terrorist camps in Pakistan. There is an air of achievement and competence, a feeling that we have given a fitting reply to Pakistan. Newspapers have in unison supported the government, and citizens, from actors to cricketers, have been content in stating their loyalty, literally issuing certificates to the government. Yet watching all this, I feel a deep sense of unease, a feeling that India is celebrating a moment which needs to be located in a different context.

Peace needs courage

It reminded me of something that happened when I was in school. I had just come back from a war movie featuring Winston Churchill. I came back home excitedly and told my father about Churchill. He smiled sadly and said, “Churchill was a bully. He was not fit to touch Gandhi’s chappals.” He then added thoughtfully that “war creates a schoolboy loyalty, half boy scout, half mob”, which becomes epidemic. “Peace,” he said, “demands a courage few men have.” I still remember these lines, and I realised their relevance for the events this week.

One sees an instant unity which is almost miraculous. This sense of unity does not tolerate difference. People take loyalty literally and become paranoid. Crowds attack a long-standing bakery to remove the word ‘Karachi’ from its signage. War becomes an evangelical issue as each man desperately competes to prove his loyalty. Doubt and dissent become impossible, rationality is rare, and pluralism a remote possibility. There is a sense of solidarity with the ruling regime which is surreal. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was encrusted with doubts a week before, appears like an untarnished hero. Even the cynicism around these attitudes is ignored. One watches with indifference as Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah virtually claims that security and war are part of his vote bank.

Thought becomes a casualty as people conflate terms such as Kashmiri, Pakistani and Muslim while threatening citizens peacefully pursuing their livelihood. One watches aghast as India turns war into a feud, indifferent to a wider conflagration. The whole country lives from event to event and TV becomes hysterical, not knowing the difference between war and cricket. It is a moment when we congratulate ourselves as a nation, forgetting that we are also a civilisation. In this movement of drum-beating, where jingoism as patriotism is the order of the day, a dissenting voice is not welcome. But dissent demands that one faces one’s fellow citizens with probably more courage than one needs to face the enemy. How does one begin a conversation, create a space for a more critical perspective?

What war feels like

Sadly, India as a country has not experienced war as a totality, unlike Europe or other countries in Asia such as Vietnam or Afghanistan. War has always been an activity at the border. It did not engulf our lives the way World War II corroded Germany or Russia. War is a trauma few nibble at in India. When our leaders talk even of surgical strikes, one is not quite sure whether they know the difference between Haldighati or modern war. They seem like actors enacting an outdated play. In fact, one wonders whether India as a society has thought through the idea of war. We talk of war as if it is a problem of traffic control. Our strategists, our international relations experts fetishise security and patriotism. The aridity of the idea of security has done more damage to freedom and democracy than any other modern concept. Security as an official concept needs a genocidal count, an accounting of the number of lives and bodies destroyed in pursuing its logic. The tom-tomming of such words in a bandwagon society destroys the power and pluralism of the idea of India as a society and a democracy.

The biggest casualty of such enthusiasm for war is democracy and rational thought. Our leaders know that the minute we create a demonology around Pakistan, we cease to think rationally or creatively about our own behaviour in Kashmir. We can talk with ease about Pakistani belligerency, about militarism in Pakistan, but we refuse to reflect on our own brutality in Kashmir or Manipur. At a time when the Berlin Wall appears like a distant nightmare and Ulster begins appearing normal, should not India as a creative democracy ask, why is there a state of internal war in Kashmir and the Northeast for decades? Why is it we do not have the moral leadership to challenge Pakistan to engage in peace? Why is it that we as a nation think we are a democracy when internal war and majoritarian mobs are eating into the core of our civilisation? Where does India stand in its vision of the civility of internationalism which we articulated through Panchsheel? Because Pakistan behaves as a rogue state, should we abandon the civilisational dream of a Mohandas Gandhi or an Abdul Ghaffar Khan?

Even if we think strategically, we are losers. Strategy today has been appropriated by the machismo of militarism and management. It has become a term without ethics or values. Strategy, unlike tactics, is a long-range term. It summons a value framework in any decent society. Sadly, strategy shows that India is moving into a geopolitical trap where China, which treats Pakistan as a vassal state, is the prime beneficiary of Pulwama. The Chinese as a society and a regime would be content to see an authoritarian India militarised, sans its greatest achievement which is democracy. What I wish to argue is that strategy also belongs to the perspectives of peace, and it is precisely as a democracy and as a peace-loving nation that we should out-think and outflank China. Peace is not an effeminate challenge to the machismo of the national security state as idol but a civilisational response to the easy brutality of the nation state.

Dissent as survival

In debating with our fellow citizens, we have to show through a Gandhian mode that our sense of Swadeshi and Swaraj is no less. Peace has responsibilities which an arid sense of patriotism may not have. Yet we are condemned to conversation, to dialogue, to arguments persuading those who are sceptical about the very integrity of our being. Dissent becomes an act of both survival and creative caring at this moment. One must realise that India as a civilisation has given the world some of its most creative concepts of peace, inspired by Buddha, Nanak, Kabir, Ghaffar Khan and Gandhi. The challenge before peacedom is to use these visions creatively in a world which takes nuclear war and genocide for granted. Here civil society, the ashram and the university must help create that neighbourhood of ideas, the civics that peace demands to go beyond the current imaginaries of the nation state.

Our peace is a testimony and testament to a society that must return to its civilisational values. It is an appeal to the dreams of the satyagrahi and a realisation that peace needs ideas, ideals and experiments to challenge the current hegemony of the nation state. India as a civilisation cannot do otherwise.

Shiv Visvanathan is an academic associated with the Compost Heap, a group in pursuit of alternative ideas and imagination

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