The violence of compassion

Purportedly meant to foster inclusion of alienated communities into the national mainstream, the rhetoric of Operation Sadhbhavna was based on strategic exclusions

February 18, 2014 01:47 am | Updated December 15, 2016 11:06 pm IST

PROMOTING GOODWILL: A group of girls along with their teachers from Rampur District of Jammu and Kashmir visit Bangalore  under 'Operation Sadbhavna,'  organised by the Indian Army. Photo: Special Arrangement

PROMOTING GOODWILL: A group of girls along with their teachers from Rampur District of Jammu and Kashmir visit Bangalore under 'Operation Sadbhavna,' organised by the Indian Army. Photo: Special Arrangement

The last I travelled to Ganishah was in 1948 to retrieve my goat that a local herder ( pajlu ) had stolen. Having found out who he was, I decided to return to Ganishah in a few days to retrieve the goat. Soon after, the 1948 war broke out and the government created a border [in] between... We no longer visit Ganishah; we hope they still worship our common gods and ancestors.

— Gandup dudo, quoted by Mona Bhan in Counterinsurgency, Democracy, and the Politics of Identity in India: from Warfare to Welfare? (Routledge, 2014)

Kargil broke into the Indian imagination with the Kargil war in 1999; it beamed right into living rooms via cable television. The third war that India and Pakistan fought over the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, it left Kargil in the minds of Indians as one of the country’s most “frontier” military outposts. That the mountainous province had since the Ninth Century A.D., and until as recently as 1948, served as a bustling pathway for travel, trade, and transit on the Central Asian trade route is a story consigned to the memories of people who, in the post-colonial era, continue to live in Kargil despite extraordinary odds. Or else, it is a subject confined to old travel writings, or, as we shall see, to a rare intrepid researcher who steals just enough time before the Army deems her too dangerous despite, in her own words, her “Hindu name and origin.”

As the first war between India and Pakistan broke out in 1948, severing Jammu and Kashmir in the process, the Brogpas, living in the midst of Ladakh for centuries and sharing bonds of trade and kinship, were violently torn apart. Situated for centuries at the “crossroads of Central Asia,” Ladakh was now suddenly a “dependency on the fringes of Kashmir.” The only road that would connect the region to the world would be National Highway 1, built in the 1960s, predominantly to sustain India’s military supplies.

For most in India, however, Kargil’s tryst with bitter violence began, and perhaps even ended, with the war of 1999. In that misrepresentation, again, Kargil hasn’t been alone; the same is said of the entire State: a postcard image of tranquil beauty and “peace” suddenly torn to bits by Kashmir’s armed rebellion beginning 1989, which India blamed on Pakistan even as decades of massive political repression and constitutional deception, right since 1948, went on unabashedly.

The heart as a weapon Instead of looking for ways of reversing the violence of the past, however, India, soon after the Kargil war in 2001, pressed for further militarisation to “win the hearts and minds” of border communities through what was essentially a counterinsurgency operation – Operation Sadbhavna or Goodwill.

Like recently in the Kashmir Valley – where three consecutive years saw some of the most powerful anti-India protests with over 200 unarmed protesters and bystanders killed at the hands of government forces – it was the Army in 2011 that was entrusted with extensively conducting cricket and football tournaments, on the lines of the spectacular Indian Premier League. “What we are trying to do is to make extra efforts to reach out to the people,” Lt. Gen. Syed Ata Hasnain, the then Army commander in Kashmir, had said. “To use the heart as a weapon, this is the doctrine.”

The idea, quite simply, was to keep the youth “busy” lest they came out on the streets in political protest. In Kargil, Ms Bhan’s work tries to unravel the essential perversion of what the Army has proudly called its policy of “heart warfare.” At the core of Ms Bhan’s over-a-decade-long work is the Brogpa ethnic minority living along the border. Currently associate professor of anthropology at DePauw University, U.S., she writes that her focus is “not on the State’s performance of authority through military spectacle” but on how “compassion became a strategy to contain political dissension, regulate citizenship, and normalise the extensive militarisation of Kargil’s social and political order” foregrounding in the process “the violence of compassion, healing, and sacrifice in India’s disputed frontier State.” The deductions she makes are grim: “Purportedly meant to foster inclusion of alienated communities into the national mainstream, the rhetoric of Sadhbhavna was based on strategic exclusions — in particular, on the pre-emptive anticipation of disloyalty from Kargili Muslims ... as ‘incipient terrorists’” (emphasis added).

In an interview with me, Ms Bhan elaborated: “Incipient terrorism, a term the Indian army borrowed from the U.S.’s counterinsurgency vocabulary to justify the military’s reach into civilian life makes ‘latent disloyalties’ in people a legitimate reason for military action... But [by] legitimising its growing hegemony over minority bodies and landscapes, the military ultimately threatens the projects of human rights, citizenship, and substantive democracy in the region.”

Donations for war Back in 1999, it took time for people in India to comprehend that the country was at war in Kargil. Concerns, however, were palpably rising. I was a fresh graduate student then in the south Indian city of Mangalore. As the conflict escalated, people’s excitement was turning increasingly patriotic. Back in school, students were directed by the staff to collect funds as donations for the war.

Being the rare Kashmiri in a south Indian classroom, a wave of thundering applause pushed me out to the front — I was the ideal person to collect the fund. My initial reaction was to opt out, but the atmosphere made it unthinkable. None had even an inkling of what it meant to be in the midst of war. But, I for one, couldn’t bring myself to associate with an Army whose deadly brutality I had witnessed ever since I could remember. But above all, on whose “side” were people living on the so-called Line of Control, whose land was again a war field. For long before the war, none cared to inform the Army of the presence of infiltrators.

After the war, Ms Bhan notes, Brogpas mourned the deities who had now left them “because of the violence.” But I saw my friends, boys and girls, kissing currency notes old and crisp alike and touching them on their eyes before handing them out to me. The only person who deliberately chose to abstain from donating to that fund was the one who collected it. And all that one witnessed was people unaware of the reality of war, a reality that should have rightly been shaped by only those to whom it truly belonged. As it is, under the cloak of “goodwill,” unbridled militarisation is disfiguring beyond recognition the very people whom the State claims to be defending. Brogpas, Ms Bhan notes, have meanwhile “aligned” with the nation not through “political participation” but military service they render as porters, recruits, and even spies.

War by other means While the Kargil township hasn’t expanded because the land remains under military occupation, no overt demands for demilitarisation exist since it’s the Army that sustains livelihoods. A democracy that relies on the military for sustaining people’s social and economic lives, Ms Bhan says, is hardly a democracy.

Notwithstanding her expulsion from Kargil by the Indian Army in 2002, amid dangerous allegations such as espionage, Ms Bhan brilliantly succeeds in unravelling the looming dangers of “heart warfare,” a path that India has adopted with wild machismo in the hinterlands of its democracy. The end of the Cold War, she says, witnessed an overt politicisation of humanism under the pretext of peace building. While the “human” emerged as the new object of care and compassion, it produced alongside a wide network of state and non-state actors deeply invested in the morality of protection. The politics of compassion, she says, is a continuation of war by other means.

A reversal in the militarisation of lives at the borders should have long been the priority of both India and Pakistan, in order to restore the dignity of people inhabiting these territories for much, much longer than the two warring states have even existed. The basic requirement is no different vis-a-vis the larger Kashmir conflict, or the vast tribal forests of central India, or the northeast. Kargil, just as the entire Jammu and Kashmir, proudly stood at a crossroads connecting civilisations. But independence for most in the subcontinent spelt a death knell to that centuries-old tradition.

Let alone drawing at its spiritual moorings from central Asia, or thriving trade from the West, today, more than six long decades later, Gandup dudo is wondering if he’d ever walk those few steps to meet the pajlu who stole his goat.

(Nawaz Gul Qanungo is a Srinagar-based journalist. )

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