Pulwama and the Battle of Optics
Political opportunism in the escalating standoff between India and Pakistan
“No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb. It ends in the total menace which organized mankind poses to organized men…” Adorno’s caution against the possible realization of the barbaric principle of “mutually assured destruction” is not a triviality when two nuclear powers are at the precipice of conflict.
As tensions between India and Pakistan rose in the past month, voices calling for restraint have been deluged by waves of jingoistic cries for bloodshed. The situation is complex but the news and social media in India and Pakistan have shown little interest in explicating the intricacies of the crisis. Instead, the ratings-oriented media coverage saturated the public spheres with clownish displays of nationalist fervor; the citizen became an excitable consumer of propaganda. The task at hand, therefore, is to see through this smoke cloud, clarify the stakes, and highlight the geopolitical and domestic dimensions of the crisis in the subcontinent. (Ideally, this article would be situated within the context of the Kashmir conflict, but the complicated history cannot be adequately covered here.)
The current crisis was precipitated by the Pulwama attack on February 14, when Adil Dar, a Kashmiri militant affiliated with Pakistan-based terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), rammed a car carrying explosives into a convoy of 2,500 Indian paramilitary personnel. The final count of casualties was 40 CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) personnel. JeM claimed responsibility for the attack, and though Pakistan had banned the organization on paper, the fact that JeM leader Masood Azhar lives in Pakistan and operates with relative freedom was yet another affirmation of India’s long-running assertion that the Pakistani Military ruling establishment — the Military and Inter-Services Intelligence — harbors and exports terror to Kashmir. JeM’s admission was music to the ears of the hyper-nationalist Indian new media; the vulgar metamorphosis of pretend journalists into delusional military experts calling for military escalation riled up the stupefied audiences, who took to the streets spewing insults at Pakistan and demanding a “strong response” from India. Barring a handful of exceptions, hundreds of national, local, regional news channels, print media and newspapers beat the war drums in unison, blurring the lines between military strategy and political games.
The general elections in India are around the corner, so it is little surprise that the death of security personnel, which had gripped in the nation in collective grief, was then instrumentalized for electioneering. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling ultra-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) president, Amit Shah, lost little time in denigrating the corpses of fallen soldiers as bait for political gimmickry promising to give Pakistan “a fitting response.” The Indian public spheres, so inundated with empty nationalist rhetoric, manifested in anti-Pakistan demonstrations in multiple cities, and within moments, the semantic shifts linking the “terrorist” to “Pakistani” to “Muslim” to “Kashmiri” to “anti-national” congealed into a constellation of targets the devout protectors of Bharat Mata (Mother India) could blindly throw darts at. While “nationalists” claim that Kashmir is “an integral part of India,” they dispense with Kashmiris — the natural scapegoats of national horrors.
India has long been the victim of attacks by terrorist cells operating out of Pakistan; in light of this legacy, Modi insisted “we will retaliate.” The recurrence of the problem somehow made any attempt to comprehend the Pulwama incident objectionable. Though they pose no grave threat to the state apparatus, nor have the potential to undermine the reach of the mainstream national and regional media, the handful of malcontents who asked clarifying questions and sought to understand the events were denounced and silenced — autonomous use of reason threatened the integrity of the nation. With its citizenry reduced to a homogenous sloganeering mass, the government did not have to answer critical questions: Over the past four years of BJP rule, why have terrorist incidents increased in India, especially in Jammu and Kashmir? Why do most of these incidents involve local Kashmiris and not foreign actors, Dar being a prime example? What has driven young Kashmiris to take up arms and lay down their lives? Perhaps the Modi government’s “muscular approach” and its “zero tolerance” policy towards separatist militancy has backfired; perhaps it has alienated Kashmiris further, reversing the declining trends of indigenous youth militancy of the previous decade. The government’s response has been broadcast without question: “Terrorists are anti-national and anti-nationals are terrorists.” False equivalences preclude reflection, and the Fourth Estate crumbles.
Probing into the details of Pulwama attack raises serious concerns. To carry out an attack of this magnitude surely required weeks of preparation and the acquisition of explosives was no meagre task. The failure in detecting the threat points to a serious intelligence failure. Furthermore, there were shortcomings in the “Road Opening Party” (ROP) sanitizing protocol [the standard Indian military precautionary measure to ensure that a convoy can safely travel through potentially hostile environment] which did not neutralize the threat. Responding to these challenges was not a concern, and it sufficed to say that “we will retaliate.”
The soft power measure adopted by India was to revoke Pakistan’s designation as a “Most Favoured Nation” (in WTO parlance, the non-discriminatory market status given to foreign trading partners). The government moved a massive number of troops to Kashmir, and instigated an overnight crackdown on religious-political organizations deemed to be internal security threats. However, the emphasis was on military retaliation grounded in a demented barter logic — an exchange of body counts. To avenge the deaths in Pulwama, Modi gave free reign to the Indian military. Inspired by Israeli and American counter-terror operations, they then carried out, in the face of “imminent danger,” a remarkably nebulous “non-military preemptive” air strike inside Pakistani territory, in which “a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders… were eliminated.” Pakistani air defenses, which are extremely sophisticated, faltered. The emphasis was on the targets being non-military and the strike being preemptive in nature — a description carefully crafted to dodge UN Security Council scrutiny. This was straight from the textbook of America’s so-called “war on terror,” in which “preemptive measures” legitimized violation of the sovereignty of other countries.
The news channels and papers, however, habituated to ingesting nonsense and excreting the phantasm of Indian supremacy, claimed that 300 terrorists were killed. Although reports from the ground and from outside raised serious doubts about the success of this strike, the “news” messengers dutifully amplified and exaggerated the word of the state without raising questions. Since the execution of the air strike, regardless of the success, was unprecedented, its novelty was political capital. It involved around a 50 mile penetration beyond the Line of Control by a squadron of 12 Dassault Mirage 2000s, with most of the airplanes in the formation escorting the strike crafts with Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) support. The attack went beyond the established redlines for the first time since the Indo-Pak war of 1971. The Indian Air Force tried to showcase its capabilities in order to establish a new threshold for acceptable response to terrorist attacks. This was enough to get celebrities, and social media “influencers” to commend the act, and the BJP leaders to mobilize voters. Praises for the armed forces became the explanation for what the air strike accomplished.
The central issue is, of course, terrorism, but how the retaliatory strike stops or prevents terrorism remains unclear. What is clear is the diplomacy and negotiation was not an option. In the Indian perspective, diplomacy was bound to fail. With the history of Pakistani government’s repeated failures to respond to intelligence provided by Indian and external sources on past incidents like 26/11, the Uri attack, and the Pathankot attack, to name a few, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s promises to fight terrorism given “actionable evidence” is provided fell on deaf ears. His calls to solve the issue through dialogue appeared tendentious. Distrust of Pakistan meant military action was necessary.
If the central challenge to India’s national security is the asymmetric-hybrid war orchestrated by the Pakistani military ruling establishment — the “warrior state” that instrumentalizes the “strategic threat” from India to make military and security its organizing principle — how does the air strike combat the problem? The damning report by the Standing Committee on Defense of the Indian Ministry of Defense — which attested to the inadequacies of Indian military preparedness, implying that the Indian military needed more resources to develop the covert and overt capabilities to adequately respond to the exacerbating threats of insurgency and cross-border terrorism — was not worth consideration for there was blind faith in the invincibility of the Indian military. The strategic goal was to establish a new military normal — one that drives home the notion that India will respond with “counter-terror strikes” if the terror export doesn’t halt. One can only wait and see whether it deters rising domestic militancy or the export of terror from Pakistan.
The military strategic confrontations, however, blossomed into a conflict of optics at the political level. The strike was hailed even when Pakistan threatened retaliation. Despite their questionable success, Modi celebrated the strikes, emphasizing the muscularity of India’s foreign policy to generate domestic political support among the devout nationalists who had been primed by the news and social media. The threat of escalation and war did not hinder their spirits. And the lunacy flourished as the Pakistani media drummed up their own support for retaliation and a show of strength. A limited air war ensued; planes were shot down on both sides, and Pakistan captured an Indian pilot. In violation of the Geneva conventions, the Pakistani government proceeded to tweet a video of the captured pilot. Sensing the dangers of a further escalation, Pakistan released the pilot as a peace gesture and offered to hold negotiations. To accept talk offers from the “treacherous enemy” would be political suicide for Modi before the election: intense shelling on the border made more sense. The war of perception was what mattered.
The situation has now calmed down and there are intentions to de-escalate. However, the Indian government has insisted on a muscular approach for the future — a “show of strength” immediately sensationalized through news and social media channels. There is little sign that India will engage in dialogue with Pakistan before the 2019 elections. Yet, without indicating how the steps taken have had an impact in preventing terrorism, BJP has accumulated political capital in the battle of optics. Escalation-spirals generate enthusiasm, loss of military service personnel garners sympathy, demonstrations of military power mobilize support. The military strategic tussles have seeped into the political domain, and been rendered propaganda instruments. The battle of optics, injected with mediatized steroids, has distorted the public spheres and political climate and motivated leaders to instrumentalize conflict for popularity. The dangers of the tendencies to subsume the loss of life under an electoral calculus cannot be overstated. It takes only one incident, like Pulwama, to trigger a full blown-conflict.
Udeepta Chakravarty is a sociology graduate student at NSSR. He studies the challenges of Hindu nationalism and populism to India’s democracy.