by Caesar D’Mello
Pax Christi Asia-Pacific Network
On the very day that Indian fighter jets were reportedly pounding the Islamist Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) base in the state of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, just one hundred kilometres from Rawalpindi, Pakistan’s capital, a group of us was visiting Gandhi Smriti in Delhi where Mahatma Gandhi, acclaimed the Father of India, was killed. A series of sculpted slippers reconstructs his brief last walk that was suddenly ended by an assassin on 30 January,1948. Gandhi, an ardent advocate of nonviolence, was broken when he saw his dream of a united and peaceful India, for which he had laboured most of his life, abandoned when the British partitioned Greater India in August 1947 into the two nations of India and Pakistan, as we know them today.
Gandhi paid the ultimate price for his active commitment to unity between Hindus and Muslims that was virulently opposed by some. That antagonism still underlies India-Pakistan relations, the aereal bombing of 26 February, 2019 being its latest expression. The hostility of the last seven decades is rooted in the decision by Hari Singh, the Maharaja, to cede Kashmir, a state with a Muslim majority, to India.
Much suffering and death have ensued ever since. There have been umpteen skirmishes, and major wars in 1948, 1965, 1971, 1999 and 2004. There has also been recurring terrorist action led by various Pakistan-based militant groups to ‘liberate’ Kashmir from India, the most brazen being the incursion in Mumbai in November 2008 when after three days of mayhem 166 Indians lay dead with many more injured.
The bombing of the training base was triggered by a militant act on 14 February, 2019 for which JeM claimed responsibility. It appears its motivation was to be a springboard for another chapter in the conflict between India and Pakistan. An Indian military convoy was targeted in a suicide bombing in Pulwama in Indian-occupied Kashmir that took the lives of 42 Indian soldiers. India’s claims of destroying the JeM site and killing many cadres was disputed by Pakistan which, in a tit for tat response, bombed what it claims were ‘non-civilian targets’ in India. So the stalemate remains.
Who benefits? What learning has arisen from the hostilities?
Thankfully, tensions have now subsided up to a point. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on the nations’ leaders, and others of goodwill, to reflect on the recent events. What has been learned, especially if the status quo ante remains mostly unchanged, poised to blow up another day? Sadly, historic conflicts are not unique. Kashmir is one that keeps festering. While it is wise to study the root causes of any conflict, leaving the two combatants trapped in a downward spiral of mutual hatred and periodic reciprocal violence is not. To enjoy the fruits of lasting peace, Pax Christi Asia-Pacific believes that rather than persist on the path of instinctively responding in kind, it is an urgent responsibility of all concerned to find a sustainable way out of the endless impasse.
Many dimensions of the recent eruption were most unhelpful. Those living in areas bordering the Line of Control in divided Kashmir suffered greatly. The fearful sight of noisy air force jets hovering above notwithstanding, lives were disrupted. The majority, being farmers, were deeply anguished over losing homes, crops and livelihoods. Relocating to safer places meant spending limited resources on rents and other costs. The wider community, too, was tense, as evidenced by the appeal by Sunila Ruth, a Christian member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, to Pope Francis to support ‘dialogue and negotiation’ to help end the conflict. Christians and many others took part in public vigils declaring, ‘War is not the answer’.
The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, articulated what appeared to be a face-saving way out for both countries when he asked, “With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford a miscalculation”? Acknowledging ‘the hurt that has been caused due to the Pulwama attack’, he said, “we should sit and settle this with talks”. A captured Indian pilot was returned to the Indian authorities. Had there been reciprocity from the Indian side, the situation would have been diffused earlier, while spurring a dialogue focused on security, Kashmir, and meaningful ways to counter and frustrate militant groups. Instead, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi maintained an aggressive stance, having earlier promised ‘a jaw-breaking response’. This fueled a nationalistic public mood in sections of the country believing their war as ‘just’, and demanding ‘a swift and appropriate reply’.
At the height of the conflict war hysteria was at its peak in both countries. Pakistan’s public and social media were awash with anti-India belligerent messages. Combative sections of the Indian media endorsed actions such as removing the pictures of Pakistani cricketers from view, Indian cricketers using caps with military fatigue designs, airlines issuing boarding passes displaying the Indian flag, and so on. One can wonder if such an environment was exploited for the national elections.
A high level of military preparedness over the years, and the sort of expenditure involved in the latest military engagement entail allocating increasing proportions of precious resources to military arsenals and sophisticated conventional and nuclear weaponry. The known defence expenditure by India is in the order of $60 billion a year! While military needs are met, the basic needs of vast sections of both countries’ populations are not. As Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore said, “Escalating defence budget should instead be diverted to develop people”.
Peace is too precious and basic a human right to be reduced to a zero sum game run on mutually retaliatory actions. History has shown the role of asymmetrical approaches in achieving peace when magnanimity or a greater give and take become a circuit breaker. Every chance should be seized, even if in the past any attempts were thwarted, including by non-state actors who should be brought to heel. Realising long lasting peace by negotiations is preferable to living in a constant cycle of violence and the shadow of a nuclear threat. It is crucial that ways forward discussed are realistic and based on justice, and serious attempts made by both sides to tone down the war rhetoric. The relatively new government of Pakistan and the Indian government that emerges from the elections provide a new opportunity ‘to give peace a chance’, in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi who denounced ‘politics without principle’. Pax Christi Asia-Pacific is convinced that “diplomacy and other peaceable ways…will serve…not only the peoples of India and Pakistan but also…of Asia-Pacific and beyond”.
Caesar D’Mello is a member of Pax Christi Australia, and a consultant on Global South ‘development’, climate change and peace concerns.