India and Pakistan at War Against Peaceniks

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(Op-Ed by Pakistani novelist Mohammed Hanif, October 16, 2016, New York Times)

Once, in a TV studio near Delhi almost eight years ago, I tried to stop a war between India and Pakistan and left thinking: Let them fight. It’s never a good idea to join a TV debate when those two are on the brink of yet another war.

I was visiting Delhi just after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, and my publisher persuaded me to accept an invitation to discuss Indo-Pak relations. I was the only Pakistani among the half dozen panelists, mostly Indian ex-generals and defense experts, all apparently trying to start and win a war with outrageous sound bites.

As the panelists made their case, a map flashed on a studio screen, and crude animated Indian missiles blew up one Pakistani city after another. The panelists called these cities targets. There was a live poll during the program. It asked viewers a simple question: Should India carry out targeted strikes in Pakistan? Suddenly, it was my duty to convince millions of Indians that attacking my country wasn’t such a good idea.

I was scared, but I tried. I mumbled something about the fact that the cities being annihilated on the show’s virtual map were not terrorist training camps but regular places with ordinary folk. Yes, there were terrorists in Pakistan, but I didn’t have their addresses. I pleaded peace. For the first time I realized how some words, like some countries, are stronger than others. The phrases my co-panelists were using — surgical strikes, hot pursuit, psy-ops, befitting reply — had power, immediacy, significance. They sounded like calls to action — like jumping in a raging sea to save your baby from drowning, like rushing with a bucket of water toward a house on fire. The words coming out of my mouth — peace, dialogue, shared humanity — seemed like excuses for doing nothing. I sounded like a procrastinating writer. But with more than 160 people dead in Mumbai, the threat of war was real. So I tried harder. I said: Maybe, to honor the dead, we should have a moment of silence, or at least we could try to be a bit quieter. That suggestion must have seemed laughable. Why waste precious airtime on mourning or remembrance when we could have war talk, blow up some more cities on a map on a screen? By the time the debate ended, more than 90 percent of the audience had given a go-ahead for strikes.

Last month, India and Pakistan were again on the brink of a war after an Indian cantonment in Kashmir came under attack. India claimed the attackers were terrorists based in Pakistan. It also claimed that it responded by carrying out strikes in the part of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan. Pakistan said that was a lie, and there was nothing more than routine crossfire along the Line of Control.

Meanwhile, a full-fledged war broke out in TV studios. Fedayeen attacks, surgical strikes and befitting replies were flying on the air. At least one TV presenter wandered around mock maps in a mock war room. When they couldn’t get an actual war, the anchors opened a front on peaceniks in their own ranks. On both sides pundits were shouting, in effect, “How can you talk like this when we are at war?” Only we weren’t at war. It’s just that being a peacenik has become unfashionable. Pakistani peace-mongers used to look at India with some envy — all that diversity, all those gods. And then an army that is answerable to an elected government. Now they look at India aghast: Their potential partners in peace across the border are beginning to sound like the bigots back home. India is becoming more like Pakistan.

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