In the current atmosphere, when Indians and Pakistanis, politicians, sportsmen, entertainers, media persons and regular civilians are hurling abuses at each other, it renders me unpatriotic to say that Glimpses of World History by Jawaharlal Nehru is one of my favorite books. On his death row, the deposed Prime Minister of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto wrote a letter to his daughter, in a similar fashion as Nehru did to Indira Gandhi, in which Bhutto also expressed his admiration for the aforementioned book. Does that exonerate my sin of daring to admire the writing of the first Prime Minister of India, the arch-nemesis of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of our country?
Many would disagree. Bhutto does not fall within the patriotic standards, a standard that invokes a unique amalgamation of chauvinistic nationalism, disdain for democracy, an unquestioned love for the army, and a vague concept of pan-Islamic nationalism. Of course with the coming of the BJP government and the tussle between Congress and BJP to bear the standard of Indian nationalism Nehru himself has been interpreted and re-appropriated to fit the needs of the changing times. He is no longer the larger-than-life figure who is above all criticism.
However, it is not Nehru’s role as a politician or his importance in the contemporary Indian nationalism that I am interested in. It is one of his messages reiterated throughout the book that I cannot help but reflect on as Indians and Pakistanis engage in this new kind of a war fought over the media. Over and over again Nehru reiterated to his daughter that our struggle was against British imperialism and government and not the British people. He reminds his daughter that our hatred for our British imperialism should not lead us to hate the British people.
This message today is as pertinent as it was about 80 years ago when Nehru wrote those letters from jail. Before elaborating on this point let me make it clear that there was no way the states of India and Pakistan were going to wage an all out war, even at the height of hostility about a week ago. While the Indian government evacuated gullible citizens from the border villages and Pakistani state blocked its major highway to use it as an emergency landing strip for air-force, it was clear that more than preparing for an imminent war, both the countries were actually engaging in political maneuvering, catering to the heightened nationalistic sensibilities on both sides of the border. In fact if there was to be any war, let there be no doubt that the war actually had begun on the private media channels on both sides of the border.
This is the new face of war in the twenty first century. In 1998 during the Kargil conflict we saw the first signs of this media war from the Indian side as the process of mushrooming of private channels had begun there. There wasn’t any response from Pakistan because there were hardly any private news channels. In 2016 the situation is much different. There are about 100 private news channels in the country, all of them thinking it their duty to serve this nationalistic agenda in this media war with India.
Years later when writers and analysts would discuss the year 2016 and the time when both the nuclear powers were on the brink of war, perhaps it would be forgotten that the war was actually fought, not between the soldiers, or the states, but between the citizens of these two countries, through their private channels and social media. A physical war was averted but this cultural war was fought from which both of these sides believed they emerged victorious, but none did.
And this is what connects with the second point that I wanted to make regarding the recent situation. The India-Pakistan conflict like other major political conflicts around the world is a conflict between two states. However, every time the situation escalates it takes the form of a civilizational conflict between two opposing world views. In the popular Indian imagination this becomes a conflict between a democracy and dictatorship, between a pluralist secular state and a theocratic state. It is seen as a conflict between a civilized country and a barbarian terrorist state. It is seen in the framework of a historical battle that has continued for at least a thousand years between the invading barbarian Muslims and an all embracing Indian society that accommodated this new civilization but was eventually betrayed by it.
On the Pakistani side the situation is similar. An escalation of this kind reinforces the popular sentiments that justify a creation of a separate Muslim country, which would have never been able to survive under the tyranny of a Hindu majority now represented by Modi and his bhakts. It is seen as a battle between a bully and a proud nation that is not afraid to punch above its weight. It becomes a battle between right and wrong, between an oppressive and persecuted community, between a Hindu and a Muslim. Perhaps all conflicts in the world are interpreted in this civilizational framework, stripped off their political agendas. The American war against terrorism is seen from the American perspective as a war between freedom loving world and intolerant Islamists. Not so long ago posters in New York put up by Israeli lobbyists presented the conflict between Palestine and Israel as a conflict between barbarians and the civilized. It becomes easier for a state to exonerate itself from the crimes of a war by casting the other as inhuman barbarian.
Normalcy would return to India-Pakistan relation (the kind of normalcy one can expect from India-Pakistan) and business would return to normal, with the states engaged with each other in one way or the other, and Pakistani actors working in India, and Indian movies being shown in Pakistan. However the concept of the barbarian other would continue to linger in the back of ordinary Indians and Pakistanis, till the next time both these states find themselves on the brink of another “imminent” war. The conflict between India and Pakistan is no longer confined between states but has now become a conflict between ordinary Pakistanis and Indians.
Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: a study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: a journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities.