Wednesday, October 05, 2016

How a surgery went utterly wrong

by Ratnakar Tripathy

The audience watches 'beating the retreat'
Anyone who has watched the lowering of the flags on an evening at the Indo-Pak border at Wagah near Amritsar, will be left wondering about the substance of Indo-Pak hostility – you have the toughest, tallest and the loudest soldiers on both sides, their twirled moustaches quivering with enacted anger, as they try to raise their boots higher than their counterpart in a show of utter contempt. Officer cheerleaders on both sides play patriotic anthems and incite the crowds to mimic the soldiers of their country in their feverish patriotic displays. This has been a daily exercise for decades and a source of great entertainment, turning the border into a major tourist attraction. This border may be the only one on the planet with so immense a tourism value. Borders are fascinating places despite the fact that the dividing lines are manmade and most often you do not even see a change in the topography across the official lines. I remember feeling some heightened excitement seven years ago when I travelled to Cherapunji in Meghalaya where standing on the mountain rims you can see the countless ribbons of water cutting through the flat plains of Bangladesh. At Wagah though, I was left wondering how the PR of the Indian army managed to devise the most bizarre form of entertainment using a clever mix of supposedly sublime patriotic sentiments and an utter caricature of hostile bodily gestures. Turning a border site into a tourist attraction is by itself a miraculous feat the Indian army has achieved. During the ceremony the audience on its part goes through the briefest of patriotic highs before dispersing for the day. The actual ceremony is rather disappointingly brief but there is almost an hour-long buildup when the crowds are incited to enter a patriotic state of mind. I heard of a similar instance from a residential university in Uttar Pradesh, where students from neighbouring hostels trade insults and abuses in the dark when the lights go off during random loadsheddings. They do it to overcome their boredom and it’s safe to do that since faces cannot be identified in the pitch darkness.      

Matters however get serious when people including army men and civilians get killed. Matters get even more serious when these incidents are not confined to random or periodic deaths over misunderstandings. William Van Schendel, a Dutch anthropologist in his book ‘The Bengal Borderlands’ explains how the borders have a life and a culture of their own which they are compelled to evolve over time. Schendel at one point mentions an incident when one day the Indian and the Bangladeshi counterpart met together for a friendly palaver and the next day found themselves taking aims at each other’s skulls after some sudden developments in the neighbourhood. We have a different culture of hostility in Siachen, the glacier where the soldiers on both sides get killed much more frequently by the arctic cruelties of the weather rather than by each other. We also have the example of Indo-Nepal border where people marry across the border and free entry is a routine except during days when the Indian government decides to apply political pressure on the Nepal counterpart through a blockade on the supply lines of a landlocked country.  We have the Chinese in the extreme north who creep up unseen and construct camps before vamoosing the next day after a brief meeting with the Indian counterpart or simply randomly. The purpose of all this is to keep a minimal level of tension and to of course be a loyal pain in the neck to each other. But to come back to the point, people in the meantime get killed and families lose their precious sons, husbands and fathers and the numbers if taken cumulatively are far from insignificant. All this is a commonplace of the nation state.   

The last week however saw the Indian media, especially TV and social platforms discuss the semantics of ‘surgical strike’, a phrase India used to describe its retaliatory measure after the terror attack on Uri in Kashmir in which seventeen Indian soldiers lost their lives and what all the political parties in India as well as the common citizen saw as a gratuitous violation of basic territorial status quo. The shouting war that ensued however seemed far more raucous than anything we have seen on the media platforms thus far. In the midst of all the din, it was easy to forget the plight of several lakhs of border residents who were made to evacuate their homes and move away from the supposedly prone areas. And this happened just as the villagers were getting ready to harvest their paddy and other crops from their fields! The government and the media together in brief have succeeded in creating a chaos of monumental proportions that doesn’t quite go with the word ‘surgical’ at all. It now turns out even the international fora are not sure exactly what the Indian sources, both official and the media mean by surgical strike or if such a strike happened at all.  
Wagah: The aggression on display

All this leads straightaway to the conclusion that what we have amidst us is a war of information or rather disinformation where even the most educated and perceptive citizens are left groping in thin air for some basic facts. The problem is this war is not confined just to the entities of India and Pakistan and other global agencies. Unfortunately, it is also a nasty game both the Indian and Pakistani governments are playing with their own citizenry. As for India, our chief concern, all this is clearly creating a political culture in the country where evidence and belief come totally disconnected – the day’s government has to be persuaded endlessly to clarify, and the media mobs are ready to verbally or otherwise lynch anyone who contradicts the official bravado. In a strange irony the Indian democracy has managed to reach a level of language and semantics where ‘silence’ and ‘noise’ have become near synonymous. This can’t be allowed to last

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