The Many Mogambos in My India


The Many Mogambos in My India

Illustration: Akshita Monga/ Arré

This Sunday, India woke up to the Uri massacre. If this attack, on the heels of Pathankot and Gurdaspur, was meant to provoke India’s warmongers into action, possibly in an attempt to bring international attention toward the Kashmir uprising and the Indian state’s heavy-handed response to the protests, then it succeeded on all fronts. The hawks, whether they were in the government, in TV studios, or on social media, rose to the occasion and unleashed a torrent of chest-thumping, internet tough-guy rhetoric, turning the last two days into a fascinating display of brinksmanship and dick swinging.

Of course, anger and outrage at the attack is justified, even if many of our commentators are (willfully) blind to the realpolitik backdrop against which such attacks take place. Nor is it out of place to call for a firm reaction to such provocation, even though what form such a reaction will take is a much more complicated question than the keyboard commandos calling for “surgical strikes” realise. But what we saw, in these last two days, went way beyond righteous anger into mass psychosis territory. A reminder, as if one was needed, that too many in our country live in a testosterone-flooded, hyper-aggressive cuckoo land.

On Times Now, Arnab Goswami once again assumed the mantle of the unelected voice of the people. Newshour panelist Major General (retd) GD Bakshi took Goswami’s assertion that “there is no time to deliberate” to heart, shouting and finger-waving in an impressive imitation of angry Amrish Puri while advocating all out war as “catharsis” for the nation. “Let’s take Pakistan all the way up to the escalator,” he shouted, his glorious moustache twitching vigorously, ignoring the fact that at the top of the escalator lies nuclear conflict.

Sadly, Maj Gen Bakshi wasn’t the only one with a major hard-on for Mutually Assured Destruction. Senior IAS officer and Principal Secretary for Sanskrit Education (doh!) to the Rajasthan government Sanjay Dixit ran a Twitter poll asking if Indians were ready for a nuclear conflict to “finish off Pakistan as a country”. Of the 8,142 people who voted, 46 per cent (!!) supported nuclear war and the elimination of 182 million people, not counting the massive death toll on the Indian side. If I were in the IB, I’d be keeping an eye on these people because if that’s not the hallmark of an apocalyptic death cultist, I don’t know what is. A strategic affairs analyst and self-described “obsessive Pakistan watcher” said on TV, “500 million Indians might die, but remaining 500 million will make a stronger India.” To be fair to him, he was quoting a former Chinese premier, but the implication is obvious.

How did an army brigade HQ get caught with their pants down? Why has Pakistan been able to send in militants and orchestrate attacks at will?

The fact that such statements got widespread support on social media is a worrying reminder that many of India’s citizens and commentators live in La La Land. Perhaps they’ve been watching too much of Green Arrow and believe the BJP IT cell will take a break from social-media trolling to hack the nukes out of the sky ala Felicity Smoak. Or maybe they’re just jerking off to some fantasy of a nuclear Mahabharata in which the righteous Indians will emerge victorious. Who even knows at this point?

Other commentators, who probably have a more realistic grasp of the outcome of nuclear war, refrained from calling for the big mushroom cloud in the sky, but still advocated for a strong military reaction, if not all out war. Baba Ramdev – the yogi who is bravely fighting Western capitalism with… well, capitalism – stated that “now time is ripe to wage a war”. Thankfully, a man who puts the con in contortionist can’t have much influence with a responsible political party like the BJP, right? Oh wait.

Elsewhere, cricketer-turned-foreign affairs expert Gautam Gambhir declared “No More!” and wondered if our leaders have the political will to “control d mosquitos which r within d nation nor which cme frm acros d border.” I’m sure if war does come, Gambhir will be on the frontlines, grim smile on his face, as he uses his bat to lob grenades at Pakistani troops and bat away any errant Pakistani missiles ala Douglas Adams’ Krikkit robots. Boxer Vijender Singh is another one rushing to go to war, because obviously the only way to respond to the death of soldiers is to ensure that many more die to appease the hyper-masculine nationalist ego. Ex-army chief Shankar Roy Chaudhary went so far to say that India should raise its own fidayeen troops, because that strategy has worked out so well for anyone else who’s tried it. Just ask the CIA, or even Pakistan itself.

To be fair to the Modi government, its response has been much more calibrated than that of our TV talking heads and social media experts. While BJP leader Ram Madhav and Minister of State Jitendra Singh have been given free reign to shoot their mouth off, the PM only said that “those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished”, while Home Minister Rajnath Singh has asked for Pakistan to be diplomatically isolated. This is a far cry from the strongman rhetoric that Modi deployed while in the Opposition, but then it’s easy to play the hard man when you’re not the one with the finger on the big red button. As one former diplomat told Firstpost, “It’s always a menu of bad options and once you come to power, you realise that even out of these bad options, none are practical and haven’t been tried before.”

A full-scale military operation is unfeasible for many reasons, not just the threat of nuclear death raining down upon us all. Special operations-led surgical strikes would be a more viable option, but despite a number of recommendations from security experts, we’ve made little headway into building that capability. Praveen Swami points out in The Indian Express that perhaps doing nothing isn’t the worst option of all, bitter pill though that might be to swallow. As tragic as the Uri attack is, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be provoked into actions that cost us both economically and in the lives of our soldiers and citizens. (As an aside, as much as I dislike the current regime, critics who are using Modi’s uncharacteristically restrained response to attack him should take a step back and think about what they’re doing. Warmongering for political points does not help your cause.)

But while it seems like the government is going to be much less knee-jerk and aggressive in its response than the public expected, this sort of hyper-nationalistic, violence-drunk rhetoric is still very dangerous. It injects more hatred and anger into a public discourse that is already teetering on the edge of perpetual fisticuffs, and cynical opinion makers are already redirecting that hate toward any critics of the government – be they independent journalists, Muslims, leftists, Kashmiris, beefeaters, or pacifists. This atmosphere of McCarthyist witch-hunting is causing rifts within our society that will take years to heal. It also leads to a hardening public stance on Kashmir, where state violence has claimed 87 lives, and will lead to more pressure for military action to solve a problem that is essentially political.

Ironically, one senior home ministry official told The Hindu that the Kashmir uprising and the ensuing curfew may have contributed to the army being caught unawares, as the curfew disrupted human intelligence network that we depend upon. By going on the warpath, and the cynical side of me suspects that this is part of why Times Now is banging so hard on the war drums, analysts have also sidestepped the awkward questions that need to be asked of the Indian state security apparatus. How did an army brigade HQ get caught with their pants down? Why has Pakistan been able to send in militants and orchestrate attacks at will? If this government is serious about tackling terror, why has it slashed the central fund for modernising police forces by 800 crore, hobbling state efforts at upgrading their counter-insurgency capabilities? Why did Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar take no steps to fix the deficiencies in our security installations pointed out by the Lt Gen Philip Campose committee report in mid-May?

But these are difficult questions to ask, particularly for TV news channels and online talking heads infatuated with the myth of a 56-inch chest. It’s far easier to boost TRPs by feeding the bloodlust than it is to offer serious analysis.

The Modi government seems to have realised that it’s far easier to talk of war than it is to put those words into action and it’s time the media-led fidayeen brigade that imagines themselves sitting heroically on the big red button like an army of bloodthirsty, power-crazed Mogambos realises that too.

And Peace Day might be a good day as any to start.