ANYTHING THAT MOVES
To make sense of Uri, India must understand courage, cowardice – and
its own borders
The smokescreen of outrage at the attack masks incompetence and
deflects discussion of the roots of conflict.
2 hours ago
On reading about the assault on the Army base in Uri, I thought of
Ashwatthamma sneaking into the enemy camp under cover of darkness,
setting tents alight, burning to death a generation of Pandava
princes. An unforgivable act, but one Ashwatthamma could rationalise
by pointing to Pandava deviousness in eliminating Dronacharya, Karna
and Duryodhana. In Kashmir, as in Kurukshetra, there have been enough
morally questionable actions on all sides to inspire yet more
reprehensible deeds, in a vicious cycle that shows no signs of
abating, and could end in a conflagration worthy of the epics –
I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. I am brighter than a thousand suns.
Indians are confident, though, that the crisis triggered by Uri will
not lead to Delhi, Lahore, Bombay, and Karachi being incinerated in a
nuclear war. We aren’t worried because we’ve seen it all before.
In December 2001, militants attacked India’s Parliament building,
penetrating its perimeter and killing eight guards and a gardener, but
falling short of their ultimate target. In response, The Bharatiya
Janata Party-led government of the time mobilised troops in
unprecedented numbers on the western border, leading Pakistan to
counter with a build-up of its own.
In May of the following year, militants massacred 31 people including
civilians, soldiers and their family members in Kaluchak in Jammu,
exacerbating the crisis. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee travelled
to Kashmir and addressed the troops, asking the nation and its
soldiers to prepare for a decisive battle (aar paar ki ladai) between
the newly nuclearised neighbours.
Through the long summer, half a million soldiers waited for the combat
signal, their leaves cancelled, huddled in tents in the scorching
Rajasthan desert and regions of Punjab and Gujarat that were only
slightly more hospitable. In the middle of October, 10 months into the
mobilisation, the bewildered fighters were told to stand down,
withdraw, redeploy. Vajpayee’s decisive battle had been cancelled, or
at least indefinitely postponed, without a shot being fired, and
without any discernible diplomatic advantage having been secured. It
had been called Operation Parakram, or Operation Valour, but a better
term would have been Operation Sabre Rattle or Operation Brinkmanship.
And here we are again, after Uri, screaming for revenge like the
betrayed King Lear,
“I will do such things, – What they are, yet I know not: but they
shall be the terrors of the earth.”
Unlike Lear, we have the capacity to unleash true terrors of the earth
but mercifully those are precisely the components of our arsenal we
rule out using. Instead, we think up fanciful manoeuvres to damage
Pakistan seriously without that nation using its own atomic weapons.
Despite strident calls for limited strikes, I doubt if we will risk
escalating to a full-scale war. The likelier scenario is that we will
fire artillery rounds from our side that will kill a few soldiers and
poor civilians, and Pakistan will retaliate with its own artillery
fire, which will also kill a few soldiers and poor civilians. Soon
enough, Uri and Pathankot will fade from our memory the way Kaluchak
What about accountability?
One hopes, at the very least, that the emptiness of Modi’s rhetoric
and that of his men has been exposed. Remember Amit Shah claiming
insurgents would not dare to cross the border if Narendra Modi became
Prime Minister? That was in 2014. Remember Home Minister Rajnath Singh
assuring us in March last year that the government would secure the
border so thoroughly that even a mouse wouldn’t get through? Remember
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar promising retaliation after
Pathankot and insisting that there would be no further terror attacks
of that kind?
At what point do we move from condemnation of heinous acts to
questioning the competence of the administration and, yes, military
authorities? To have militants penetrate two military installations
within the course of a few months and go on killing sprees within
them, not to mention the ambush last year in Manipur which took the
lives of 20 soldiers, is a sign of gross incompetence in our security
apparatus, but no senior officer appears to have been disciplined
after Pathankot, and my guess is that nobody will be court martialled
after Uri either.
Cowardice and courage
In many nations, incidents like these would be cause for ministers to
resign. In India, outrage becomes a smokescreen to mask incompetence.
After the Uri disaster, many broadcasters followed the Prime Minister
in calling the attackers cowards. The words coward and cowardly have
been used with singular vehemence following assaults on military
installations, possibly because those are the instances where the
assailants are most obviously not cowards. Cowards are people who lack
courage, which is the ability to act without giving in to one’s fears.
By definition, kamikaze assaults are brave actions. As Susan Sontag
controversially made clear in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the
“… if the word “cowardly” is to be used, it might be more aptly
applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high
in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill
others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever
may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not
I can imagine extending the definition of coward to terrorists who
target unarmed civilians (indeed, while the meaning of terrorism is
contested, I support definitions of the term such as the one produced
by the United Nations in 2004 which restricts it to attacks on
non-combatants), because in such cases there exists an asymmetry of
power in the terrorist’s favour.
On the other hand, intruding into a heavily guarded military
installation at a time when forces are on high alert, facing nearly
certain death in the process, takes courage. History offers thousands
of examples of courageous zealots, brave fascists, and fearless
genocidal maniacs. Unfortunately, modern nations retain an atavistic
misconstruing of courage as an ethical virtue. Which is why, the more
audacious a militant attack, the greater the insistence by politicians
and compliant sections of the media on its essential gutlessness. It’s
a bit like advertising: oil companies tout their green credentials,
builders of ugly concrete high rises speak of living in the midst of
nature, and sugary drinks employ athletic models and sponsor sports
Setting aside the issue of cowardice forces us to consider the
motivations of these cross-border terrorists. Some understanding can
be gleaned from examining the term itself. The claim is made that the
Uri terrorists came from across the border, but if you or I were to
create a map placing the international border at the point where the
militants crossed into territory controlled by India, we could be
jailed for misrepresentation. You might think it a pedantic detail,
but it is essential to an understanding of the assault. One way of
explaining the incident is to describe it as a disagreement about the
location of the border between India and Pakistan. Addressing that
issue sincerely could potentially remove the motivation for such
attacks. India’s refusal to do so condemns us to suffer more Uris and
Pathankots, unless we take the hawks in the military seriously, and
suffer something far worse as a consequence.
Peace Is Doable
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