What Indians should know about war before demanding a military crackdown in Kashmir, Chhattisgarh | Opinion
A country must defend its borders and take security seriously but leaders should be judged not by their readiness to deploy force on their citizens but for their ability to create conditions where soldiers and civilians do not live with deep psychological burdens.
Sections of India’s middle and upper classes seem increasingly drawn to the idea of using state violence to sort out political questions. This is expressed in many ways. Chander Prakash Ganga, J&K’s industries and commerce minister from the BJP, says that stone pelting youth in the Valley “are traitors” and that the “bullet is the only remedy for them”. Social media is rife with calls for ruthless action after 25 CRPF personnel were killed in Chhattisgarh on April 24.
State violence as a solution appeals to sections that have an uncomplicated, black and white view of the world. They do not look at social conflict in the context of history or as consequences of acts of State but view problems essentially as the fault of other countries or groups. They tend to believe that unflinching use of armed force is the hallmark of political leadership. The irony, of course, is that these sections professes a love for militarised methods without perhaps being acquainted with the experience of armed conflict and war. In other words, this cohort is happy to volunteer other people for violent quick fixes without understanding how conflict brutalises both the civilian and the soldier.
There are reasons for this. For years, people have been exposed to the view that unrest in Kashmir, tribal India and the Northeast are purely the fault of Pakistan, human rights activists and insurgent groups respectively – without much reference to the possibility that flawed state policies over decades has bred alienation. Such charged nationalist narratives often lead to calls for harsher methods without considering how such measures affect the ordinary civilian and soldier. The fact that people relate to the military purely through the lens of heroism also obscures its understanding of the lives of security forces. For instance, television channels show soldiers braving the chill of Siachen. Reporters interview families of security forces killed in encounters in Kashmir. These glimpses are compelling but only tell a part of the story. They don’t capture what soldiers experience when fighting war on the border or countering insurgencies within.
Think of it: Thousands of soldiers and paramilitary personnel have been fighting insurgency in Kashmir for over 28 years and it is striking that we do not have a culture of recording their experience in ways that inform public debate on security policy. One estimate suggests that over 44,200 people have died in Kashmir since 1988, including 6,286 personnel from security forces. India is believed to have maintained about half a million security forces in Kashmir for years – but why are there hardly any accounts of soldiers about the insurgency, either through interviews, articles or books? Why is it that defence publications and websites major on combat strategy and have very little on personal experiences of warfare? What do Indian army soldiers and CRPF personnel, many of whom come from marginal backgrounds themselves, really think about Kashmiris and Delhi’s policies? Is there any ethnographic research that addresses these issues? What do families of soldiers think about the ultimate price they have paid when the conflict seems unending? What do soldiers think about confronting civilian protestors with live ammunition?
We don’t have such research because secrecy rules prevent scholarly access and, consequently, people do not get to ask questions that complicate our understanding of conflict. We don’t have war memoirs of the kind Western soldiers and policymakers produce on Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan for instance, which can provide political support from within the establishment for positions that align with anti-war, human rights critiques as in the West. There is clearly a narrative vacuum and the bureaucratic silencing of soldiers has real policy implications because hawkish elites have moved into spaces where contrarian voices might have been – and framed the debate entirely on realist lines where the fates of soldiers and civilians are discussed in bloodless, strategic terms. This ends up creating a public consciousness that is favourably predisposed to militarised solutions – and when a middle class is hitching its fortunes to a frenzied, majoritarian nationalism, as is happening now, then that militarism has a particularly nasty edge that adversely affects Kashmiris and other dissenting groups.
Sensible voices from the military warn against such approaches, they prefer to speak about winning hearts and minds, realising that societies cannot be pacified by force alone, they are also likely to understand how violent fantasies of the comfortable class can be deeply damaging to the soldier, who has to actually carry out the shooting and killing.
To get a glimpse of the psychological toll of war, one may thus have to look elsewhere. One particular work that hardliners among Indian intelligentsia may consider reading before volunteering others is Philip Caputo’s classic, A Rumor of War – a memoir of his time as a US Marine in Vietnam in the mid-1960s.
Every war is of course distinctive, Vietnam was a particularly difficult battleground with its incessant rains, muddy terrain, leeches and mosquitoes, disease and an unseen enemy who fought mostly at night in dense forests. But Caputo’s account of the physical and emotional pressures of guerrilla warfare, the inability to distinguish the combatants from civilians, the executions, the collective punishments to civilians in the heat of battle resonate strongly with the experience of counter-insurgency elsewhere, including in Kashmir, the Northeast and central India.
Caputo writes movingly about the highs and lows of fighting wars. He confesses to enjoying the compelling attractiveness of combat. “Under fire, a man’s powers of life heightened in proportion to the proximity of death, so he felt an elation as extreme as his dread. His sense quickened, he attained an acuity of consciousness at once pleasurable and excruciating.” There is a thrill of seeing a platoon perform perfectly under heavy fire under one’s command. There are comforting dimensions of comradeship forged by the shared experience of drill, battle, boredom and fear. He writes of the “intimacy of life in infantry battalions, where the communion between men is as profound as any between lovers…It is, unlike marriage, a bond that cannot be broken by a word, by boredom or divorce, or by anything other than death.” Soldiers would die trying to save corpses of friends. “Such devotion, simple and selfless, the sentiment of belonging to each other, was the one decent thing we found in a conflict otherwise notable for its monstrosities.”
But there was the ordeal of fighting a “formless war against a formless enemy”, the tedium of waiting for long periods without “action”, the daily night patrols, digging for trenches and bunkers, constant shifts in positions, the dodging of sniper fire, the loss of colleagues in twos and threes – all of this demanded of them a hair trigger alertness; “the feeling that the enemy was everywhere… created emotional pressures which built to such a point that a trivial provocation could make these men explode…”
When soldiers are dropped in unfamiliar terrain, they experience a fear and a blind rage that “begins to focus on the men who are the source of the danger”, it creates a powerful urge to “rid himself of fear by eliminating the source of it. This inner, emotional war produces a tension…it is too painful to endure for long. All a soldier can think about is the moment where he can escape …and release this tension. All other considerations, the rights and wrongs of what he is doing, the chances for victory or defeat in the battle, the battle’s purpose or lack of it, become so absurd as to be less than irrelevant.”
It is under such conditions when soldiers are scared for their lives or see their friends die that they are prone to resort to ghastly violence. Not all of it linked to battle conditions; there are also clear directives in war to kill as many of the enemy as possible – as that is effectively the only measure of success in guerrilla warfare. The fact that such warfare is waged among civilians sets the stage for more moral trauma for soldiers. Caputo writes of marines stunned that they have killed combatants as young as themselves, of not being able to understand how they can shoot someone in the head or torch an entire village. There is also inevitable hazard of watching grievous injuries to friends, limbs hanging on by shards of flesh, windpipes being flooded by blood, exit wounds at the back large enough to fit fists and the “look of separation” in the eyes of those “alone in the world of the badly wounded”. Caputo also has an unforgettable description of handling dead bodies that have been mutilated in battle.
All this takes its toll on soldiers. Caputo himself developed “a tendency to fall into black, gloomy moods and then to explode out of them in fits of bitterness and rage”. The point to underscore here is that sending security forces out to take lives is an act of profound moral responsibility which cannot be taken lightly. Thousands of Kashmiri civilians have died over the years; the shooting and blinding of citizens in the Valley is getting increasingly normalised. In Manipur, citizens are, on the Supreme Court’s orders, trying to compile evidence for extra-judicial killings of 1,528 people by security forces. Politicians cannot continue to pursue policies that brutalise civilians and dehumanise soldiers. Of course, a country must defend its borders and take security seriously but leaders should be judged not by their readiness to deploy (ultimately ineffective) force on their citizens but for their ability to create conditions where soldiers and civilians do not live with deep psychological burdens. This is the reason why sensible generals urge governments to find political solutions, saying their job is only to create military conditions for them. Implicit in this is a recognition that stalemates and internal wars of attrition have scarring effects on security forces (and civilians). Politicians must know that they are in the business of enabling human flourishing. Pandering to violent sentiments in the name of nationalism lets soldiers and civilians down.
It is time now for Indians to listen to the suffering and stories of soldiers and place it alongside the suffering and stories of countless civilians who find themselves in conflict zones. We need a more compelling picture of the totality of violence rather than simple media spin and armchair hate and anger.
Views expressed are personal. The author tweets @SushilAaron