Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1322, (1 - 7 December 2016)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1322, (1 - 7 December 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Waiting for a nuclear winter

Focussed on terrorism and who will occupy the White House next, the world is not paying attention to what could be the most dangerous global confrontation to date, writes Aijaz Zaka Syed

Al-Ahram Weekly

I have always had a thing for Pakistani television dramas. I love them for their engrossing storytelling, superb performances and their Urdu language. And it seems it is not just me; the whole of India instantly fell in love with them when Zindagi, a television network dedicated to the fantasy fair from across the border, started airing them some three years ago.

Soaps like Hamsafar and Zindagi Gulzar Hai became a national obsession with viewers across India, with everyone compulsively following leading stars Fawad Khan, Mahira Khan and Sanam Saeed. They even landed themselves some big Bollywood projects.

What makes this a true phenomenon is the fact that India and Pakistan have been at loggerheads for the better part of 70 years when they parted ways. They have fought three wars over the Himalayan paradise of Jammu and Kashmir, not to mention frequent fireworks along the long border.

To be fair to Prime Minister Modi, contrary to all apprehensions about his hawkish image, he started his engagement with Pakistan on a positive note. His invitation to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other SAARC leaders to attend his inauguration was arguably a diplomatic masterstroke.

However, it was not long before he started hardening his posture on the neighbour, in sync with the long cherished policy of the BJP. Their “love” of all things Muslim has been the very purpose of their existence — their raison d’étre.

After a brief honeymoon period, punctuated by fantastic photo ops in Delhi, Ufa and Lahore, things between India and Pakistan have unravelled quickly and hit the rock bottom.

Following the attacks on Indian military bases in Pathankot, Punjab and Uri in Kashmir, which have been blamed on Pakistan-based militant groups, Modi launched an all-out, full-frontal attack on Pakistan.

One obvious victim of the rising tensions between the South Asian twins has been cultural exchange or people-to-people relations. Zindagi scrapped all Pakistani soaps and now runs only home-made soaps just like any other network. Announcing the decision in the “national interest”, Subhash Chandra Goel of Zee group, which owns Zindagi, asked all Pakistani artists to leave the country.

On a larger scale, Bollywood has decided to ban all Pakistani artists including immensely popular stars like Fawad and Mahira Khan. Hindutva groups have threatened to burn down cinemas that showed films featuring Pakistani artists.

Karan Johar’s much awaited blockbuster Aye Dil Hai Mushkil starring superstar Ranbir Kapoor and, yes, Fawad Khan ran into rough weather with Hindutva groups issuing threats against the film and filmmaker. Uncertainty prevailed over the film’s release for weeks until the BJP’s Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis “mediated” between the filmmaker and groups like MNS and Shiv Sena.

As a “compromise” Johar was persuaded to donate Rs 50 million to the Indian Army relief fund, a proposition that the army did not like, calling it a “politicisation” of the army. And yes, Johar suitably toned down and changed the narrative of his film, which was supposed to have been an India-Pakistan love story.

The director decided to replace Lahore with Lucknow at the last minute. The elaborate Punjabi wedding celebrations amid the regulation song and dance looked absurd in a Lucknow setting, the city known for its high culture, fine cuisine and literature, but no one seemed to be complaining!

Besides, considering the high political stakes involved in the fast deteriorating equation of India and Pakistan, it was a minor issue.

India has blamed Pakistan-based militant groups for the audacious attack on the Uri military base in Kashmir in September, which killed 19 Indian soldiers. Vowing to avenge the killings, the BJP government came out all guns blazing, unleashing a blistering offensive against Pakistan on several fronts.

Within days of the Uri attack, India claimed to have carried out “surgical strikes” inside the Pakistani side of Kashmir, inflicting “significant losses” on the enemy. In a controversial speech, Modi drew parallels with Israeli strikes against Palestinian militants.  

The prime minister has repeatedly vowed to “isolate” Pakistan internationally, projecting it as the “source” of all evil and “mothership of terror”.

The Parivar and Indian media loudly cheered the “strikes” calling them a strategic masterstroke, defying the notion of nuclear deterrence.

The fact that Pakistan has vehemently contested the claim, insisting that what transpired was little more than routine exchange of fire across the Line of Control (LoC), the de-facto border, seems to make little difference.

It did seem to target two birds with one stone — diverting the media spotlight from the popular unrest in Kashmir and inflating the image of Modi and his party, helping it land the prize catch of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and crucial state, where elections are due in less than three months. The last time the BJP ruled the battleground, Hindi-heartland state was way back in 2002.

But if New Delhi thought the “surgical strikes” would put an end to all troubles along the border and militant attacks, it seems to have failed in its objective.

Over the past few weeks there has been a spurt in clashes and exchange of fire along the border. Also, there have been more Uri-like attacks by Kashmiri militants.

Since the much trumpeted strikes, at least 18 Indian soldiers have been killed in Pakistani firing. Of course, there have been casualties on the Pakistani side as well, not to mention the incalculable price the civilian population along the border on both sides has paid.

What is most disturbing about this whole business is the increasing danger of this conflict and frequent fireworks along the LoC eventually leading to a nuclear catastrophe. Governments, military establishments and political elites on both sides have an incredibly cavalier attitude towards a nuclear conflict and the Frankenstein that was unleashed in May 1998.

Pundits and television warriors openly talk of a nuclear showdown and the so-called first and second nuclear strikes, as if they were discussing Diwali fireworks and as if anyone could really win a nuclear war.

Where is it all going to end?

What would it take for India and Pakistan to sit across the table and resolve all their issues like responsible adults? Instead of addressing the concerns and angst of the Kashmiris and bringing down tensions along the border, India and Pakistan have been spending billions of dollars in efforts to destroy each other. There is little concern for the predicament of Kashmiris who have been living like prisoners in their own land.

US President Bill Clinton once called South Asia “the most dangerous place on earth.” Today, it looks even more dangerous and volatile, if possible. Away from the attention of the global media and the world community, the South Asian twins are fast hurtling towards the precipice.

With India, Pakistan and China — which all share common borders and have a long history of conflicts over territory and have gone to devastating wars — all boasting hundreds of nuclear weapons, the region has evolved into a dangerous theatre of war. Amid rising tempers all around and unscrupulous politicians forever looking for shortest route to political glory, a nuclear exchange — by accident or by design — not only looks like a possibility, it may only be a matter of time.


The writer is a Gulf-based author and columnist.

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