The Indian challenge is to march on for peace amid the rising drumbeat of war

The militant strike on an Army brigade headquarters in Kashmir’s Uri town on Sunday, in which 18 soldiers died allegedly at the hands of four Pakistani suicide attackers, has raised a predictable set of responses.

At one level is a scenario of escalation, where India gives a fitting response to its neighbour. Less publicised is the scenario of restraint, where a strategy of waiting and tactics of control, display wisdom that has been slow to unfold. Escalation has become the overt drama of the day.

Escalation is an art form – a ballet of exaggeration and hyperbole that cumulatively escalates the prospects of war. The controversy around Uri ritualises what the anthropologist Gregory Bateson called ‘schismogenesis’ – a shadow play of miscommunication where each side “misreads” the other. Each looks more war-like than the other. Each pushes the other to the brink. It is like a serenade of lemmings with war and death as the inevitable ending.

Escalation is a drama played out as a predictable outcome. There is a rhetoric to it that is exciting and amazing and euphoric. Enacting the possibilities of war provides a high, like a sudden intake of adrenalin. The situation may remain the same but the actors, till then passive, suddenly feel drawn. War as a possibility is always more dramatic than battle itself. It is a simulation of war that turns people on.

Bateson pointed out that there is a symmetry to such battles. Each side plays at keeping up with the Joneses, contending I am more war-like than you. It is ritual behaviour seen in both cock fights and a prelude to war. There is a shadow play of patriotism that warms the audiences on both sides. War becomes a voyeuristic act everyone engages in. The logic of the escalation, the ritual acts of miscommunication lead to a double bind. Each escalates through miscommunication. In a cybernetic sense, there is no positive feedback and the rituals of miscommunication lead to war.

‘For one tooth, the complete jaw’

Outrage replaces the strategy of restraint. Declaring that “the days of so-called strategic restraint are over”, Ram Madhav, senior leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, demanded, “For one tooth, the complete jaw.”

In the ordinary language of retaliation, it is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But for Madhav, tooth to jaw is the scale of response. Posting it on Facebook is easy. It signals that peace is not an option, and an uneasy peace is even less an option if India appears weak and vacillating.

Madhav, like all ideologues of battle, is more war-like than the warriors. He claims terrorism is the instrument of the weak and cowardly, and argues that restraint against terrorism betrays inefficiency and incompetence. It is almost as if security is a mask for masculinity. A tough response is a minimum that the Indian psyche demands. When an attack like this happens, there is an urge for immediate gratification and the rhetoric of attack and counterattack leads to a point of no return called war. A war of tweets creates greater speed as the community of dialogue is abandoned. Tweets become the new form of simulated aggression, ritual calls to battle that actually seek to substitute a symbolic war as reality. The tragedy is that we read them literally. Tweeting creates a war mentality with little reflection.

The sadness of many of these tweets is the way they make the unthinkable prosaic, every day. They equate nuclear war to scratching your back. The India-Pakistan war is reduced to another jihadi exercise, a Hindu-Muslim conflict. The sadness is that these messages exude a politics of anxiety and machismo when we require a politics of restraint.

The Shiv Sena is one such example. Tired of battling on the streets, the political party wants to battle Pakistan. It implies that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not Sainik enough to battle Pakistan. For the Sena, the operation by the United States to neutralise al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden is the paradigmatic response to terror. The idea of India as a soft state haunts the elite and Modi in particular. Our sense of machismo demands a fitting answer. We sound like drunken cocks in battle.

Needed, a politics of restraint

As for Pakistan, it relishes the situation, in fact any situation where international attention focuses on Kashmir. And it responds with equal irresponsibility. Its Defence Minister Khawaja M Asif recently claimed Pakistan would not hesitate to employ tactical nuclear weapons if its security was threatened.

At one level, both sides are relieved with the distractions that a prospect of war provides. Pakistan feels unemployed internationally if Kashmir as an issue is not flagged regularly. India, too, is relieved to quarrel with Pakistan after its inept handling of the recent protests and violence in Kashmir. Both sides seem anxious to move away from pellets and move to war, even a nuclear one.

The newspapers add to the litany. Every act of condemnation from the United States or France is listed out like an offering of bouquets.

Yet, deep down, India knows that it needs restraint and has to build a mystique of restraint around the wisdom of peace. The challenge before India is how does one rebuild the language of restraint, recraft the idea of peace without getting caught in an empty machismo of aggression. Peace needs a constituency that is more proactive about the future. It is not the drums of war that India needs but conversation. Indian democracy and diplomacy must be at their creative best in the months to come.

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