We are told military operations are on at the India-Pakistan border and this news perturbs me for more than one reasons, as multiple dimensions of my identity respond to it, as a citizen, as a Muslim, as a Muslim woman, as part of the academic fraternity and as a teacher.
When news of the Kargil War broke out, I was studying in Class 10 at the CRPF Public School among a large number of CRPF wards, parents of some of whom in the force, were also posted at J&K. The news was, however, received with sanity and sobriety, unlike the mad cheer and jubilation with which the news of the war has reached us today through the chest-thumping news anchors occupying the war-crazy newsrooms. The general feeling when the war started was that of respect for those who were fighting at the border and contempt for politicians who put them in that situation for political gain. When the war ended, the general sense was that of loss despite the pride of victory.
Early socialisation, as experienced in school, we are told, has a very important role to play in shaping how we behave with ‘others’ in society as grown-ups and the CRPF school had a very heterogeneous microcosm, under the guidance of the very able then-Principal, Shri Suraj Prakash, who saw through the period in a very mature and responsible way.
War was not glorified, the enemy was not demonised and children from the Muslim community were not made to feel insecure, through a careful monitoring of the content of extra-curricular activities including those in the morning assembly. I distinctly remember a writing competition that was held in the school shortly after the war and the fact that both the entries, mine a poem and another, a friend’s story, which made it to the first position were about injured soldiers nearing their deaths. When I recollect my childhood days, I wonder if life could have been different in other times, and in a different political context, but I guess those were the good times when ‘other’ narratives were still not a non-option and dissent and debate was not a ‘thought crime’.
I also remember writing a poem on the Kargil war, arguing for ‘shanti’ and ‘aman’ (peace and harmony) between the two nations, though the general tone and texture of the piece was overtly ‘nationalistic’. The poem was eventually also sent to the then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and was received by him with much encouragement and appreciation.
However, the incident, though lauded at school, wasn’t projected as a proof of my patriotism or used to define who I was. It was a choice I made as a patriotic teen brought up in a largely majoritarian milieu, and while doing anything else might have been improbable given my then state-of-mind, CRPF School also instilled in me the courage, clarity and early instinct to be able to view that choice with analytical critique later.
This is what institutions and teachers need to do. They will continue to remain a product and manifestation of the wider socio-political context and will always be bound by the state-determined curriculum in some degree. But they should also be able to instil in their students a sense of rational critique, tolerance and acceptance of the ‘other’ and the courage and clarity to see beyond jingoism and rhetoric, especially in sensitive times like those of war and unrest.
As opposed to the right-wing stereotype of ‘good Muslim – bad Muslim’, or the rhetoric of ‘muslim = medieval = Pakistan = ‘the enemy’, we were not fed the demonisation of the ‘other’ or an unconditional glorification of the country’s ancient past. Neither was ‘territorial integrity’ ever deemed superior as a notion to the vast cultural diversity, richness and depth of plurality of the land. SPIC MACAY and SAHMAT were important parts of our learning experience. Humanity and social responsibility was inculcated with great care and effort and it is probably because of this that most of my friends from the fraternity, people who have family and friends serving in the forces, aren’t cheering for war unlike many in the news media. Looking at most of their social media posts, the consensus among those who actually have a very personal stake in the war seems to be that, ideally, there should be no war.
My take, too, is that there should be no wars. Wars cannot substitute for talks and they solve nothing, they develop no consensus and help humanity get nowhere and it’s terribly sad that the media in both India and Pakistan have created an atmosphere of mutual hate and distrust even before any military action was carried out. What’s even more terrible is that as a society, we have been, by far, lauding and cheering and asking for war, for bloodshed, and for this immense cost to be imposed upon two nations inhabited by some of the poorest and most hungry people in the world. If we can’t afford to feed them, we certainly can’t afford a war.
Let’s please bring an end to this madness for the most important challenge for India as a nation and the sub-continent as a whole today, is not just to save itself from the vested interests of jingoists, but also the interests of our poor masses reeling in abject poverty and the safeguarding of traditions of dissent and debate, as can be found in the writings of Charvaka-Lokāyata and Bṛhaspatya; the early Indian materialists. The plurality and rich cultural diversity of the ‘land and people’ called India, is also under threat every time we cast a stone at the ‘enemy’ by furthering a general societal culture of ‘othering’, as neighbours are made into adversaries and opponents made into ‘enemies’.