As the bilateral relations between India and Pakistan have nosedived to their lowest since Independence, the hardliners across both sides of the border have once again brought the fear of nuclear war at the doorstep of the world in general, and South Asia in particular.
The flashpoint for the escalation was provided by Pulwama attack, in 2019, which killed forty CRPF personnel. According to India, this was orchestrated by terrorists nurtured and upbrought in Pakistani soil. The Indian government saw this as part of Pakistan’s policy of “bleeding India to death by thousand cuts” as Shashi Tharoor called it in his book “Pax Indica”. Interestingly, this came at a time when India was heading towards general elections. So, a firm and uncompromising response was expected from the Indian government rather than absorbing it as one more painful pinch by our thorny neighbour.
India retaliated with a first of its kind airstrike targeting the terrorist camps well inside the Pakistani territory. As per the official announcement by GOI, this killed around 300–400 terrorists, which was vehemently denied by the Pakistani side. Following this, Indian and Pakistani air forces faced each other tête-à-tête which was their first direct confrontation since Kargil. This also rang the alarm bells in the international community of the potential war between the two nuclear-armed traditional rivals.
Since then, the rather verbose ongoing debate in the media and among leaders is holding the world’s peace hostage. The recent flare-up was provided by India’s decision to alter Jammu and Kashmir’s special status by revoking Article 370. Pakistan couldn’t digest the move which India considers as purely an internal matter, ruling out any scope for any kind of external interference. Interestingly, the Pakistani concerns only highlight its diabolical habit of speaking from both sides of the mouth. Pakistan earlier cleared its intent of declaring the Pakistani occupied territory of Gilgit-Baltistan as its fifth province which goes against the Shimla agreement.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan—who initially tried to present himself as the champion of peace by offering talks to India—recently threatened of a nuclear war though in a veiled reference. Apart from him, the other high-level functionaries, including one of their minister even fixed the time frame within which the war would take place.
India and Pakistan have fought four bitter wars (1947, 1965, 1971 and 1999) with the same outcome all the time. But in the 21st century, a conventional and full-fledged war between the two countries is unlikely, especially if the rivals are nuclear-powered. But ultra-nationalism and hardening of public opinions on both sides constantly call for the same. And any government not living up to their expectations is considered as “impotent” and weak.
Before looking into where the war would lead us, I must highlight the military capabilities of Indian and Pakistani state to clear the fog for a better picture.
Both countries have spent lavishly to enhance their defense capabilities. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), both India and Pakistan possess around 140–150 nuclear arsenals. In terms of armies, India is far better equipped to fight a conventional war. But this has come at a great cost. The imaginary “Indian threat” in Pakistan has made its military a dominant force—where it not only defends but also rules the country.
India is also tagged with the status of the world’s second-largest arms importer. In both cases, the cost burdens the citizens who deserve better. But there is a great dissimilarity between India and Pakistan. The former being the largest democracy, fastest-growing economy and a considerable force in the global arena, and the latter mired in radicalism, a faltering economy, orthodoxy and, of course, an authoritarian “militablishment”.
It is always easy to advocate war than to fight it. It feeds the aroused sentiments, the domestic political considerations and muscular foreign policy requirements. But its proponents think little about the consequences. A nuclear war would engulf the whole of Pakistan and half of India. The destruction would be unparalleled in the history of the whole world. And the generations for the next two hundred years to come would curse us for their fate.
While talking to one of my friends—at the time when Indian and Pakistani air forces were in direct confrontation—she told me that she didn’t want war and was praying day and night for the same. I was perplexed when she explained the reason to me. Her father serves in the Indian army and war would have thrown him in the battlefield. Though it’s a blessing to have the opportunity to live and die for one’s nation, the situation was completely avoidable. She further remarked, “the civilians of both countries want peace, but the warring and hawkish sentiments are forced upon us from the above. The least affected (or to say the most benefitted) from wars are those who trigger it.” Of course, she was referring to military generals in Pakistan and politicians in India.
At the time of heightened tensions, any advocacy of peace and restraint is seen with suspicion. And those calling for it are branded anti-nationalists and disloyal elements. But such section of civil society must not be deterred and should continue to lobby for peace in every nook and corner of the world.
Simultaneously, the regimes on both sides should also make the idea of war as dead as a doornail. It would benefit none and the history will never pardon them for bleeding it with millions’ deaths.
One of my dreams while being alive is to see South Asia as one of the most prosperous region from being the most disturbed one and the key for it lies with our “brother enemy”.