by Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury
The entire country is celebrating the release of Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman who was taken into custody by Pakistan’s ground forces after his fighter jet (MiG 21) was shot during a dogfight to repel a Pakistani attack on February 27 amid heightened tensions between India and Pakistan.
What next? And, as we explore the answer we should remember that the emotions on both sides are high, India is facing a general election in less than two months, Pak Imran Khan does not have full command over the Pak army (in fact, many believe it is the other way round), Pak-India tensions often turn into Hindu-Muslim conflicts on ground in pockets of India, and both the nations are economically challenged for a long-drawn conflict, even if low-key, Pakistan being at a precarious stage.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan announced in a joint session of Pakistan National Assembly on February 28, “As a peace gesture, we are releasing the Indian pilot on Friday (March 1).” While most of Indian media and the ruling party dub this as being forced to comply to Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War (though no formal war or armed conflict has yet been declared), the Pak media sees it as a goodwill gesture and Imran has won some brownie points within his nation and in global media, going by the editorial comments in BBC, Gulf News, New York Times, etc. Forced or not, the Pak gesture opens a window of opportunity to pursue non-military means to settle the long-standing issues.
Since cross-border skirmishes are continuing at the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, the first and foremost need is to ensure a complete cease-fire at LOC, if need be with international supervision. Without ceasefire, no talks can progress.
Both countries have made their points. India retaliated to the Pulwama massacre very strongly. Pakistan wanted to prove that any incursion in its airspace will not go without a reply. Both have made their points, and there is no point in taking it further militarily. Pak PM says that Indian PM has not been accepting his offer to talk even on phone, which if true, is not a healthy sign.
All major nations (US, UK, France, Russia, and even China) have criticised terror camps in Pak soil and simultaneously called for de-escalation of the situation, as nothing can be achieved with war and it’s high time for both the nations to show maturity and come to the negotiation table to resolve issues. Diplomacy must step in now. Two nuclear nations must not go for a war because it will serve no purpose.
Diplomacy must continue until Pakistan shows evidence of winding down terror factories, terror actions. And this can be done with international involvement to ensure Pak shows results, and even when India remains battle-ready on our side of the LOC. India has to continue economic, diplomatic, psychological pressure on Pakistan. India must also realise that it must do it as a package, and not just Pakistan-centric action. Package may need no business transaction, taking JeM terror work evidences within India to the UN, isolating Pakistan in every global forum, keeping up the anti-terror measures within Kashmir, enlarging the scope of anti-terror perspective of India to denounce JeM and others’ terror tactics within Pakistan as well, and ensuring the life, liberty and development of the civilian population of Kashmir who are not attached to terror infra-structure, and there is a large number of them too.
India has everything of war preparedness that is required. But war is definitely no solution. It will kill more people. It will have destruction. Economy will go down. As peace brings prosperity, we should avoid armed confrontation as much as we can. Since the Pak civilian government does not have full control over army, there can always be a random use of high-end ammunition, nuclear or otherwise, in a small town of India and that will unleash forces which the politicians cannot thereafter control (surely not in the Pak side). Hence, worsening of situation is the last thing that India should do at this point of time, though war-mongering may help the powerful leader image of PM Modi in times of election.
Further, the media must maintain restraint, and let the diplomatic channels take charge. It is the media that is constantly trying to vitiate the atmosphere with its war mongering and provoking the establishments on both sides of the border. Casualty figures on both sides being reported arbitrarily, lampooning the Pak PM stand to return the pilot within a day, provoking selected panelists in debates to abuse others who want peace along with unabated abuse of Pak leaders and army: just some of the things we have been seeing in our media. Same is the situation in Pakistan, worse even at times, invoking even the Prophet.
It is the business of diplomacy to put an end to a war by ensuring that the interests of warring parties are taken care of. Now, the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan is far from a war, but it can lead to a war. Imran Khan has already made an offer. Though it may not be a perfect offer, and we may also say that in the past, we have come across double speak on the part of Pakistan, we will have to be realistic and if there is an offer to talk, then it is necessary to talk. Indian foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, very rightly said, “We are fighting terrorism, not Pakistan”. And terrorism is an enemy of both India and Pakistan.
So, any further military action on our part will only escalate the situation and provoke an armed action from other side of the border without leading to any solution, and not without the risk of escalation beyond control. The only law in history is the law of unintended consequences. At present, there appears to be stalemate and we need to de-escalate it.
France, the United Kingdom and the United States have condemned terrorism. France has even named Jaish and its chief to be sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). So, India has diplomatically gained. Even China – in addition to Saudi Arabia – has criticized terrorism, without naming Masood Azhar, being harbored on the Pakistani soil. Therefore, all these factors should be taken into consideration. India should now go openly through diplomatic way. All issues of terrorism in Kashmir should be brought on the negotiation table, and a comprehensive dialogue should be held at two levels – government to government and military to military. By military to military level of engagements, I mean de-escalation of tensions between the two countries and ceasefire at LOC.
Internally, within India, politicization of the military action is even dirtier than war itself, and it has to stop at any cost. We should not use our soldiers to win elections and what the BJP is doing is absolutely shameful. There has been an election rally of PM Modi in Churu, Rajasthan, with faces of CRPF martyrs in the background, Karnataka former BJP CM Yedyurappa has noted that more air attacks should be there on Pakistan and BJP will win 20 more seats in the state, BJP President Amit Shah openly speaking in rallies as to how Modi is the only leader to avenge the deaths of CRPF jawans, and BJP-RSS insiders note that there will full use of visuals of CRPF massacre and Balakot air-strike in the election campaign ahead.
There is another war being waged now: a full-blown misinformation war about the conflict raged on the internet.
On Wednesday, shortly after Pakistan shot down two Indian warplanes and captured an Indian pilot, a Facebook page called Pak Army that uses “@ArmyPakistanOfficial” as its name (spoofing the official page of the army) showed a video of a bloody aircraft pilot lying on the ground, claiming he was the captured pilot. Indian fact-checking services, including ones that are Facebook’s official fact-checking partners in India, revealed that the man in the video was actually a pilot who was injured in an airshow in India earlier this month.
Another blurry video that went viral after India bombed terror camps in Pakistan on Tuesday claimed to show Indian aircraft executing the attack, but turned out to be a video game clip. Despite this, Indian news publications and journalists posted it on their websites and Twitter accounts.
Users on both Indian and Pakistani social media traded jibes and threats of “revenge” based on these tweets and Facebook posts, indulging in war-mongering.
Platforms like Facebook and Google should definitely have plans in place for geopolitical crises. These plans might even include a partial shutdown of some platform functionality if they are unable to take more discriminative action. India and Pakistan have fought wars previously and have been engaged in a decades long territorial dispute over the Kashmir Valley. But this conflict is the first one to take place since social media became ubiquitous. And, hence, much care needs to be taken from the platforms in the days ahead.
The author is a media academic and columnist, and is currently the Dean of Media, Pearl Academy, Delhi and Mumbai, and was earlier the Dean of Symbiosis and Amity Universities.