Imran Khan extends the hand of diplomacy – but India’s far-right are spoiling for war
By Muddassar Ahmed*
Far away from the backpackers, yoga retreats and call centres modern India is famous for, there is another India – and it is ready for conflict.
“All wars in history were miscalculated. With the sort of weapons we both have, can we afford any miscalculation?” Those were Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan’s words to India yesterday.
While the world’s attention was focused on nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, one of the oldest and most unpredictable nuclear relationships has flared up: India and Pakistan. India’s recent airstrikes deep inside Pakistani territory, and Pakistan’s downing of Indian fighter jets, may become the subcontinent’s “Archduke Ferdinand” moment.
This is particularly dangerous because both countries have domestic audiences that are thirsty for blood. While many of Pakistan’s Islamists will be ready for holy war against the Hindu state, Narendra Modi’s government – long affiliated to the far-right (and formerly outlawed) RSS paramilitary group – may be ready to escalate the conflict, against a backdrop of rising anti-Muslim hate across India.
It is essential the international community step in to avoid nuclear war in a region that has been neglected for too long. A peacekeeping force in Kashmir – the hotspot at the centre of tensions – should be the minimum action taken.
If the world cannot cool tensions in Kashmir, the region will always remain on the brink of war. As well as two states with huge heavily armed forces with an array of US and Chinese-made conventional weapons (not to mention nuclear warheads), both countries have non-state actors that would likely keep any conflict going for years, if not decades.
While Pakistan’s struggle with Islamist movements is well known, India’s recent history of swinging to the far right is less publicised – but no less dangerous.
For some time Mein Kampf has been one of the bestselling foreign titles in India. With the rise of the right-wing BJP government, Hindutva politics – what some would call Indian fascism – has permeated many parts of Indian society.
As the belief spreads that India is first and foremost a Hindu state, hate crimes such as Muslim men being murdered for eating beef (cows are sacred to many Hindus) are an almost daily occurrence. And any Hindu girl rumoured to be entertaining any romantic interest in a Muslim boy will likely find her life is in danger.
We often forget India’s capacity for ethno-terror: the deadliest terrorist attack before 9/11 was by an Indian Sikh group. Far away from the backpackers, yoga retreats and call centres that modern India is famous for, there is another India – and it is ready for war.
This goes right to the top. Prime minister Narendra Modi, famous for his warm diplomatic hugs, is a reported member of the RSS paramilitary group, the closest western equivalent of which is the Ku Klux Klan. Due to his role in the anti-Muslim Gujarat riots – that led to more than 1000 Muslim deaths – Modi was also banned from visiting the UK, the US and many countries in Europe.
RSS and their allies have popularised “Saffron terror” – the idea Hindu nationalists must conduct terrorist attacks to preserve the Hindu character of India. This is a tradition that goes back to 1948 when an RSS member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. More recently, Modi’s brethren in the group have incited anti-Muslim riots, attacked mosques and even put a price on the head of Christian pastors in the eastern Indian state of Orissa.
All this makes the propaganda value of Indian blood being shed in Kashmir huge. Despite there being no evidence of Pakistani involvement in the recent attack, Pakistan was swiftly blamed. The attacker was an Indian Muslim citizen, which suggests that rather than point the finger at Islamabad, India would be better off asking why so many of their Muslim minority (who number more than the entire population of Pakistan) are so disillusioned.
But there is hope. Citizens on both sides of the border took to social media yesterday with the hashtag #SayNoToWar.
And rather than extract a televised confession from the pilot of the downed Indian fighter jet, in a move that would have played phenomenally well to the Islamist right domestically, Pakistani authorities showed commendable restraint.
Let us hope that between cool heads in the region, and intervention from the UN Security Council, war can be averted. With the sort of weapons they both have, neither India nor Pakistan can afford any miscalculation.
*Muddassar Ahmed is a former British government adviser and a patron of the Faiths Forum for London
The article was first published in Independent
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